FBI to Wen Ho Lee: you will get the same treatment as the Rosenbergs

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Tue Aug 29 11:04:15 MDT 2000


New York Times, Aug. 29, 2000

PUBLIC INTERESTS / By GAIL COLLINS

Spies in the Attic

There were very few public enemies as nefarious as the 1999 version of Wen
Ho Lee, the 60-year-old scientist who's accused of downloading the "crown
jewels" of our nuclear secrets with the intent of harming the United States.

The 1999 Lee model, brought to you courtesy of the F.B.I. and the
Department of Energy, lied to his colleagues in order to get mounds of top
secret data out of the secure computers in the Los Alamos labs and put it
on tapes, which are still missing -- out there somewhere. He had
fishy-looking contacts with Chinese scientists when he was abroad, and kept
them secret from American authorities. The director of nuclear weapons at
Los Alamos testified that if the data Dr. Lee downloaded fell into the
wrong hands it could "change the global strategic balance."

Well, you could see why they put the guy in a segregated cell. With
manacles. "For a long time, during his one hour of exercise, he'd have to
try to kick the soccer ball around with leg shackles," said his lawyer.

But after being held for eight months without bail, the biggest danger to
national security since Benedict Arnold is starting to look a tad less
threatening. It turns out:

The data Dr. Lee downloaded was classified as secret only after the fact.
Defense experts -- who seem just as smart as the prosecution experts -- say
virtually all of it is already public knowledge, and what isn't probably
wouldn't pose a threat even if it wound up on Muammar el-Qaddafi's bedside
table.

The lie Dr. Lee told his colleague to get access to the computer existed
only in the mind of an F.B.I. agent, who now says he made "an honest
error." That agent, Robert Messemer, also now acknowledges that Dr. Lee did
file reports of his meetings with Chinese scientists.

Mr. Messemer threatened Dr. Lee with the death penalty during one
interview, pointing out what happened to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg when
they refused to come clean. The agent, unlike Dr. Lee, is still working at
his job.

Nobody is denying that Dr. Lee spent hours and hours downloading one large
mountain of codes. And nobody has a good explanation for why. Did he want a
backup file? A scientific version of the "Collected Works of Wen Ho Lee"?
So far, he hasn't explained himself, although his lawyer says the missing
tapes were all destroyed.

Other Los Alamos employees in the past have been fired or disciplined for
mishandling classified information. But Asian-American civil rights groups
point out that Dr. Lee, an American citizen who was born in Taiwan, is the
first person in the lab's history to be charged in a criminal case, let
alone one carrying a penalty of life in prison.

Whatever Dr. Lee was doing, the government has offered not one iota of
evidence that it was espionage. The prosecution, despite its grim talk of
Chinese spies, claimed in its court papers that Dr. Lee wanted to use the
data to impress potential employers during a job search. We have gone from
worrying about rogue nations to a research lab in Switzerland. And there
seems to be no evidence, by the way, that he ever actually contacted
anybody about a job. Last week a judge in New Mexico ruled that the
government's case "no longer has the requisite clarity and persuasive
character" needed to keep holding Dr. Lee without bail.

Security cases always involve the politics of paranoia. Dr. Lee looks
harmless from here. (How many spies call the computer help line for advice
while they're stealing secrets?) But maybe the F.B.I. can't tell us the
whole story because laying it all out in court would compromise our
security even more. If the prosecution says "hundreds of millions of people
could be killed," who wants to take a risk?

The problem is that right now, an average citizen might conclude that the
multitudinous embarrassments over Los Alamos left federal officials
desperate for somebody to arrest. They might assume that, in a facility
where security was so lax even the vending machine was probably downloading
secrets, the authorities picked on Dr. Lee because of his race. They might
suspect that the F.B.I. ignored evidence that he was telling the truth,
gave false testimony about his past activities in court, and kept a
60-year-old man isolated in a maximum security prison for months in the
hopes of getting him to confess to something that would allow them to save
face.

Paranoia works both ways.

Louis Proyect

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