Disarmament DiplomacyIssue No. 50, September 2000
Wen Ho Lee Freed in Plea Bargain
On September 13, Dr. Wen Ho Lee, the Taiwanese-born US nuclear weapons scientist dismissed from Los Alamos in March 1999 on suspicion of spying for China, was freed by a Court in Sante Fe, New Mexico, after pleading guilty to one charge of mishandling classified information. Dr. Lee, who saw the remaining 58 charges against him dropped, had been held in custody since December 1999. His case, and the brutal conditions of his captivity - shackled in solitary confinement, with a light left on in his cell at night - had attracted huge attention in the US and internationally, with accusations of racial prejudice commonplace. The US Energy Department, Justice Department, and the FBI, all insist, however, that Dr. Lee brought his misfortunes on himself by criminal activity and a refusal to tell investigators the location and intended destination of classified material copied onto missing computer tapes. As shown in the comment and reaction presented below, unease about the handling of the case can be found within the Administration itself, including the White House.
The Administration is united in denying any racist motivation, conscious or otherwise, in the case. However, on September 1, Dr. Lee's defence team released affidavits from two former senior Energy Department officials which suggested the accusation could not be easily dismissed. According to Charles Washington, former head of the Department's counterintelligence branch: "I have concluded that if Dr. Lee had not been initially targeted because of his race...he may well have been treated administratively like others who had allegedly mishandled classified information." In the testimony of Robert Vrooman, former head of security at Los Alamos: "It is my opinion that the [reason for] the failure to look at the rest of the population [at Los Alamos] is because Lee is ethnic Chinese." On August 31, the Presidents of National Academy of Sciences (Bruce Alberts), the National Academy of Engineering (William A. Wulf), and the Institute of Medicine (Kenneth I. Shine), wrote an open letter to the Attorney General stating: "Although we make no claim as to his innocence or guilt, he [Dr. Lee] appears to be a victim of unjust treatment."
Notes: on August 28, it was reported that a US Justice Department official, Paul Coffey, was recommending that the former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), John Deutch, face criminal charges for mishandling classified information on his home computer. In April 1999, in a move widely contrasted with the Lee case, the Justice Department decided against prosecuting Mr. Deutch. On September 16, Senator Charles Grassley (Republican - Iowa), a member of the Judiciary Committee, told reporters he had learned that the scope of the investigation into Mr. Deutch had been widened. Grassley also drew the obvious comparison: "Mr. Deutch is being investigated for not just downloading CIA information but also Defense Department information while he was at [the Pentagon]... Yet, I don't see him in solitary confinement with no bail, even though he downloaded information that Wen Ho Lee could never get access to."
On August 29, a ten-month ban on visits to US nuclear laboratories by scientists from "sensitive" countries such as China and Russia was lifted. The ban was imposed in the near-hysterical environment of the spy scare triggered by Dr. Lee's dismissal from Los Alamos. New security procedures have now been put in place to monitor and regulate the visits. Speaking for the great majority of the scientists in the US labs, Senator Jeff Bingaman (Democrat - New Mexico) strongly welcomed the development (August 29): "This is a major step toward getting the laboratories back to a more normal circumstance where scientists and engineers at the labs can be confident they can interact with their counterparts in other countries..."
Comment & Reaction
US District Court Judge James Parker, sentencing Dr. Lee to the 278 days already served on remand, September 13: "I believe you were terribly wronged by being held in custody pretrial in the Santa Fe County Detention Center under demeaning, unnecessarily punitive conditions... I am truly sorry that I was led by our Executive Branch of Government to order your detention last December. ... It is only the to decision makers in the Executive Branch, especially the Department of Justice and the Department of Energy and locally...who have caused embarrassment by the way this case began and was handled. They have embarrassed our entire nation and each of us who is a citizen of it. ... What I believe remains unanswered is the question: what was the Government's motive in insisting on your being jailed pretrial under extraordinarily onerous conditions of confinement until today, when the Executive Branch agrees that you may be set free essentially unrestricted? This makes no sense to me. ... I sincerely apologise to you, Dr. Lee, for the unfair manner [in which] you were held in custody by the Executive Branch."
