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APS NEWS Exclusive Interview

Ethnic Profiling, Other Issues Still Surround Wen Ho Lee Case

By James Riordon

The bad guys used to wear black hats in grainy old cowboy movies, and the good guys wore white. Cinematic profiling was a handy way to let audiences know whom to cheer and whom to jeer during the inevitable, climactic shoot out. In real life, of course, villains are not always so obliging - and when it comes to espionage, they're often downright contrary. In an August 2001 CNN list of twenty-two recent espionage suspects, twenty-one US traitors since 1984 not only shunned black hats, but as a rule preferred to wear the uniforms of our own country's soldiers and law enforcement agents. Based on that list, a turncoat spy is likely to be a white, middle-aged male employed as a guardian of US national security. Robert Hanssen (FBI), Aldrich Ames (CIA), and George Trofimoff (US Army Reserves) are among the high profile spies who betrayed the country while working in counter-espionage. But one spy suspect on the CNN list stands out: Wen Ho Lee is an Asian-American, a former Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) hydrodynamics expert, and, it now seems, probably innocent.

A full explanation of the events that led to Lee's ill-fated prosecution may never be revealed. Too much information is buried in classified documents. This past May, a judge dismissed a civil lawsuit brought against Lee by Notra Trulock, the Energy Department's former security chief who was instrumental in identifying Lee as a likely spy, after government attorneys warned that national security could be compromised if the classified documents vital to Lee's defense were introduced into evidence. (Trulock's suit alleged that Lee and government investigators had damaged his reputation by claiming that he singled out Lee because of his ethnicity.) Based on declassified documents, including the 1999 Cox congressional report on security concerns relating to the People's Republic of China, the DOE suspected that design details for the W-88 thermonuclear warhead were leaked to China in the mid-1980s. Convoluted logic eventually convinced investigators to focus on Lee despite the countervailing precedents set by Ames, Hanssen, and most of the other convicted members of the US spy fraternity.

Ultimately, Lee did not escape prosecution entirely unscathed. Round-the-clock surveillance of Lee and his family, a multi-million dollar government investigation, and Lee's nine months of solitary confinement culminated when Lee pled guilty to one of the prosecution's fifty-nine original charges. On September 13, 2000, US District Judge James Parker apologized to Lee for the government's abuses during the investigation and prosecution, and subsequently sentenced Lee to time served for mishandling sensitive material.

Repercussions stemming from the Lee espionage case continue to shake up federal law enforcement agencies and the National Laboratories. A Government Accounting Office report requested by House Representatives David Wu (D-OR) and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) in response to Lee's case was released in April. The report, entitled "Actions Needed to Strengthen Equal Employment Opportunity Oversight," revealed a pattern of discriminatory employment practices toward women and minorities at three national weapons labs, including LANL. Also in April, Ray Juzaitis' bid for the top position at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was derailed in part because of his comparatively remote supervisory connection to Lee as head of nuclear weapons research at LANL during the Lee fiasco. And the pathological investigation of Lee's case is frequently cited along with intelligence failures prior to the September 11 attacks as evidence of the breakdown in our national security infrastructure.

Although Lee recently released a biographical account of his harrowing experiences (My Country Versus Me, Hyperion, 2001), and has become the poster child for groups monitoring investigative abuses and racial discrimination, he is a difficult man to reach these days. Lee is insulated by phalanx of friends and relatives eager to protect what is left of his private life. In addition, his lawyers are loath to permit him to comment on anything that relates to his current civil suit alleging that the government violated Lee's privacy by leaking his name to reporters during the espionage investigation. Nevertheless, APS News recently managed to pass the following questions to Lee through a trusted intermediary.

APS News: A number of scientists have publicly stated that the government's actions against you, after its discovery that you had mishandled sensitive information, were unjustified. In particular, detaining you without bail and placing you in solitary confinement seemed excessive. On the other hand, in your book you concede that copying certain files constituted security violations. Do you think the government's discovery of those security violations warranted some action against you, and if so what sorts of actions would have been appropriate?

WHL: The purpose for downloading my files was to protect my work. I used the best technique that I knew to protect my files. I know others who have performed similar downloading, but nobody was ever put into solitary confinement like me. The worst punishment I have heard for someone who performed similar downloadings was relocation from a secured area to an unsecured area.

APS News: During your February appearance at New York University to promote your book, you said, "I hope when you read [My Country Versus Me] you will see what a huge mistake the government has made and will learn something from my experience." What specifically do you think we can learn from your experience?

WHL: As a scientist, we always try to do a good job on our research work. Now, I know that we also have to pay attention to the politics.

APS News: The response of the US scientific community, including the American Physical Society, to the news of your arrest and denial of bail consisted primarily of well publicized letters to Janet Reno and other governmental officials demanding you be released on bail pending trial. Do you feel this response was sufficient?

WHL: I feel that the American Physical Society and the rest of the US scientific community have done the best they could. I really appreciate everyone's help!

APS News: Based on your experience, would you advise foreign and naturalized scientists working in the US not to accept employment requiring a security clearance? How about employment, at Los Alamos and other National Laboratories, if a security clearance is not required?

WHL: I feel that racial profiling may be a very complicated and longstanding problem. It will take a long time even to make tiny progress. Therefore, the risk of unequal treatment may still be unnecessarily high for a foreign and naturalized scientist working in a US Company that requires security clearance. For employment in the open area at Los Alamos or other National Laboratories, the work environment is much better than in the secured area.

APS News: Finally, do you think you will be content to spend the remainder of your life in retirement? If you think you might want to get back to work, what sort of employment do you envision? Has your trial and conviction hampered your efforts to secure such employment?

WHL: I have tried to get a job in both the university and industry setting. But, so far, I have not been able to locate a job. I am currently doing my own research on semiconductor design. I hope that someday I can make a contribution to the electronics industry.

Wen Ho Lee and his wife Sylvia still live in New Mexico. He works in his garden, and frequents secret fishing spots where he can bag trout twenty-seven inches long. Lee's son Chung is a medical student, and his daughter Alberta is a vocal activist for her father's cause. Further information on Lee's case and a petition drive for his presidential pardon is available on the web site "http://www.wenholee.org/."

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette