Not a Chinaman's Chance

Advocates Doubt Wen Ho Lee Release Will Change Anti-Asian Politics

The plea agreement that last week sprang former Los Alamos nuclear scientist and suspected China spy Wen Ho Lee from a nine-month stint in solitary was widely viewed as the pathetic conclusion to an especially embarrassing moment in U.S. counterintelligence history. Only days after dubbing Lee too great a national security risk to release on $1 million bail and under strict house arrest, government prosecutors on September 13 accepted a guilty plea on one out of 59 charges of improperly transferring restricted information, without additional time to be served. Those who supported Lee should have been jubilant.

Yet in reality, while it took a hit in the press, the government may have won bigger than even its attorneys claimed. Prosecutors crowed that, at last, they would get an explanation about seven computer tapes supposedly containing U.S. nuclear secrets, which Lee apparently destroyed. But the real score for the national security crowd, Asian American and civil rights advocates say, was not having to address accusations of selective prosecution, racial profiling, xenophobic rhetoric, and unconstitutional maneuvering—problems with significance far beyond this single case. For that reason, some of Lee's staunchest supporters regret the deal that set him free.

The press last week used words like "crumbled" and "collapsed" to describe the government's case, and the presiding judge, James A. Parker, lamented that the highest officials had "caused embarrassment by the way this case began and was handled."

One article explained that the Chinese had been perfecting their technique of "tasking thousands of Chinese abroad to bring secrets home one at a time, like ants carrying grains of sand" since "at least the fourth century B.C."

In fact, the case against Lee was riddled with weak spots. Some major problems included: 99 percent of the "crown jewels" of national defense data that Lee supposedly stole turned out to be easily accessible public information, according to defense experts, and was only classified as secret or confidential after he was arrested; from a list that included several non-Asians suspected of similar offenses, only Lee was singled out for investigation; no substantive evidence emerged to suggest that China actually possessed the nuclear secrets in question; prosecutors were unable to charge Lee with espionage and in fact had trouble deciding whether to assign his loyalties to China or Taiwan; an FBI agent admitted to repeatedly giving false testimony that cast Lee as deceptive and too dangerous to be released on bail.

Nevertheless, Lee for nine months was locked up in solitary confinement and shackled for his daily hour of exercise. Investigation of Lee coincided with a wave of dramatic news stories that relied on government sources to describe a massive Chinese nuclear espionage effort. A March 21, 1999, Washington Post article explained that the Chinese had been perfecting their technique of "tasking thousands of Chinese abroad to bring secrets home one at a time like ants carrying grains of sand" since "at least the fourth century B.C., when the military philosopher Sun Tzu noted the value of espionage in his classic work, The Art of War."

It was therefore easy for Lee's supporters and civil rights advocates to conclude that there was never really a case against him, but rather that he was the victim of racial profiling. Even individuals who could hardly be called soft on suspected spies—the chief counterintelligence officer at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the former acting director of counterintelligence at the Department of Energy, to name two—admitted that Lee was targeted because of his race and national origin.

But as far as this case goes, suspicions about racist government practices may never be confirmed. The prosecution approved the incongruously lenient plea deal just days before it was to submit to the judge volumes of records assumed by many to contain evidence of racial profiling. The timing was "funny," says one of the attorneys for the Lee family. Yet following the deal's close, prosecutors and U.S. attorney general Janet Reno predictably denied Lee was the victim of unfair treatment or deserving of an apology.

Prosecutors also covered themselves in two sections of the plea agreement, in one demanding that Lee "acknowledge that the United States had and has a legitimate national security interest in determining what occurred with respect to the files and the tapes," thereby helping to justify the controversial investigation. The agreement also prohibits Lee from accessing information about selective prosecution and racial profiling in relation to the case. (His lawyers say such information could become relevant during a separate privacy suit Lee has filed against the government.)

Dissatisfaction with the plea agreement has led some who worked the hardest to free Lee to wish the fight had continued.

Advocates sympathize with Lee's position in taking the deal. Diane Chin of San Francisco's Chinese for Affirmative Action contends that Lee was essentially coerced—by the severe conditions of his imprisonment and the likelihood that the government would utilize its inexhaustible resources until it obtained a conviction—into taking the deal.

Yet "now that Wen Ho Lee is free, I'm not really that happy," says UC San Francisco biochemistry professor C.C. Wang, echoing the sentiments of others who support Lee because they feel he was unfairly targeted. "I don't think the government should get away with what it has done. I bet next time, it'll be easier for the government to do it again."

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