Los Alamos 'Spy' Case Should Alarm Us All

Richard Cohen - New York Daily News - September 12, 2000

With Wen Ho Lee expected to go free tomorrow, it's clear that none of us is safe. It's not that he knows so many nuclear secrets or that he might, as the government once suspected, offer them to a foreign government. It's rather that his prosecution a botched, virtually criminal affair proves that any one of us can spend months in jail on charges that would be thrown out in court.

That's pretty close to what happened. The former Los Alamos scientist is expected to plead guilty to just one of the 59 charges against him. But he will serve no further jail time and pay no fine. He has, however, mostly been in solitary confinement since December, kept in a cell 23 hours a day, his hands and feet shackled when he was allowed into the exercise yard. I thought that sort of treatment went out with the Bastille.

Even when, at last, a judge started to doubt the government's case, Lee's bail was going to be set at $1 million. That, however, never happened because the government's case collapsed entirely. Lee will go free technically not innocent, but not guilty of espionage, either.

The distinction is important because Lee acted in ways that made him a suspect. Most importantly, he improperly downloaded a huge amount of classified data and never accountedfor it. The government could not find seven of those tapes and said they contained the "crown jewels" of the weapons program.

As is often the case, those supposed "crown jewels" were mere rhinestones information already in the public domain. What's more, an FBI agent admitted he made "an honest error" when he testified that Lee had lied to a colleague about why he wanted to use that colleague's computer. Turned out Lee had not lied and his colleague never said so. The testimony gave the judge the wrong impression.

Maybe that was an "honest error," and maybe Lee was indeed about to peddle the nation's nuclear secrets. The fact remains, though, that what started as an explosive espionage case has ended as a dud. Lee is pleading only to improperly retaining classified nuclear weapons data.

What went wrong? The case was handled in such a way as to raise questions of racial profiling Was Lee targeted because he is Chinese? and prompted the nation's three most prestigious scientific academies to write to Attorney General Janet Reno saying that Lee "appears to be the victim of unjust treatment." Usually, those letters are written to foreign governments on behalf of dissident scientists.

Here we have an example of an American citizen being jailed for nine months without a trial, of the FBI conceding a mistake that sounds awfully like a concoction, of charges so exaggerated that they prompted accusations of racial profiling and, now, the near-total collapse of the case. This demands a congressional investigation of both the Justice Department and the FBI.

But I can tell you that for as long as I've been at this keyboard, I've heard the government describe spy cases in cataclysmic terms. The pattern was followed almost precisely in the Lee case only this time, in a way the government did not intend. A government that can hold a person in solitary in a case it cannot prove is either incompetent or malicious.

Either way, it's a threat to us all.

See Also:
  • Wen Ho Lee And Jonathan Pollard - Media Release
  • The Wen Ho Lee Page