Pat Buchanan calls Wen Ho Lee the epicenter of the most dangerous penetration of America’s nuclear labs “since the Rosenbergs went to the electric chair in 1953.” Senator Don Nickles says that Lee, a mild-mannered Taiwanese-born scientist at the Los Alamos nuclear weapons lab in New Mexico, was responsible for the “most serious case of espionage” in US history. Senator Frank Murkowski says he’s perpetrated “the greatest loss of nuclear military secrets in our nation’s history,” secrets that, in the words of Senator Richard Lugar, will place the United States “at significantly greater risk from a Chinese ballistic missile attack.” Lee’s guilt has so been taken for granted that NBC’s Brian Williams called a recent report that Lee will not be prosecuted “amazing.”

Yet as the facts have emerged during the relentless four-month media frenzy surrounding Lee, he has looked less like a master spy and more like the innocent victim of neo-McCarthyite Republicans who see the Chinese menace everywhere and hope to use the “China threat” as a bludgeon against Democrats in the upcoming presidential election. Since his name first surfaced in the pages of the New York Times in early March, the case against him has turned out to be laughably circumstantial, based largely on illegal, politicized Republican leaks. As an eager corps of credulous reporters–particularly at the Times–has turned the farfetched leaks into lead stories without taking the time to do balanced reporting, the smear campaign has condemned Lee to an Alger Hiss-like existence, shamed and suspect in the eyes of most Americans.

But Republican politics and a reckless media don’t deserve all the blame. Smarting from controversy over fundraiser Johnny Chung and angling to look just as tough on the Chinese as their colleagues on the right going into the 2000 elections, Democrats have done little to challenge even the wildest Republican allegations, and indeed have appeared more than happy to let Lee take the fall. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson not only acquiesced in the scandal mongering by firing Lee; his efforts to find scapegoats and to blame the affair on his predecessor, Federico Peña, have lent credence to the right’s claims of Chinese penetration of the nuclear labs.

Bit by bit, every piece of “evidence” against Lee that has first appeared in the New York Times–his trips to China, his phone call to a fellow Taiwanese-born physicist under investigation–has turned out to be far less nefarious than originally depicted. Even the most serious charge, that Lee downloaded data used to simulate nuclear explosions onto an unclassified computer, has proved specious. It now appears that Lee was sloppy in his handling of sensitive materials, but no more so than his colleagues at Los Alamos. One source at the General Accounting Office who has investigated computer security violations at the facility says the case against Lee looks like it “had more to do with appropriation politics and a general need for a cold war enemy” than espionage.

The most Kafkaesque element of the accusations against Lee may be the crime itself, or lack thereof. Lee is accused of sharing America’s most sophisticated miniaturized nuclear warhead design with the Chinese. China now claims to have designed miniaturized warheads, yet it is still decades behind US technology and shows little signs of catching up. Wen Ho Lee’s biggest crime may simply have been to be the wrong ethnicity in the wrong place in the wrong election year. “This is the case of a pretty sexy group of things coming together,” says Stan Norris, senior analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “You’ve got nuclear bombs, espionage. Throw in a dash of political campaign contributions and an upcoming election, and you have the perfect Washington story. He might have done some things he shouldn’t have done, like mishandling computer information. But he wasn’t alone in doing those things. It is beginning to look like Wen Ho Lee was a scapegoat.”

Anatomy of a Scandal

The Wen Ho Lee saga really began back in 1988, when, according to Congressional sources familiar with later briefings by intelligence officials, CIA agents were approached by a Chinese scientist who offered to spy for the United States. The scientist handed over a one-page document suggesting that China had data on a highly advanced warhead design called the W-88, a miniaturized warhead originally developed at Los Alamos. Although the document did contain some classified data, it was primarily drawn up from declassified information and contained nothing proving that the Chinese actually acquired the W-88. The agents concluded the scientist was in fact a spy for the Chinese and rejected his offer. The Chinese had and still have good reason to want the CIA to believe it had the W-88: The tiny warhead would make Chinese ICBMs almost immune to interception by ballistic missile defenses being developed by the United States–defenses China has adamantly opposed.

