Lee sat in jail for one reason and one reason only: The Administration wanted to prove to its critics that it was tough on Chinese spying, whether or not that spying existed and whether or not it had anything to do with Wen Ho Lee. In the end, the spy hysteria whipped up by the Cox committee and the Times has taken a terrible toll on the life of one scientist and has cast suspicion over the entire community of Asian-American scientists, many of whom are now boycotting employment in the nuclear weapons labs.
The assumption that Lee, whose roots are in Taiwan and who has no relatives on the mainland, would be the prime target of an investigation simply because of his skin color and ethnic identity has sent shock waves through the Asian-American community. The leading support for Lee has come from the Committee of 100, made up of highly influential Chinese-Americans alarmed that their entire community has been scapegoated as disloyal.
All the more bizarre, this resurfacing of cold war imagery occurred at a time when China was moving as fast as a nation possibly can down what Mao Zedong would have condemned as the capitalist road. The same week Wen Ho Lee was released, Congress approved permanent normal trade relations with China with overwhelming bipartisan support. Yet there were Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh still claiming that Lee was a great risk to the nation.
While Reno and Freeh defended their handling of the case before Congress, the New York Times, in one of the most contorted editors' notes in that paper's history, and on its editorial page two days later, defended its journalism in the Lee case while offering up some faint notes of apology. But like the ravings of an addict promising to abstain, the Times again committed egregious distortions in the very editors' note intended to set the record straight. For one thing, the September 26 note implied that Lee might have had something to do with espionage and also with the theft of information critical to building the W-88 warhead, even though he was never charged with either offense.
Most unbelievable was one sentence that was so ingenuously dishonest as to be worthy of the most effective editorialist for Pravda in the bad old days. The Times editors wrote that at the time of the newspaper's first story, "Dr. Lee had already taken a lie detector test; FBI investigators believed that it showed deception when he was asked whether he had leaked secrets." The fact is that in December of 1998, three months before the Times's first story ran, Lee had passed an Energy Department lie-detector test with flying colors. What the note would seem to indicate is that the Times still could not acknowledge a single piece of evidence pointing to Lee's innocence.
In its very long editorial admitting to some errors, most important is the admission that "we find that we too quickly accepted the government's theory that espionage was the main reason for Chinese nuclear advances and its view that Dr. Lee had been properly singled out as the prime suspect." But then the editorial quickly segues into a non-sequitur argument about the need for increased security at the weapons labs. Sure, and it could probably save on its electricity bill with more prudent management as well. What the Times editorial never explains is why the paper uncritically accepted the leaks from the Cox committee as truth. Why did the newspaper ignore the massive amount of evidence in the scientific and intelligence commu- nity suggesting that Chinese nuclear weapons gains were very slight and could easily have been the product of the country's own internal research, and that in any case, China is a full four decades behind the United States and no threat in any way as a nuclear power? To this day the Times editorial page will not concede that the big scare of a growing Chinese nuclear power, which fueled the hunt for a spy, is bogus.