The China Syndrome
Like it or not, America has been able to achieve and maintain its supremacy as a global power because of its capacity to absorb the best from the rest of the world. This dependency on foreign imports is especially clear in the realm of science and technology. Roughly one-third of US Nobel laureates were born outside the United States and became naturalized citizens. The father of the American nuclear program was a foreigner. But most foreign-born scientists toil away unrecognized in our nation's research labs, universities and private firms, forming the backbone of American high technology. In computer software development, now widely considered the most important area of American advantage, foreign nationals are commonly recognized as being among the best programmers. Almost a third of all scientists and engineers in Silicon Valley are of Chinese or Indian decent.
America cannot afford to lose the loyalty of these high-tech coolies it has come to depend on, yet that's exactly where it seems to be heading with recent cases of immigrant-bashing and racial and ethnic profiling by opportunistic politicians seeking short-term political gains. In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the animosity aimed at the enemies of the United States has also been extended to immigrants and American citizens who originally came from the same part of the world. Hundreds of Arab-Americans and Asians from the Indian subcontinent have been detained as suspects, without charges filed against them, under "special administrative measures" in the name of national security. The majority of Americans, the interpreters of polls tell us, approve. It was in the name of the same national security that a Chinese-American physicist, Wen Ho Lee, was accused some three years earlier of stealing the "crown jewels" of the US nuclear program and giving them to mainland China; similarly enacted special measures threw him in chains and into solitary confinement, although the government had no evidence against him. His public lynching, which was caused by and fed into America's national angst concerning enemy number one of that time--China--is the subject of the two books under review. As a perfect example of a national security investigation botched by racial and ethnic profiling, which led to a shameful failure of all the institutions involved, it could not have been exposed at a better time.
China emerged as America's prime antagonist after the end of the cold war. During the cold war, it was always easy to tell who was America's enemy and who was a friend. Then, with the normalization of Chinese-US diplomatic relations in the late 1970s, those lines began to blur. For a time at least, the People's Republic of China (PRC) was no longer a foe. Individuals and institutions from all walks of life were happily embracing the idea of scientific and cultural exchange, and even nuclear scientists went back and forth. It was understood that the common enemy was the USSR. This cozy relationship ended with the fall of the Soviet Union, when US policy-makers, without clearly defined targets, began to show signs of what Henry Kissinger calls "nostalgia for confrontation" and cast about for a manichean opponent. With its rapidly expanding economy in the 1990s, which brought it into some conflict with American interests in Asia, China became the most logical choice.
The targeting of Chinese-Americans and the questioning of their loyalties did not begin in earnest until after the 1996 general election, when Republicans accused members of the Chinese-American community of passing campaign donations from government officials of the PRC to Bill Clinton's re-election campaign. It was said to be a clandestine plan by China to influence US policy; the charge was not substantiated, but Asian-American contributors to the Democratic Party were investigated by the FBI for possible involvement in traitorous activities, and suspicions of disloyalty among Chinese-Americans lingered.
The investigation of Wen Ho Lee, who was then a research scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico, started soon after the campaign scandal. It was initiated by an intelligence report that in 1992 China had tested a bomb very much like the Los Alamos-designed W-88, considered one of the smallest and most highly optimized nuclear weapons in the world. Carried on Trident II submarine-launched missiles, the W-88 can hit multiple targets with great accuracy. When a Chinese defector to Taiwan brought documents with diagrams and text descriptions of a long list of US strategic weapons, including the W-88, US counterintelligence circles cried espionage and began an investigation.
Dan Stober and Ian Hoffman, who covered the story for the San Jose Mercury-News and the Albuquerque Journal, teamed up to write A Convenient Spy: Wen Ho Lee and the Politics of Nuclear Espionage, in which they reveal the scandalous details of the misguided search for the Chinese-American spy. Written like a crime novel, their book is at its best as an exposé of the behind-the-scenes workings of Washington politics, in which the truth is all too easily sacrificed for political expediency. The authors blame everyone involved, from the incompetent employees of the FBI and the ambitious bureaucrats of the Department of Energy (DOE) to the zealous anti-China hawks in Congress and a colluding press corps all too willing to swallow government-distributed information without corroboration.
The government spent four years and millions of dollars to pin Wen Ho Lee, ultimately only to find him innocent of spying. Many American weapons designers who were familiar with the Chinese nuclear program saw no reason that Chinese scientists could not invent in the 1990s the miniaturized warheads US scientists had developed in the 1950s. Others pointed out that most of the details on US missiles were available on a website maintained by the Federation of American Scientists. China could have easily made its own bombs by processing the mounds of information gathered from newspapers, magazines and scientific literature that Chinese students and scientists, over more than a decade of scholarly and business exchanges, had obtained legally--a method US counterintelligence circles refer to as gathering grains of sand. Yet the director of counterintelligence at the DOE, Notra Trulock, refused to believe that the Chinese were capable of developing the most modern weapon in the US arsenal on their own. "There's one spy out there and we're going to find him," he reportedly told an assistant.
