Accused Scientist to Go Free on Bail in Los Alamos
James Sterngold - The New York Times - August 24, 2000
LOS ANGELES -- Saying
the government case against the Los
Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee "no
longer has the requisite clarity and
persuasive character" needed to
keep him in detention before his trial,
a federal judge reversed his previous
decision today and ordered Dr. Lee
released on bail.
The order is a humiliating blow for
government prosecutors, who have
had Dr. Lee held in jail for more than
eight months under unusually harsh
conditions on charges that he had
mishandled the "crown jewels" of
the country's nuclear weapons program and posed a grave threat to
The judge, James A. Parker of
Federal District Court in Albuquerque, said in his order today that Dr.
Lee would be required to post $1
million in bail.
Dr. Lee could remain
in prison for a week or so while the
tough conditions the judge outlined,
amounting to home detention, are
finalized. The government could also
attempt to halt the order with an
appeal and a request for a stay.
But the decision represented a
stunning turnaround in this politically charged trial and was another in a
string of recent developments suggesting that, at least in some respects, the prosecutors' case appears to be unraveling.
At a bail hearing in December,
Judge Parker had agreed with the
government and found that Dr. Lee,
a former scientist at the Los Alamos
National Laboratory, posed such a
threat that he could not be released
under any condition before his trial,
which is scheduled for November.
Last week, the assistant United
States attorney leading the prosecution, George Stamboulidis, said that
if Dr. Lee were released and managed to hand over to a foreign power
the secrets he had improperly downloaded, "it's of a caliber where hundreds of millions of people could be
But at the same hearing a senior
F.B.I agent acknowledged that earlier he had provided inaccurate testimony about Dr. Lee's supposed deceptions on several critical issues,
which the judge had cited in his
detention order in December.
Also, two highly respected weapons experts appearing for the defense contradicted several government witnesses and said that the
data Dr. Lee is accused of having
illegally downloaded onto portable
computer tapes would not be of great
use to another country and that most
of it had already been made public in
scholarly journals and the like.
While the judge did not detail his
reasoning in the order, released late
today, he clearly rejected the government's assertions this time about
the threat from Dr. Lee. In court last
week, Judge Parker said that he
would not rule until he had read the
full transcript of the unusually long
and detailed three-day bail hearing.
But in his decision today, he wrote
that he now felt able to render the
decision before the transcripts had
"We're simply delighted," said
Brian Sun, an attorney for the family
of Dr. Lee. "I wish I could wax on
further, but we're just happy."
Dr. Lee's daughter, Alberta, 26, a
fervent supporter throughout the
case, was highly emotional. "I'm just
thrilled that he will finally be at
home," she said in a telephone interview. "I can't wait to see my Dad and
She added, "I think it just means
that the government's case is crumbling."
Mark Holscher, one of Dr. Lee's
lawyers, said that the terms Judge
Parker described in his order, while
tough, were agreeable. The judge
scheduled a hearing for Tuesday to
discuss and finalize the conditions of
Dr. Lee's release.
"We are gratified by the court's
decision," Mr. Holscher said. "Dr.
Lee and his family are grateful to the
scientists and members of the community who have supported him. We
have always indicated to the court
we would comply with any of its
The only government response
came from Patricia Chavez, a
spokeswoman for the United States
attorney in Albuquerque. "The
court's order is being reviewed," Ms.
Chavez said in a written statement.
"The government will be responding
Judge Parker listed 12 conditions
in a draft order for Dr. Lee's release.
In addition to the requirement that
he post a bond valued at $1 million,
secured by his own assets and the
assets of family members and
friends, the conditions include that
Dr. Lee be held in detention at his
home near Los Alamos, in the town
of White Rock.
His next-door neighbors, Don and
Jean Marshall, who also work at the
government lab in Los Alamos,
would be third-party custodians.
Dr. Lee would be monitored electronically at all times and would
have a single telephone in his house,
with no computers or other electronic communications devices. Officials
would be able to immediately block
any phone calls that appeared to
involve sensitive information. The
government also would be able to
inspect all of his mail, and he would
be able to leave his house only with
one of his attorneys to work on his
case or to go to a hospital for emergency medical treatment.
The judge ordered that only Dr.
Lee's wife, Sylvia, would be able to
stay with him at his home. She would
be able to leave the house only after
notifying government officials of the
time of her departure, her destination and the purpose of the trip. Law
enforcement officials would have the
right to search her upon leaving and
re-entering the house.
Dr. Lee's two children, his daughter Alberta, and his son, Chung, 27,
would be allowed to visit only during
the daytime and only after having
arranged the visits in advance with
the government, which would have
the right to have a law enforcement
official present in the house during
While the terms were onerous,
they represented a marked improvement from the conditions under
which Dr. Lee has been held since he
was arrested and indicted in December.
He is being held in something close
to solitary confinement in a prison in
Santa Fe, N. M. He had been shackled until recently for his brief periods
in an exercise yard, is shackled when
he travels to the courthouse to work
on his case with his lawyers, and can
see his family for one hour a week,
and then only with a law enforcement official nearby.
Although the government has insisted in several hearings that Dr.
Lee was engaged in what amounted
to one of the most serious cases of
espionage since the dawn of the nuclear era, he is not charged with
spying in the 59-count indictment. He
was investigated for several years
on suspicions that he had passed
secrets on a sophisticated warhead
to the Chinese government, but prosecutors have now said there is no
evidence for this and that they will
not raise the matter at the trial.
Dr. Lee is charged with having
illegally downloaded a huge mass of
nuclear weapons secrets to an unsecure computer at Los Alamos, and
then putting the information on 10
computer tapes, seven of which are
missing. Dr. Lee has indicated
through his lawyers that he destroyed the seven tapes after he was
fired in March 1999, and he offered to
take a lie detector test on this question.
The government has not taken him
up on the offer, and prosecutors have
used the question of the whereabouts
of the tapes as a critical issue in the
three bail hearings that have taken
The tapes are still unaccounted
for, but new testimony was provided
at the hearing last week that clearly
cast the circumstances of Dr. Lee's
actions in a far different light. Earlier, the Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, Robert Messemer, said
Dr. Lee had lied to a colleague whose
computer Dr. Lee used to complete
the downloading. Last week, Mr.
Messemer said that had not been the
The prosecution has also said that
Dr. Lee downloaded the information
to enhance his job prospects with
several scientific institutes in foreign
countries like Australia, Germany
and Singapore. But last week Mr.
Messemer said that though letters to
those institutes had been found on
Dr. Lee's home computer, the government had no evidence that the
letters had ever been sent or received.
Although several government witnesses had described the codes and
other information that Dr. Lee downloaded as the "crown jewels" of the
nuclear weapons program, several
respected scientists rebutted those
assertions, apparently undermining,
at least in Judge Parker's eyes, the
need to continue holding Dr. Lee in
the kind of conditions reserved for
the most nefarious spies and criminals.
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