News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

Wen Ho Lee II?

Chinese Americans are worried about similarities to trial-by-media atmosphere surrounding Army chaplain's arrest.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

Many Chinese Americans are feeling dread in the wake of the arrest of Capt. James Yee, a Muslim chaplain stationed at Fort Lewis Army Base, Wash. The case brings back memories of the prosecution -- some would say persecution -- of Dr. Wen Ho Lee.

Lee, the Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist, was arrested by the FBI in 1999 on espionage charges and found not guilty after months in solitary confinement. President Clinton later apologized to him, though Dr. Lee's career as a scientist was already ruined.

Yee's arrest is as troubling as Dr. Lee's, says Ling Chi Wang, a professor of East Asian Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. Though not prepared to pass judgment on the case, Wang says that "based on what has been leaked to the media, I smell a rat." The public knows next to nothing about the Yee case other than what the FBI and the military have revealed to the press, he says, much of which "we can safely regard as propaganda and half-truths."

What the public knows so far: Captain James Yee, an American-born Chinese raised a Christian in New Jersey, was a star wrestler in high school, went to West Point and converted to Islam in 1991. He was deployed in August 1991 to Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the Gulf War. He then left the army and studied Islam for four years in Damascus, Syria, where he married a Syrian woman. When he returned to the United States he was asked by the Pentagon to serve as a chaplain, and he re-enlisted.

On Sept. 10, 2003, the FBI arrested Yee in Jacksonville, Fla., as he stepped off a military charter flight from Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, where he had been administering to some 600 Muslim prisoners. He is charged with five offenses: sedition, aiding the enemy, spying, espionage and failure to obey a general order. He may later be charged with treason, which is punishable by life in prison under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Helen Zia, who co-wrote with Dr. Wen Ho Lee, "My Country Versus Me: The First-Hand Account by the Los Alamos Scientist Who Was Falsely Accused," sees similarities with the Lee case. "Both are Chinese Americans who worked for the government in classified, highly sensitive settings, and they were both accused and arrested for possession or mishandling of classified information -- which immediately turned to accusations of espionage and even treason." But the army chaplain is more vulnerable, she says. "Yee is also Muslim, with a Syrian-born wife, at a time when the U.S. is at war in the Middle East."

With so little information forthcoming, many Chinese Americans are left to speculate about the case. Ted Wang, director of Chinese for Affirmative Action in San Francisco, says that he doesn't trust government leaks: "What is leaked from the government is often worse than what they can prove."

If he had the chance, Wang would ask dozens of questions of Pentagon officials. "What specifically did Captain Yee do that violated military rules or other civil laws? Was he aware that the information he had was confidential? Were those rules spelled out?"

"What exactly was his assignment in the prison camp?" asks Professor Wang. "What are the 'lists' of names in his possession? What are the 'maps' he had at the time of his arrest? Could the 'lists' be the names of people he counseled as chaplain? Could the 'maps' be the various facilities in which his advisees are housed? Did he see or find out something in Guantanamo the public is not supposed to know?"

Helen Zia, too, wonders "whether Chaplain Yee was on his way to Amnesty International or the news media with his alleged documents about Camp Delta. Could he have been acting out of some humanitarian sense? Would that constitute espionage or treason?"

In the meantime, many Chinese familiar with the Wen Ho Lee case fear a trial by media. "The New York Times and TV news found Dr. Lee guilty before he was even indicted," says Cecilia Chan, head of Justice for New Americans, an immigrant-rights groups in San Francisco. "He lost his job even before he went to trial. I don't want the media making the same mistake by waging a witchhunt against Captain Yee."

The effect of the arrests of Dr. Lee and other Chinese scientists due to racial profiling, Chan adds, "is that now, few Asians want to join government institutions. How many Chinese will want to go to West Point if they see what's happening to Capt. Yee?"

Phil Ting, director of Asian Law Caucus, is also watching the case with concern. "The New York Times article about Yee insinuates certain amount of guilt already," he says. Ting adds that in some ways, Captain Yee's situation is worse than Dr. Lee's because after 9/11, government power over civilian and military personnel increased. "If it's a closed military tribunal, I wonder if Yee will be getting due process."

Asian Americans are more vulnerable after 9/11, says Zia. "At times of heightened government scrutiny, the clergy are among the first to be rounded up. Faith communities should be especially concerned. Unfortunately for Chaplain Yee, he's facing a double whammy, being Chinese and Muslim." But everyone has a right to a fair and open trial, she says, "to be treated as innocent until proven guilty."

Andrew Lam ( lam@pacificnews.org), an editor at PNS, is a journalist and short story writer.