In what appeared to be a government-orchestrated effort to discredit a U.S. espionage investigation, seven prominent Chinese scientists issued a letter Tuesday on behalf of a California physicist who awaits sentencing in Los Angeles federal court later this month after he admitted passing classified secrets to the Chinese government.
The scientists, including the chancellor of Beijing University and some of China's leading physicists and laser optics specialists, claim in their letter, faxed to foreign newspapers here, that Peter H. Lee, a Taiwan-born American physicist from Manhattan Beach, is innocent of charges that he discussed classified information in two lecture tours here in 1985 and 1997.
"We Chinese physicists," the letter said, "are greatly shocked because we are certain that in 1985 and 1997, Dr. Lee successfully delivered lectures relating purely to basic research and never dealt with so-called 'data that might function as important military applications to China.' "
The federal charges state that in 1985, while Lee was employed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, he traveled to China on a trip paid for by the Chinese government and gave Chinese scientists detailed classified information about the use of lasers to simulate nuclear detonations.
Lee, 58, pleaded guilty to the charges in December under a sealed agreement. He admitted making false statements to a government agency after a 1997 trip to China in which he discussed his research into satellite radar imaging used to track submarines at defense contractor TRW Space & Electronics.
But the Chinese scientists, in their Feb. 10 letter, claim that Lee's discussions with them never strayed beyond research findings already published. They claim that Lee was "forced to confess" by U.S. authorities.
The seven signers, all members of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences, include men who had invited Lee to lecture and had obtained government funding for his visits. They declined in interviews to elaborate on the text of their appeal "to free the innocent Dr. Lee from persecution."
At a hearing set for Feb. 23 in District Court in Los Angeles, Lee, a naturalized U.S. citizen who holds a doctorate from Caltech, could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison and $250,000 in fines. But because he has cooperated in an ongoing FBI investigation, he is expected to receive a reduced sentence from District Judge Terry J. Hatter.
When Lee pleaded guilty in December, TRW fired him and issued a statement that the company had cooperated in the FBI probe, which apparently included keeping him under surveillance during his 1997 China trip.