Bitter Victory for Wen Ho Lee
Without question, Dr. Wen Ho Lee, his family, supporters, and legal defense team have scored it a resounding victory.
It could have been a sweet victory. Instead, it has a bitter taste.
It is bitter and will remain bitter because he was needlessly and arbitrarily fired by the University of California from his job at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in March 1999, one day after the New York Times, without credible evidence, identified him as the prime suspect in the theft of the nation's nuclear secrets for China.
For no apparent reason, other than his race, Wen Ho Lee, his family, colleagues, and friends were subjected to nine months of Gestapo-type investigation, harassment, and intimidation. He cooperated fully with an army of FBI agents and counter-intelligence officers -- to his own detriment -- without the presence of his attorneys.
Failing to uncover any shred of evidence that he had committed the alleged crimes, the U.S. government resorted to fabrication and shamelessly turned information he had volunteered into incriminating evidence.
He was indicted on 59 counts of "mishandling classified data." By reclassifying the data he downloaded retroactively to the grossly exaggerated status of "crown jewels" of America's nuclear arsenals, and using government witnesses to offer misleading if not perjured testimony, the government succeeded not only in denying him bail, but in justifying nine months of solitary confinement, treatment far worse than that accorded convicted mass murderers.
As government prosecutors realized they had no case against Dr. Lee, they decided -- under pressure from presiding Judge Parker -- to take a face-saving way out. They allowed Dr. Lee to plead guilty to one count of knowingly violating security rules.
From the first, I saw this as a purely political case, one that had nothing to do with espionage and everything to do with partisan politics and disputes over U.S.-China relations. I further believed Dr. Lee was singled out as a scapegoat for all the security and mismanagement issues associated with the national labs.
Above all, I believed he was picked on account of his race and the knowledge that Chinese Americans could never mount credible resistance against the full power of the U.S. government. (There is a good reason for the expression, "Not a Chinaman's Chance!" in the American language).
Many of Dr. Lee's supporters may be disappointed, and even angry with his decision to accept this deal because they do not think he is guilty of any of the allegations that cost him his job and brought nine months of pain and suffering.
Nonetheless, I believe we must respect and support Dr. Lee's decision and declare victory for him and for us. For the simple reason that Dr. Lee readily conceded that he, like hundreds, if not thousands of lab employees, routinely downloaded classified data. At no time did he hide this fact. Indeed, he voluntarily told the FBI before he was dismissed from his job -- which abused his trust by turning it into self-incriminating evidence.
It may be unfair to single him out, on account of his race, for doing what he, his colleagues and John Deutch routinely did. But, the fact remains: he did admit to downloading the data in violation of lab regulations.
We must accept his decision. But in my opinion, that decision in no way undermines our position that an innocent man has been unjustly treated and punished solely on account of his race. Nor does it erase the wrongdoings of the government and the lab management.
The plea bargain agreement may settle the criminal case, but there is unfinished business, from security management to unfair treatment of lab employees. We want to know the truth behind this politically inspired case. We want the people who instigated the case, framed Dr. Lee, and leaked half-truths to the media and Congressional investigating committees, for whatever reasons, to be identified and held accountable for the torture inflicted upon him and his family.
Above all, we must continue to deal with issues of racial profiling and racial discrimination against Asian Americans in the Lawrence Labs and other labs operated by the Department of Energy. The plea bargain deal should not detract us from working on these larger, unresolved issues.
I don't know whether Dr. Lee will be allowed to return to his job or whether he will be able to sue the government for the pain and suffering he and his family endured for nearly two years.
For the time being, a competent legal defense team, many individuals of courage and good will, and strong support from the scientific and Asian American communities, we have successfully defeated the government that thought it could get away with picking on a "Chinaman." We have demonstrated we can mount credible resistance to unlimited power of the U.S. government. This is not a small accomplishment: it is a defining moment and a milestone in the annals of Chinese American struggle for civil rights.
The bottom line is that we have succeeded in obtaining freedom and justice for Dr. Wen Ho Lee. But it is a bitter victory because of the toll it inflicted on Dr. Lee and on Chinese Americans across the nation and because it leaves several issues unresolved. In short, the case is far from over.
Prof. Ling-Chi Wang is Chair of the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of California-Berkeley.