China Spying Story: All the Excuses Fit to Print 20010206
The words of the FBI inquisitor concerning his treatment of Wen Ho Lee couldn’t have been more chilling: “It seemed like the more times you hit him upside the head, the more truth comes out; it’s like a little kid.”
That totalitarian sentiment was cited uncritically by the New York Times as the summation of the first part of a lengthy examination of the two-year case, in which the newspaper’s reporting played a driving role. Both the government and the Times acted as if Wen Ho Lee was presumed guilty of spying until proved innocent.
The “little kid” in question, is a 61-year-old PhD and a highly regarded ex-Los Alamos scientist. A Taiwanese-born US citizen, Lee never was charged with actually spying or passing secrets to any government, but he was held for nine months under what the judge in the case came to define as “extraordinarily onerous conditions of confinement.”
Those conditions, dictated over the judge’s objections by the Justice Department under its power in such cases, included solitary confinement in a constantly lit cell and full-chain shackles even during brief moments of exercise or meetings with his attorneys. That barbaric treatment ended only after nine months, when Reagan-appointed conservative Chief US District Judge James A. Parker released Lee for time served, severely rebuked the prosecutors for deceiving him with their flimsy case and, in an unprecedented gesture, added “I sincerely apologize to you, Dr. Lee, for the unfair manner you were held in custody by the executive branch.” Lee was exonerated of fifty-eight charges and pleaded guilty to unlawful retention of classified documents.
As the New York Times now concedes, government prosecutors had only the weakest case against Lee but hoped that the threat of life imprisonment and the harsh jail conditions could be used to break the man and obtain a confession to a crime of spying for China, of which there was not a shred of solid evidence.
Although the government case “collapsed of its own light weight,” as the Times put it, employing curious physics, the newspaper has only feebly touched on its own role in this case.
Particularly onerous was the newspaper’s original hoary front-page headline: “Breach at Los Alamos…China Stole Nuclear Secrets for Bombs, U.S. Aides Say.” The story went further: “Working with nuclear secrets stolen from an American government laboratory, China has made a leap in the development of nuclear weapons: the miniaturization of its bombs.”