The spy, if there was one, could have been any of the scientists from a half-dozen national nuclear-weapons-design labs, or an employee of one of the many plants that manufacture the parts, as they all had blueprints. Yet Trulock's order for an administrative inquiry stipulated that the initial consideration would be to identify those US citizens of Chinese heritage who worked directly or peripherally with the design development. This was a logical starting point, the attached memo went on to explain, based upon the intelligence community's evaluation that the PRC targets and utilizes ethnic Chinese for espionage rather than persons of non-Chinese origin. Following this perilous logic, the investigation took on the shape of a funnel: The list of suspects swiftly shrank from the employees of Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore research labs who had traveled to China to the scientists of Chinese heritage who had worked directly or peripherally on the W-88 design development and had had contacts with Chinese scientists. From there, it was a quick jump to Wen Ho Lee as the only person who had the opportunity, motivation and legitimate access to the specific nuclear weapons information believed to have been leaked to the Chinese.
The choice of Wen Ho Lee as the spy was far from logical. He was a native of Taiwan and had openly expressed his sympathy for Taiwanese independence, and has in fact admitted to providing unclassified scientific documents to the Chung Shan Institute of Science and Technology--Taiwan's military research center involved in developing nuclear weapons. Also, he had been trapped into cooperating with the FBI many years earlier in an investigation of another Chinese-American scientist, while his wife was recruited to act as an unpaid informant on the activities of visiting Chinese scientists.
This may explain why no one at the FBI or any other government agency initially believed Trulock's accusations against Lee. Trulock's first request for a wiretapping order from the Justice Department was turned down. But he doggedly took his spy story to the CIA, the White House and the Defense Department until he finally found a sympathetic ear among Republicans in Congress. Representative Christopher Cox of California was heading the House Select Committee on US National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns, which was investigating the Clinton Administration for jeopardizing national security by being soft on China in exchange for campaign contributions. Cox immediately saw the potential of using an indictment against Wen Ho Lee to help the charges against Clinton stick. Trulock's unverified assertions became bombshells in Cox's committee report. On one occasion a zealous committee member even confused the scientist Wen Ho Lee with Bill Lann Lee, who was at the time waiting to be confirmed as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights.
But the real damage was done when someone leaked the spy story to the ever-hungry-for-a-Clinton-scandal press. A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times passed the information along without corroboration, and soon Congress and the media were "locked in a game of one-upmanship," describing Lee's crime in ever more superlative-laden rhetoric, according to Stober and Hoffman. In no time, expressions of fear and hatred of the Chinese inundated the Internet, TV and radio talk shows. As the storm gathered, Clinton's appointees, instead of standing up against wrongful accusations, buckled. The new Energy Secretary, Bill Richardson, weighing the risk of losing his nomination as the running mate to presidential candidate Al Gore, ordered that Wen Ho Lee be summarily dealt with.
The FBI at first tried to scare Wen Ho Lee into confessing that he had passed nuclear secrets to China. The Rosenbergs professed their innocence, he was told, and the Rosenbergs are dead. When that did not work, he was put in jail, although the government still had no evidence to convict him as a spy. Five years of relentless hounding by its agents--at times more than 100 FBI personnel were working on his case--had produced nothing. The only wrongdoing he could be charged with, discovered by accident during a search of his office, was his downloading of several weapons codes from the lab's secure computer system onto the unsecured one. Similar security infractions were often ignored at the lab, rarely resulting in disciplinary measures. (In an error of potentially much graver consequences for national security, former Director of Central Intelligence John Deutch had downloaded top-secret files onto his unsecured home computer, which a family member had been using to surf pornography websites. Deutch was disciplined but he did not lose his job, much less end up incarcerated.)
Lee was prosecuted under the cold-war-era Atomic Energy Act, which allowed for the harshest treatment: He was put in manacles and shackles that were chained to his waist, and was locked up in solitary confinement. When members of his immediate family were permitted to visit him for one hour each month, they were not allowed to speak in Chinese--the language they spoke at home. Lights in his cell were on twenty-four hours a day, with a guard on constant watch. Such conditions are rarely experienced by even the most vicious convicted criminals.
Much to Wen Ho Lee's credit, he did not crack. The US district court judge in New Mexico who was put in charge of the prosecution was so incensed by the government's handling of the case that he said to Lee: "I believe you were terribly wronged.... [Government officials] have embarrassed our entire nation.... I sincerely apologize to you."
This unusual gesture, with which Wen Ho Lee opens his account of the ordeal in My Country Versus Me: The First-Hand Account by the Los Alamos Scientist Who Was Falsely Accused of Being a Spy, is by the book's end almost certain to draw applause from the readers, as an enlightened conclusion to a grave miscarriage of justice by the government; but the negative consequences of the incident have yet to be fully tallied.
