A case of shame

Posted: Thursday, September 14, 2000

The following editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:

The government's case against nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee has collapsed utterly and ignominiously, leaving a legacy of deeply troubling questions about federal investigative methods and the Justice Department's callous indifference to a suspect's civil rights.

An agreement between prosecutors and Lee's lawyers has led to 58 of the 59 felony counts against the former Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist being dropped. Lee pleaded guilty Wednesday to one count of unlawfully downloading national defense information -- a far cry from sending nuclear secrets to China or others. Even former CIA head John M. Deutch is being investigated for similar downloading infractions. Instead of facing life in prison upon conviction of any of the 39 most serious charges against him, Lee has been sentenced to the nine months he spent behind bars.

Just days ago the government ominously insisted that national security would be imperiled if Lee were granted bail. That putative threat suddenly evaporated. On Wednesday, Lee was a free man. He left court after hearing Judge James A. Parker's warranted apology for the "unfair manner" in which he had been treated and the judge's no less merited excoriation of the Justice and Energy departments for having "embarrassed this entire nation and each of us who is a citizen of it."

The case against Lee grew out of revelations of extraordinarily lax security at Los Alamos and the possibility that China had acquired some major U.S. nuclear secrets. But the inquiry took an ugly twist as federal investigators focused their efforts on trying to find evidence to support the conclusion they had already reached, that Lee had to be the guilty party.

Through leaks, Lee was vilified as a master spy responsible for stealing the "crown jewels" of U.S. nuclear weapons designs. It was an ordeal by slander, based not on tangible evidence but almost entirely on a bigoted assumption: If China was spying, surely it must be doing so through ethnic Chinese.

But in the end Lee, a naturalized American citizen born in Taiwan, was never charged with espionage, because while espionage might be inferred it could not be proved or even discovered. The government was unable to sustain a single allegation that Lee had acted "with intent to harm the United States."

He did break the law by mishandling classified data. As part of his agreement with the government, he will cooperate with federal investigators as they seek to confirm his claim that he destroyed seven missing tapes of computer data.

There's no question that Lee became a prime suspect chiefly because of racist suspicions. And there's no doubt, as the FBI's lead investigator conceded, that during bail hearings the prosecution misled the court about the solidity of its case against Lee. These things must not be forgotten.

The government bungled this case miserably. And its treatment of Lee, who was kept in solitary confinement and usually shackled hand and foot whenever he was let out of his cell, was inexcusable. At one point a government source admitted that Lee could be convicted only if he confessed. The treatment he suffered was aimed at forcing that confession.

When such things happen in China, as they do all the time, Beijing is rightly castigated by the West. It's a greater cause for outrage when they happen in the U.S. justice system, which holds itself to be fair to all.

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