Scientist Lee Says U.S. Targeted Him Due to Race

Zelie Pollon - Reuters - January 15, 2002

SANTA FE, N.M - A nuclear weapons scientist once suspected of spying for China says he was prosecuted because of his race in a book released on Tuesday giving his side of the government case that ended with all but one charge against him being dropped.

"My Country Versus Me," coauthored by Wen Ho Lee and journalist Helen Zia, argues the FBI and prosecutors singled out the Taiwan-born scientist because he is Chinese.

"Had I not been Chinese, I never would have been accused of espionage and threatened with execution," Lee writes of an FBI interrogation session during which he says agents told him he faced the same fate as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed in the electric chair in 1953 for spying for the Soviet Union.

Lee, 63 and a naturalized U.S. citizen, was fired from his job at the Energy Department's Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico in March 1999 amid allegations of spying for China. He was held in solitary confinement for nine months.

But Lee never was charged with espionage, and the government ultimately dropped all but one of the 59 charges of mishandling nuclear weapons data against him, prompting federal Judge James Parker to apologize to Lee and accuse the U.S. government of "embarrassing our entire nation."

Lee pleaded guilty to one count of downloading nuclear weapons design secrets to a nonsecure computer.


A Justice Department report released last month found the FBI had conducted a "deeply and fundamentally flawed" investigation of Lee's case but rejected claims he had been singled out because of his race.

Lee acknowledges in the book that he incorrectly downloaded classified data to a nonsecure computer but says he only did so to keep a copy in case the original data was deleted or harmed.

In an interview on Tuesday on NBC's "Today" show, Lee said others in the lab also made back-up copies.

"Those people, none of them are Chinese. I know that fact and none of them have been prosecuted or put in solitary confinement," Lee said in an interview from White Rock, a town near Los Alamos.

"I think if I were a Caucasian I would not be a scapegoat," he said.

In the book, Lee says he became a political pawn as the Clinton administration and congressional Republicans battled over alleged security gaps at the nation's nuclear research facilities.

"Before I was accused of being a spy, I never paid much attention to Republicans and Democrats. Now I was a football being kicked between them. Back then I had never heard of the word 'scapegoat,"' Lee writes in his 332-page account published by Hyperion Books.


Lee has a civil lawsuit pending against the U.S. government, charging it violated his privacy rights by leaking allegations of Chinese spying in 1999.

He called much of the information he downloaded "garbage" or material publicly available on the Internet, and during the sometimes tearful NBC interview, said he would like to know who started the probe.

"I hope they change their thinking about me and I hope some day I will get my dignity back," he said.

Lee said he has adjusted to life as a retiree, sleeping until 8 a.m. and pursuing his hobbies.

"I'm cooking every day. Fishing starts in April or May and then I'll fish all summer," he told Reuters before going into the first of several scheduled book signings in Santa Fe.

As dozens of people lined up to get Lee's autographed book, he said he was getting used to the life of a celebrity.

"It's much better than solitary confinement," he said with a laugh.