The incident was largely dismissed until resurrected in 1995 by Notra Trulock, then the Energy Department’s director of intelligence. On the basis of the 1988 document and more recent Chinese advances in warhead miniaturization, Trulock concluded that the Chinese had in fact acquired critical information on the W-88 from the United States. His conclusion clashed with speculation by the CIA that China had obtained information on warhead miniaturization from the Russians or even developed improvements through their own weapons program. Nonetheless, Trulock’s hunch would lead to an FBI investigation of Wen Ho Lee, the only scientist from Los Alamos, where the W-88 was developed, who had traveled to China in the mid-eighties. Lee had appeared on the FBI’s radar screen once before, in 1982, when he phoned another Taiwanese-born scientist suspected of passing neutron bomb secrets to the Chinese. (As would later happen to Lee himself, that scientist was fired but never charged with any crime.)

Dismissed by the CIA and other intelligence analysts, Trulock’s assessment of Chinese spying would find a more welcome reception three years later before a highly politicized committee in the House of Representatives chaired by California Republican Christopher Cox. The Cox committee was investigating whether contributions to the 1996 Clinton re-election campaign played a role in helping sensitive satellite technology find its way to China. Last fall Trulock took his allegations before the committee, and soon he had named Lee as the Energy Department’s “chief suspect” in the case.

On March 6, New York Times reporters James Risen and Jeff Gerth broke a story headlined “China Stole Nuclear Secrets for Bombs, U.S. Aides Say.” Quoting Trulock extensively, Risen and Gerth reported that China had made “a leap in the development of nuclear weapons: the miniaturization of its bombs…accelerated by the theft of American nuclear secrets from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico,” a charge that cannot be proven to this day. Based on illegal leaks made about a pending investigation (leaks reminiscent of the Monica Lewinsky affair), the story claimed that “a reconstruction by the New York Times reveals that throughout the government, the response to the nuclear theft was plagued by delays, inaction and skepticism” even though “government investigators had identified a suspect, an American scientist at Los Alamos laboratory.” (The “reconstruction” would soon lead to calls for the resignation of everyone from Attorney General Janet Reno to White House National Security Adviser Sandy Berger.) The story went on to quote an unnamed government official as saying the suspect “stuck out like a sore thumb” because of trips made to mainland China in 1986 and 1988.

In fact, the Energy Department approved Lee’s trips to attend two technical conferences. He had attended similar conferences throughout the world, particularly in Western Europe. During the 1986 trip to China, Lee’s wife was actually working as an informant for the FBI to spy on mainland Chinese scientists. Nonetheless, on the same Saturday morning that the Times story broke, the FBI called in “the suspect” for questioning. Time reported that this time they “turned up the heat.” By Sunday night, Lee, who had never before asked for counsel, finally stopped talking to investigators. A friend of Lee’s later told Time that Lee’s two-day ordeal had left him bewildered.

The next day, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson ordered that Lee be fired from Los Alamos for failing to report contacts with officials from “sensitive” countries (that is, for not having disclosed meeting a Chinese scientist on one of his early trips to China) and for giving deceptive answers (he had earlier failed a polygraph test regarding his possible mishandling of computer files). As if proof of espionage had been predetermined, Richardson told the Washington Post, “We are still trying to pin down exactly when the information was passed.” Meanwhile, with Washington abuzz over Wen Ho Lee and Democrats bracing for yet another potentially embarrassing scandal, Republicans quickly resurrected two bills promoting ballistic missile defense that were voted down last year. Thanks to a reversal of opposition from the Administration and key Democrats, the bills passed overwhelmingly in both the Senate and House.

As cooler heads began to prevail and the evidence against Lee began to appear as thin as it was, a new reason to suspect the scientist emerged, again through an article written by James Risen and Jeff Gerth and again based on illegal leaks about the ongoing investigation. The April 28 article, titled “U.S. Says Suspect Put Code on Bombs in Unsecure Files,” said officials charged that Lee, “who held one of the Government’s highest security clearances, had been transferring enormous files involving millions of lines of secret computer code,” code “used to design nuclear weapons.” The Times reported that “the huge scale of the security breach has shocked some officials.” Republican Senator Richard Shelby was quoted as saying the evidence “confirmed my worst fears.” Bill Richardson, now using Lee’s name as an adjective, justified a decision to temporarily shut down computer systems at Los Alamos in the wake of the disclosures by saying “these Wen Ho Lee transgressions cannot occur anymore.” On May 10 Time echoed this story, reporting that investigators had found that between 1994 and 1995 Lee was “surreptitiously downloading millions of lines of classified code from the lab’s top-secret computer database and storing the codes on the hard drive of his personal office computer,” and that the codes “could have found their way into scores of foreign hands.”

