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.”