I: Here Comes the Judge
What a moment it was to sit in the Federal District Court in Albuquerque on September 13 and hear Judge Parker, a conservative Reagan appointee, say: "I sincerely apologize to you, Dr. Lee, for the unfair manner [in which] you were held in custody by the executive branch." Parker described Lee's imprisonment to a hushed courtroom as having been under "demeaning, unnecessarily punitive conditions," and he said that he was "sad and troubled because I do not know the real reasons why the executive branch has done all of this."
What is known is that the government's case against Lee crumbled, with the government agreeing to dismiss fifty-eight of fifty-nine counts that had been lodged against Lee, who faced life imprisonment for intending to betray the national security of the United States. Suddenly the government, which only a week before had said Lee's release could risk "hundreds of millions of lives," was willing to let him go for time served. As for Lee, the nine months of harsh imprisonment had taken their toll, and he was willing to plead guilty to a single felony count of mishandling classified data--a charge that defense lawyers might have been willing to settle on even before there was an indictment.
Parker went on to tongue-lash "the top decision makers in the executive branch," who, he said, "have embarrassed our entire nation and each of us who is a citizen of it."
I filed out of the courtroom with my media colleagues, who spoke of their eyes having welled up with tears at the judge's remarks but of feeling proud that the system had worked once again. As the judge had said, "The executive branch has enormous power, the abuse of which can be devastating to our citizens," and in this case it had been checked. That's how the story got reported.
But once I was outside in the bright heat of an early desert afternoon, it seemed outrageous that yet again the media were leaving out their own responsibility in the creation of this wicked tale. The torment of Wen Ho Lee did not begin in December of 1999, with his indictment and arrest, but rather the previous March, when the New York Times, the most respected media outlet in the country, laid out a tale of atomic spying that has been proved wrong on virtually every count, but that launched a witch hunt ending in Lee's incarceration [see Bill Mesler, "The Spy Who Wasn't," August 9/16, 1999].
There are too many low points in the history of this nation's journalism to permit one easily to employ superlatives about the Times's startling transgression. I don't know if it makes the all-time Top Ten list, but the trial and conviction of Lee in the pages of the Times--both in its news columns and on its editorial page--is certainly right up there. A leak from a Congressional committee chaired by California Republican Christopher Cox regarding the alleged theft of secrets about the W-88 nuclear warhead (a sophisticated, miniaturized bomb that fits on a MIRVed launcher) by Chinese spies--a nonevent that was never substantiated and was scoffed at by most experts--along with the contentions of a controversial and much-disputed source, was used by the newspaper to smear a Taiwan-born US citizen singled out for vilification simply because of his ethnic background.
Of course, the Times couldn't have done it alone. But what makes this primarily a media story is that without the backing of the Times, whose stories set the tone for TV journalism, not much of anything would have happened. If properly vetted through the normal channels, the case, based largely on the zealous pursuit of Lee by one disgruntled former government security sleuth and amplified by the ambitions of a right-wing Congressman, would have come to naught. Instead, the Clinton Administration, recovering from impeachment and mired in a campaign finance scandal linked to Asian funds--including the charge that Beijing had secretly funneled money to the Democrats--panicked. Cowed by its fear that the China issue could be used effectively against Gore in the election, the Administration was willing to play along, and it did so through its Energy and Justice departments.