President Clinton, September 14: "I always had reservations about the claims that were being made denying him bail. ... [T]he whole thing was quite troubling to me, and I think it's very difficult to reconcile the two positions, that one day he's a terrible risk to the national security, and the next day they're making a plea agreement for an offence far more modest than what had been alleged. Now, I do hope that, as part of that plea agreement, he will help them to reconstitute the missing files, because that's what's really important to our national security, and we will find out eventually what, if any, use was made of them by him or anybody else who got a hold of them. But...we ought not to keep people in jail without bail unless there's some real profound reason. ... [This was] certainly a bailable offence, and it means he spent a lot of time in prison that any ordinary American wouldn't have, and that bothers me."
President Clinton, September 15: "Our staff has talked to the Justice Department about it. I'm sure I'll have a chance to talk to the Attorney General. ... [T]he narrow thing that I want to illustrate here is that...whenever we hold anyone in prison who can't get bail or who is interned for a long period of time before being charged and convicted and sentenced, we need to hit a very high threshold. ... And I think that there ought to be an analysis of whether or not that threshold was crossed, in light of the plea bargain. But the American people shouldn't be confused here. This was a very serious offence and we've got to try to reconstitute what was on the tapes."
Statement by Attorney General Janet Reno, September 13: "Today, after denying any wrongdoing for months, Dr. Lee pleaded guilty to the indictment's charge of unlawfully collecting and keeping classified information related to the national defence - a felony offence. ... In accepting the plea offer, we now, for the first time, have an opportunity to determine what Dr. Lee did with the tapes - something he has repeatedly refused to tell us since April 1999. ... Had the case proceeded to trial, and we prevailed, Dr. Lee would have faced many years in prison. But we might never have learned what happened to the tapes. Of equal importance, the trial court's recent rulings regarding classified evidence suggested that a trial of Dr.. Lee might have required the Government to divulge nuclear secrets at trial. The plea agreement avoids that harm to our national security."
Attorney General Reno, September 14: "I think Dr. Lee had the opportunity from the beginning to resolve this matter and he chose not to, and I think he must look to himself... I'm not embarrassed..."
Unnamed Government Official, September 11: "We got a felony conviction. He's admitted to what he said he didn't do. Finding out what happened to the tapes was a lot more important than putting a 6o-year-old man in prison for the rest of his life."
Alan Dershowitz, Professor of Law, Harvard University, September 11: "This case stinks, and the resolution doesn't make it smell any better. It only makes the contestant happy, but it shouldn't make the public happy. If he pleaded innocent, he had to remain in jail, but id he pleads guilty, he gets out of jail - it's so Soviet, it is un-American..."
Henry Tang, President of the Committee of 100, a Chinese-American Group campaigning for Dr. Lee's release, September 11: "This case has been a huge travesty... It has uncovered a fissure in our society that we always knew was there. It has just become a little more transparent now. I'm delighted that this long nightmare is coming to an end for the Lee family. But the efforts to find out if there is ethnic profiling at the labs should continue."
Reports: US criminal charges urged against ex-CIA Chief, Reuters, August 28; Foreign scientist ban at labs to end, Associated Press, August 29; Intelligence chiefs defend Lee, Associated Press, September 1; US to reduce case against scientist to a single charge, New York Times, September 11; Wen Ho Lee reportedly makes a deal, Associated Press, September 11; Statement of Attorney General Janet Reno on today's guilty plea by Wen Ho Lee, Department of Justice Press Release 00-537, September 13; Wen Ho Lee freed amid apologies from judge, Reuters, September 13; In scathing rebuke of US, judge says court was 'led astray', San Jose Mercury News, September 14; Reno says Wen Ho Lee responsible for imprisonment, Reuters, September 14; Remarks by the President upon departure on Patients Bill of Rights, The White House, September 14; Remarks by the President in photo-op with Vajpayee, The White House, September 15; Clinton criticizes Lee detention, Associated Press, September 15; Clinton will pursue Lee concerns, Associated Press, September 15; Clinton calls for review of Lee secrets case, Reuters, September 15; Ex-CIA chief faces allegations, Associated Press, September 16.
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