No Defense | The Nation


No Defense

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Introduction: A Reporter's Notebook

About the Author

Robert Scheer
Robert Scheer, a contributing editor to The Nation, is editor of Truthdig.com and author of The Great American Stickup...

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For me the most persuasive evidence that Wen Ho Lee was innocent of the wild spying charges lodged against him came hours after his release from jail, when he returned to his standard-issue tract house in the White Rock suburb of Los Alamos, New Mexico: It was the sight of all those neighbors and co-workers from the lab bringing over plates of potato salad and cold cuts to celebrate his freedom. These were the people who knew Lee and the inner workings of the weapons lab, and they had been there to support him throughout his ordeal, even when established human rights and civil libertarian groups had remained silent. His next-door neighbors, the Marshalls, both hold the highest security ratings; they had offered to pledge their house as bail.

Lee was a product of the lab's culture, and whatever his motive in downloading certain files, his co-workers knew that no one had ever been criminally prosecuted for such an act. It was not all that unusual for intellectually distracted scientists like Lee, who managed to begin writing a mathematics book while in solitary confinement, to be careless with the data that formed the clay they played with daily. Above all, they knew in their bones that Wen Ho Lee, their neighbor, was no spy.

Still, I was apprehensive at being introduced to Lee that evening. For one thing, there is always trepidation at finally meeting a person about whom one has written so much. In Lee's case, I'd done more than a dozen Op-Ed columns for the Los Angeles Times, being the first to challenge a spy story driven by the New York Times. Also, Lee had been through a prison nightmare, and I expected to find a broken man. Instead, I found a person still in shock but grateful, with a smile that suggested he was very much at peace with himself.

Yet Lee's ordeal had been real, and while that evening was not the time for him to go into it, he made it clear that it had been a harrowing experience. Imagine a man who has never been in trouble with the law suddenly detained in a tiny cell without a window or even bars to look through. "There was a peephole in the door, and there was someone who sat outside, and who was watching him and taking notes," recalls his Albuquerque attorney, Nancy Hollander, who visited him often in jail. "And you have to understand: Not only are they watching him eat and sleep, they're watching him use the toilet." His cell would change, but never the twenty-four-hour-a-day light or the shackles--hands and feet linked to a chain around his waist--that he wore during his one hour of permitted exercise, on the occasions he got to talk with his lawyers and during brief visits with his wife.

Hollander has spent decades representing the most hardened of criminals, but still, she says, she was shocked: "I've had murder clients, drug clients, clients accused of taking millions of dollars from the federal government, you name it, but I've never had a client treated like Wen Ho Lee."

A recent Washington Post article quotes one government insider as expressing the opinion that the decision to hold Lee under these circumstances was an attempt to break him. They weren't able to, and instead, it was the FBI and the US Attorney General who had to back down because, as the Post reported, they were convinced that the admitted deceptions in the case, including those used to make the case against bail, had turned Judge James Parker against them. Parker had gone along with the prosecutors for nine months, but eventually he was revolted by these deceptions. He saved the day, first by ordering that the government turn over evidence of racial profiling in targeting Lee, as well as potentially incriminating documents regarding the FBI's behavior; and second, by ordering Lee released on bail. In the end, Judge Parker made a broken judicial system work and sternly condemned those who had done it so much damage.

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