Over the last two years, various government and congressional officials adroitly exploited leaks to the media to defame Wen Ho Lee, a Los Alamos nuclear scientist. Those leaks, alleging that Lee was a spy who stole this nation’s most precious nuclear weapons secrets for China, cited highly classified government documents.
The leaks were lies and Lee, a US citizen and Taiwan native, was never charged with spying or passing any information to any person or nation. The leaks were a clear violation of US secrecy laws.
To this date, there has not even been the pretense of an investigation as to how those government leaks occurred. Nor have the media that used those documents to smear Lee ever felt obligated to reveal their anonymous government sources or release the documents they selectively referenced in demeaning a man’s reputation. Now Lee is attempting to tell his side of the story in a new book, and the government, playing the heavy-handed role of the censor, has delayed publication indefinitely pending what it terms a security review. Lee’s book, My Country vs. Me: The Firsthand Account by the Los Alamos Scientist Who Was Falsely Accused of Being a Spy, is simply Lee’s turn to salvage his reputation. Yet the media, which routinely invoke the protection of the First Amendment, seem reluctant to grant the scientist that same constitutional protection.
In a front-page story Sunday, the New York Times, which led the media in using highly classified secret documents to paint Lee as a spy, now suggests that Lee may have broken the law regarding classified documents by merely writing his book.
Instead of being sympathetic to Lee’s effort to tell his story, the Times account ended with this dismissive comment: “Some experts have suggested that the rush to publication and the security dispute is simply a way for Dr. Lee to thumb his nose at the government or for the publisher to win publicity. Others say it reflects simple bumbling or confusion.”
What gibberish. Lee has every right to defend himself and there is no evidence that the book violates document classification rules, nor has the government claimed that to be the case. There is also no indication that Lee, who submitted his book for government review, has leaked its content to the public. Anyway, how would any such leak compare to the steady flow of top-secret information released by the government and carried by the New York Times, with the apparent sole purpose of smearing Lee?
The Times did the most of any media outlet to advance the unsubstantiated accusations against Lee, and it is highly likely that the paper will come in for criticism by Lee in his book. It is thus unseemly for the newspaper to suggest now that his effort to clear his name is itself a violation of national security.
Two years ago, it was the New York Times that carried this lurid headline: “Breach at Los Alamos: A special report; China stole nuclear secrets for bombs, U.S. aides say.” The Times said that the theft was clearly the work of “a suspect, a scientist [who] stuck out like a sore thumb.” That was a reference to Lee, who subsequently was abruptly fired.
The government later filed fifty-nine counts against Lee, not one of which involved claims of spying or espionage. Before the case fell apart, Lee had served nine months in solitary confinement.
Government prosecutors later conceded that there was no evidence that Lee passed secrets to any other country nor was there evidence connecting him with the purported theft of the advanced W-88 nuclear warhead that was the basis of the original New York Times story.
In the end, a plea bargain led to the release of Lee for time served on a single count of mishandling secret data. In releasing Lee after the government dropped fifty-eight of the fifty-nine charges against him, the judge in the case, a conservative Ronald Reagan appointee, apologized “to you, Dr. Lee, for the unfair manner [in which] you were held in custody by the executive branch.” The federal judge, James Parker, then went on to chastise “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.”
The shame of all this is that the people in government and the media who embarrassed our nation are still at it, employing a phony claim of national security to deny Lee his say in the court of public opinion.