In an interview with The Nation, Edward Curran, a director at the DOE’s office of counterintelligence, admitted that Los Alamos scientists have a record of mishandling classified information. “A lot of this is incidental,” said Curran. “These things often happen when an employee is under pressure because of timeliness or things of that nature. These are issues that can be dealt with through training.” Lee might have an even better excuse than other violators. In 1994 Los Alamos split what had been a single computer system into a secure and an unsecure system. Lee had just received a second, unsecure computer at his workstation, which could easily have led to confusion. As for his downloading of nuclear codes, Lee had been assigned to the lab’s archiving project, and it was his job to download vast amounts of such information. “Of course he moved a lot of files,” says Chris Mechels, a former computer systems manager at Los Alamos who worked with Lee for many years. “Anyone who had a lot of files at that time had to move them around because of the computer changes. This wasn’t anything sinister. What they have done to Wen Ho Lee is an outrage.” None of the articles the New York Times ran on Lee’s downloading of computer files mentioned that it was part of Lee’s job as an archivist.

In truth, mishandling of classified data was happening at other labs across the country as well. An April 20 report by the General Accounting Office on security at US nuclear labs found numerous “problems with information security.” In the case of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the report noted, officials have been “unable to locate or determine the disposition of over 12,000 secret documents,” including ones involving “nuclear weapons design.” The report also noted that “both DOE and laboratory officials showed little concern for the seriousness of the situation and told us that they believed the missing documents were the result of administrative error…and not theft.” Los Alamos was singled out for special criticism by the GAO report, which noted that “issues related to the inadequate separation of classified and unclassified computer networks were identified at Los Alamos in 1988, 1992 and 1994. This problem was only partially corrected in 1997, as classified information was discovered on Los Alamos’ unclassified computer network in 1998.” In other words, mishandling of information of the sort Lee is accused of was occurring as late as 1998, well after the time period when Lee’s alleged transgressions are said to have occurred.

Yet another grave distortion by reporters involves the nature of the codes downloaded by Lee. According to Mechels and Lee’s lawyer, Mark Holscher, the legacy codes Lee downloaded were actually useless without more highly guarded input devices to make them meaningful to a weapons designer. But as late as June 15, the New York Times continued to suggestively report that Lee “had downloaded thousands of secret codes used in the design of the most sophisticated American nuclear weapons.”

The Disappearing Missile

The biggest hole in the case against Lee became apparent with the release of the much-ballyhooed Cox report on May 24: the absence of the crime itself. The Cox committee, a likely source of some of the leaks about the Wen Ho Lee case, was big on sweeping Yellow Peril allegations but short on facts. Among the more fantastical of its claims was that “almost every [Chinese] citizen allowed to go to the United States” as part of an officially sanctioned delegation “likely receives some type of [intelligence] collection requirement” and that the Chinese have 3,000 US-based “front” corporations.

Most telling, after the shadowy figure of Wen Ho Lee provided much of the buildup for the release of the committee’s report, the actual document did not even mention his name–a glaring omission that can only be explained by the committee’s failure to marshal any concrete evidence against him. And while the report claimed that the Chinese stole data on the W-88–the original allegation, made in early March by the New York Times, that led to Lee’s dismissal–its only hard evidence was the highly suspect 1988 document handed over by a Chinese agent and dismissed by most in the intelligence establishment since that time. “The Cox report and all this hoopla have not really disclosed anything we didn’t know before,” says Union of Concerned Scientists senior staff scientist Lizbeth Gronlund. “It would be dangerous to infer that [China] poses some kind of danger it didn’t pose before.”

While there is little evidence to suggest the Chinese have acquired the know-how necessary to construct the W-88, there are solid reasons to believe they haven’t. The most important is that they haven’t built one. China’s aging arsenal of some two dozen single-warhead, liquid-fueled ICBMs (compared with an 8,000-warhead US arsenal) more closely resembles US warhead technology from the fifties than anything designed in recent decades. And China shows no inclination toward allocating the tremendous resources necessary for a Great Leap Forward in missile technology. As Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists publisher Stephen Schwartz has written, China’s entire military budget of $35 billion barely equals what the United States spends annually on nuclear weapons alone. “This is not a question about know-how,” says Gronlund. “People think that if China wanted this technology they would have to steal it. That just isn’t true. They have made a conscious decision not to emulate the United States and Russia and not get into this very expensive nuclear-arms-race position.”