More than 150,000 Chinese-American engineers and scientists work in US industry, government and academia today; roughly 15,000 are employed by the defense sector alone. Because of the way in which the government handled Wen Ho Lee's case, many found that their loyalty was being severely questioned by their bosses and colleagues. They were frequently subject to innuendo and distressing jokes. There were numerous reports of security clearances withdrawn and promotions denied, of people forced into early retirement. A survey conducted by the Committee of 100 and the Anti-Defamation League soon after Wen Ho Lee's release from prison found that 68 percent of Americans feel negative toward Chinese-Americans; 32 percent believe that Chinese-Americans are more loyal to China than to the United States; and 46 percent believe that Chinese-Americans passing secrets to China is a problem.
Even Stober and Hoffman, who make every effort to show the lack of credible evidence proving that Lee was a spy, maintain that his own unexplained actions fed into the political furor that made him all too convenient a target. For instance, Lee lied to the FBI, to his family and to his lawyers about why he had copied voluminous amounts of non-work-related computer codes used to design nuclear weapons and put them on portable tapes that have never been completely recovered.
In his own book, Lee explains the copying as a precautionary measure against losing his files--as had happened to him when the lab switched from one computer system to another. He defends the volume of downloads as necessary to test his portion of the codes "against the snapshot of the whole code at a certain time," because as the weapons designers change their calculations, his codes are affected as well. To Lee's scientific mind, the measure was prudent and logical. John Richter, a Los Alamos physicist known as "the guru of gurus" on the subject of plutonium explosives, testified in court in Lee's defense. He described Lee's actions with an old saying: Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.
Whatever the case, Lee comes across as impossibly naïve as he recounts the events of late 1998, considering that he was in the very eye of the storm raised by the Cox investigation. He continued to cooperate with investigators by submitting to polygraph tests and repeated FBI questioning, without the presence of a lawyer. When his daughter told him that a New York Times article headlined "China Stole Nuclear Secrets from Los Alamos, U.S. Officials Say," published March 6, 1999, was about him, he didn't believe it. He didn't read newspapers, didn't vote and professed not to care about politics. Yet his book is politically sophisticated. It shows the unmistakable imprint of his co-author, Helen Zia, an experienced freelance journalist and a seasoned and respected Asian-American activist, who understood the significance of Wen Ho Lee's case in the context of American ethnic and civil rights politics.
In contrast to the position taken by Stober and Hoffman, who credit Lee's lawyers as being the only morally noncorrupt heroes of this story, Zia recognized that the legal case gained moral weight and credibility through the support of brave people who were willing to risk their careers to speak out in Lee's favor. The American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science issued statements condemning the government's harsh treatment of Lee. A number of eminent scientists, among them several of Lee's colleagues, individually took the stand. Richter, the guru, provided crucial testimony debunking the government's nonsense that Lee had stolen the nation's "crown jewels," thus altering the balance of power in the world.
The Chinese-American community, still licking the wounds inflicted by Clinton's campaign fundraising scandal, was initially cautious in dealing with the sensitive issue surrounding nuclear secrets. But it picked up Lee's cause as soon as the government went public with its outrageous actions. Foreign-born Chinese-American scientists and engineers, who for years had sweated away quietly in research labs and universities, unrecognized, unappreciated and underpaid, but who were suddenly all suspect, turned their anger into building the Wen Ho Lee Defense Fund, which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for his legal bills. Supporters established websites and organized rallies and teach-ins around the country, demanding that members of Congress stop the persecution of Lee. When Professor Ling-chi Wang, director of Asian-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, called for a collective boycott of DOE-overseen national labs by all Asian-American scientists and engineers, the labs took notice. (An agreement with the labs on new procedures appeared imminent at press time.)
Job applications by foreign graduate students, from among whom most research labs and engineering firms recruit their future staff, are down. The National Science Board estimates that 30-50 percent of those who hold science or engineering doctorates in the United States are foreign-born (the number is the highest in math: 57 percent). About 7 percent of all physicists and 15 percent of all engineers in the United States are Asian-American. If Asian-American and other foreign-born scientists are discouraged from entering the US work force, notes Eamon Kelly, chairman of the National Science Board, the country could have a hard time filling the gap.
Yet, spurred by the September 11 attacks, Senator Dianne Feinstein has called for a moratorium on admissions of foreign students to US educational institutions. American national interests can ill afford this type of mindless antiforeign hysteria. American high school students rank near the bottom in math and science, according to studies on schooling worldwide. The country's best and brightest students often opt for careers as lawyers, doctors and financial professionals, where they can command much higher salaries than in the pure science fields. Wen Ho Lee, for instance, despite holding a PhD from an American university and with twenty years of experience at the Los Alamos labs, made only $80,000 a year--an absurdly meager remuneration for a man accused of changing the balance of power in the world.
If there is a lesson in all this, it is that the pre-eminent position of the United States in the world--"our scientific capabilities and national security," in the words of the president of the American Physical Society, James Langer--was in fact compromised by the government's action in the case of Wen Ho Lee and the resulting alienation of the most qualified foreign-born scientists necessary to maintain that pre-eminence. Unfortunately, the lesson is also, as Wen Ho Lee found out, that an immigrant dream--coming to America, working hard, getting an education, taking care of one's family and minding one's own business--can easily be shattered by politics. Only by becoming politically engaged and organized can immigrants gain the respect of the rest of the American people and stop being singled out as easy victims.