The Spy Who Wasn't
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."