Despite the lack of evidence, Senator Jesse Helms and other staunch hawks continue to use the Wen Ho Lee case and the vague specter of Chinese espionage to impede Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. “Right-wing ideologues have used Wen Ho Lee’s case to create a seeming current of disclosures that paints the Clinton Administration as irresponsible on defense issues,” says Christopher Paine, senior research associate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Now this China issue has fired them up, and we are seeing all this new pressure to disengage in arms control.”

Enter the Dragon

At a recent luncheon in Washington, DC, hosted by the ultraconservative Federalist Society, a member of the audience asked Senator Robert Smith, a presidential aspirant, a question about Bill Lann Lee, acting head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division. Confusing Bill Lann Lee with Wen Ho Lee, Smith went into a frenzy about how the Chinese government was threatening national security and that it was a disgrace that Bill Lann Lee wasn’t being watched more carefully. “He just kept using the name,” a source told the online magazine Slate. “Bill Lann Lee this, Bill Lann Lee that.” Smith capped his misplaced diatribe with the remarkable statement that many think “the bombing in Kosovo was designed to distract the public’s attention from the Bill Lann Lee matter.”

Whatever finally happens to Lee–Wen Ho Lee, that is–it is clear that the rush to judgment by the media and irresponsible officials hinged to a great extent on his ethnicity. One Time story on Lee released soon after the allegations against him first appeared quoted a man who was a neighbor and co-worker of Lee’s. Although the man defended Lee, one of the few quotes used was his comment that Lee had once said he was “the local ‘Dragon.'” The article never quite explained what the neighbor meant or in what context the statement was made.

Paranoid images of Wen Ho Lee, “the Dragon,” both reflect and fuel suspicions against all Chinese in America. Since Lee’s name first surfaced in connection with the espionage case, Chinese lab workers describe an array of humiliating experiences, from teasing and innuendo to suspicions that Asians are being passed over for promotions. “In one case a trainer for a computer security class was introduced with a Chinese surname and there was snickering in the audience,” says Raymond Ng, a mechanical engineer at Sandia National Laboratory. “In other cases people were warned that you should cancel this or that contract because it involves a professor at a Chinese university. These aren’t even classified projects I’m talking about.”

Republicans continue to use the Lee case to hammer home “soft on China” allegations against Democrats in upcoming elections, meshing the details with a vast menagerie of allegations about China from Johnny Chung to more general charges of spying. Many Asians, particularly those working in the weapons labs, fear that Lee is being used to cast a blanket of suspicion over Asians in general, particularly Chinese. One Hong Kong-born Lawrence Livermore lab worker described Lee’s case as a “political football.”

Meanwhile, the witch hunt for spies at the Energy Department appears to be engulfing more than just Asians. As Congress considers stripping the department of responsibility for the weapons labs, Bill Richardson’s quest for scapegoats appears insatiable. He now wants to take the Orwellian step of polygraphing the 5,000 department employees who have access to the most sensitive information on nuclear weapons.

Yet DOE officials say Wen Ho Lee himself will probably never be charged, not with espionage or even the lesser charge of mishandling classified information. Even Christopher Cox, whose House committee almost single-handedly destroyed Wen Ho Lee’s life, has been conspicuously silent about the case. “Two conclusions are not merited,” Cox told the press after his investigation concluded. “One, that he’s innocent, and two, that he’s guilty.”

And that is where Wen Ho Lee will probably remain in the eyes of most Americans: in a kind of netherworld between guilt and innocence. Friends say he now spends most of his time mowing his lawn, fishing and hiding from the press. He and most of his neighbors have disconnected their home phones. Notra Trulock, the Energy Department official who first identified Lee as a “prime suspect,” is doing much better. He just received the department’s Special Act Award, netting him $10,000 for his role in exposing Chinese espionage. Announcing the award, Bill Richardson told the New York Times that Trulock “performed a service to the country that needs to be recognized.”