A witch-hunt in the U.S.

Print edition : March 02, 2002

My Country Versus Me by Wen Ho Lee with Helen Zia; Hyperion, 2002; pages 332, $23.95.

A Convenient Spy: Wen Ho Lee and the Politics of Nuclear Espionage by Dan Strober and Ian Hoffman; Simon and Schuster, 2002; pages 384, $26.

THE treatment that was meted out to Dr. Wen Ho Lee, a Chinese-American nuclear scientist, is a case of blatant abuse of power by the United States' Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Department of Energy and Attorney-General of the time Janet Reno. Wen Ho Lee came to the U.S. from Taiwan in 1964. After graduating and obtaining his doctorate he worked at research institutes in Chicago and Idaho. He became a U.S. citizen and then began work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). Wen Ho Lee preferred this job, which was set in a quiet locale where he enjoyed his research work and also fishing and trekking. He raised a family.

Wen Ho Lee is a hydrodynamics code physicist. Working with several complex computer programmes, he developed a code that simulated detonation of thermonuclear weapons, atomic bombs and hydrogen bombs. His research was especially useful at the time of the war against Iraq. Like other scientists, Lee had the opportunity to participate in scientific conferences in various European and Asian countries. He went to China twice. As he had relatives in Taiwan, he used to visit the country of his birth once in two years with his family.

Although Lee participated in international conferences along with fellow scientists, he was under surveillance. In 1982, when he visited China, he was made to take a polygraph test. He passed it. At LANL he had the highest security clearance. But this did not deter the FBI from keeping a constant watch on him. When he attended a conference in Hong Kong, he was interrogated by the FBI about his meetings and conversations with Chinese scientists.

Lee was careful enough to read his papers at the conferences only after obtaining the permission of LANL. He attended a conference in Beijing and then visited some places of tourist interest along with his family. This aroused the suspicion of the FBI. When he went to Hong Kong with his daughter, this suspicion was strengthened. A story was made out that he went to Shanghai surreptitiously. The bill that he had paid was for the hotel charges for his daughter and not for a plane ticket to Shanghai.

At this time the U.S. had strained relations with China. Although both countries were not openly hostile to each other, they were constantly at loggerheads. The U.S. Congress was pressuring the Clinton administration to take strong measures against China for its nuclear programme, which was construed as being against the U.S., and alleged violation of human rights. The general impression in the U.S. was that the Chinese had stolen its nuclear secrets.

Lee was an unfortunate victim of this prejudice. Even though he passed his polygraph tests, the FBI had never really taken him off the hook. When some tapes were found to be missing from LANL, Notran Turlock, who was in charge of the counter intelligence unit, was convinced that the Chinese had a spy in the laboratory who had handed over some nuclear secrets that were described as the 'crown jewels'. To Turlock the obvious suspect was Wen Ho Lee. A report was sent to the FBI and Lee was interrogated. This time too he passed his polygraph test. But the FBI was not convinced.

The Chief of the Department of Energy was also convinced that Lee was a spy. Turlock leaked a story to the two reporters of The New York Times. The editors did not bother to cross-check the information and sources. The New York Times finally published a report which stated that the Chinese had stolen nuclear secrets from LANL and Lee had betrayed his country by acting as a spy.

Lee, in his book, My Country Versus Me, narrates what happened before and after the report was published. He explained to his interrogators that the tapes that he had copied did not contain classified material. He wanted to make back-up files, as other scientists did, he said. When the highest authorities of LANL were bent upon punishing Lee and the FBI did not want to take a reasonable view, nobody could stop the arrest of Lee. He was persecuted severely; he was in solitary confinement for 287 days. His wife and daughter tried hard to get him released. They gathered support from eminent scientists and met Congressmen, among others.

As the days went by, it became clear that the government had bungled and had a weak case. On May 11, 1999, Bob Vroman, who worked as the security chief at LANL, wrote to Senator Coural Bearns saying that the LANL inquiry in the case of Lee was singularly flawed. He expressly stated that ethnicity was the crucial component that led to Lee's identification as a suspected spy. Suspicion against some others with similar backgrounds was ignored.

Later on it was revealed in court that the files that Lee had copied were not classified documents, though they were protected material. Lee has also been charged with handing over to China secrets of a W 88 nuclear warhead. In fact, he had nothing to do with that project.

Dr. Harold Agnew, who was familiar with all aspects of the decisions on and manufacture of U.S. nuclear weapons, told the press that the People's Republic of China had developed its own nuclear weapons, tailored specifically for its own materials, designs, delivery systems, vehicles and manufacturing capabilities. According to Agnew, the so-called secrets that Lee was accused of supplying to China would be of no use to it, as China's weapons system was totally different from that of the U.S.

All this undermined the government's case. Then the government advocate entered into negotiations with Lee's advocates. It was decided that Lee should go in for a plea bargain. Accordingly, Lee admitted that he had made a mistake by downloading the material without permission. If he had not made this 'confession', he would have been in jail for an indefinite period of time and incurred large expenses. Under the plea bargain, he was declared a felon. He, therefore, cannot vote and will not be able to get any employment. But all except one of the 59 charges against him failed.

Judge Parker, while giving the judgment, apologised to Lee, which was quite unusual. He blamed the executive branch of the government for the frame-up. But the explanatory notice by The New York Times failed short of expectation. The paper did not apologise and did not make proper amends to Lee. The unprofessional conduct of its reporters and editors is inexcusable.

Lee comes out well from this narrative. It is heartening that there were thousands of Americans from various ethnic backgrounds who stood by him.

This case has again shown that American public officials and people's representatives are often carried away by irrational exuberance and become highly prejudiced. Although the Cold War has ended, they are still obsessed with China. Lee's case arose because of this obsession.

DAN STOBER and Ian Hoffman are journalists. They have closely followed this case and blame the government, LANL and the FBI. According to them, the FBI might have overlooked some other suspects. Both journalists maintain that it is possible that China stole some secrets. They do not think that Lee was totally innocent. But they have failed to make their case.

Stober and Hoffman have pointed out the loopholes in the Cox Committee report about the alleged penetration of Chinese intelligence in various aspects of life in the U.S. Committee chairman Christopher Cox was convinced that the Chinese were stealing nuclear secrets from the U.S. and that they were also influencing the U.S. political process. The committee came out with a report that affirmed these views. It surmised that thousands of the Chinese-American industrial enterprises were acting as conduits in this process. Stober and Hoffman have refuted this argument.

They have also shown that it was not the Chinese who took the initiative to collaborate with Americans, but it was the other way round. The Americans, sent scientists to China and helped them in their nuclear programme, which was already advancing with the help of the Soviet Union. However, the prejudiced Cox Committee report was hailed by many members of Congress.

Stober and Hoffman think that the data or codes that Lee copied may have been of use to him if he took up private employment. This is a shallow argument and should not have been made in a serious case like this.

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