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No Defense

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IV: Conclusion

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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As the government's case came apart at the seams, more voices were raised in opposition, including The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and the Federation of American Scientists. Just before Lee's release, three of the nation's four scientific academies, endowed by Congress, demanded that Lee be given bail. That call even came to be echoed by the New York Times in a strong editorial, which noted that the judge had been lied to by the FBI on key aspects of the case in rendering his initial ruling denying Lee bail.

Judge Parker's decision to grant bail, which turned out to be moot because of the plea bargain in the case, was accompanied by a seventeen-page document that demolished key aspects of the government's case. As New York Times reporter James Sterngold summarized Parker's view: "The opinion is important in part because it casts deep doubts about many of the government's assertions about Dr. Lee's supposed deceptiveness and the value of the secrets he is accused of downloading, issues at the heart of the prosecution's case." And at the heart of the original New York Times reporting, one might add, not to take anything away from Sterngold's stellar reporting once he was assigned to the story.

Parker's words are worth quoting because they cut through all the hysteria about the losses to the US nuclear arsenal, which he himself had accepted in originally denying Lee's bail request. He cited, with apparent agreement, one top weapons expert who referred to the government's original claim that Lee had downloaded the "crown jewels" of America's nuclear program as "unbridled exaggeration."

On the matter of motive, the judge pointed out that the government had shifted its case from the claim that Lee was a potential, if not an actual, spy out to hurt the country's national security to the lame argument that he might have been attempting to burnish his credentials for future civilian employment in light of threatened massive layoffs at Los Alamos.

I have always believed this to be the most likely explanation for Lee's actions. During years of covering the labs for the Los Angeles Times, I frequently encountered complaints from scientists working there that they paid too heavy a professional price for not being able to share their work for public peer review, which is the basis of advancement in the academic world. The Los Alamos and Livermore labs are administered by the University of California, and most of the scientists are regarded as university faculty, but because of the secrecy requirements, they are forced to keep their best work hidden. Most of the time, that work is unnecessarily classified, and scientists must engage in heroic efforts to get it declassified for publication. Ironically, that is Trulock's problem right now, as he seeks to publish his own account of this escapade.

The government's case boiled down to nothing more than the possibility that Wen Ho Lee was attempting to gather evidence of his work in the hopes of securing employment at research institutes in non-Communist countries such as Germany and Switzerland. Even that claim proved to be false, however, when an FBI witness testified that there is no evidence that Lee mailed any such material or that any institute ever received it. Even if Lee had sought to use the data for that purpose, he might have intended to have it declassified first, before sending it out. But in any case, as Judge Parker stated, "enhancing one's résumé is less sinister than the treacherous motive the government, at least by implication, ascribed to Dr. Lee at the end of last year," when bail was denied.

From the crown jewels to an enhanced résumé. Quite a shift. None of this would have happened had the Times not been willing to broadcast leaks fed to its reporters by federal and Congressional investigators with a political agenda. Whether the goal was to nail Clinton on the campaign contributions issue or to revive the cold war with China, none of this had to do with the real concerns of national security.

Whatever Lee's transgressions, they do not involve issues of spying but only sloppiness in handling data. But to equate sloppiness with spying and to incarcerate a man for nine months under abysmal conditions in the hope that he will confess to something truly subversive is a clear violation of the standard of due process on which this country prides itself and which it seeks to export.

If this had happened in another country, there would have been a great outcry from human rights circles. But only late in the day did leading scientific organizations speak up, while human rights organizations failed to show they cared one whit about what has been a modern Dreyfus case. It is a sad confirmation of the hold of national security hysteria even now that so much dangerous mischief could have continued for so long, more or less unchallenged, by those who should know better.

As for Wen Ho Lee, the scientist came away thankful for a legal system in which the damage to him was limited by an ultimately courageous judge and a hopelessly bungled government case. But no one who cares about freedom of the individual in the face of abusive government power should ever forget how arrogant the FBI can be when backed by the shoddy reporting of this nation's premier newspaper. This was chillingly demonstrated on March 7, 1999, when Lee's FBI interrogators brandished the previous day's New York Times story as a weapon to threaten him:


Do you think that the press prints everything that's true? Do you think that everything in this article is true?


I don't think [so].


The press doesn't care.

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