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Published on Saturday, September 16, 2000 in the San Francisco Examiner
How Can Lee - How Can We - Forget What the Government Did?
by Robert Scheer
ALBUQUERQUE - The slightly built, ever dignified man stood in court Wednesday morning, moments away from being united with the family and colleagues seated behind him. One could only guess at the mixture of relief and anger that must have been coursing through him as the extreme injustice that had been visited upon him was finally coming to an end. For 20 years, Taiwan-born Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee had labored to make his adopted country strong, and instead of the government's gratitude, he endured its wrath.

Until that moment of vindication, when U.S. District Judge James A. Parker peered down from the bench and, after observing that the Justice Department had deceived him into holding Lee in solitary confinement for nine months "under onerous conditions," paused and said sadly, "I sincerely apologize to you, Dr. Lee, for the unfair manner in which you were held in custody by the executive branch." That was followed by a judicial tongue-lashing of the Clinton administration, particularly of Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, that should compel their immediate resignations.

Pointing out that, after failing to provide any substantiation, the government had dropped 39 charges under the Atomic Energy Act, each carrying a life sentence, Parker charged the administration with "having embarrassed our entire nation and each of us who is a citizen in it." One could hardly imagine a more devastating indictment of the government's chicanery in this case, one in which the reputation of a loyal citizen was smeared to the world's media for political convenience.

And still government attorneys, moments after being accused by a federal judge of having shredded the Constitution, rushed out to the courthouse steps to crow to the media that they had been right all along. Have they no shame?

But their oily words could not cover up this stunning reversal. As their case crumbled amid revelations of government lying and racial profiling, the prosecutors could not get around the fact that they had agreed to a plea bargain in which they dropped all but one of the 59 felony counts against Lee. Dismissed were all counts relating to an intent to betray U.S. national security. Instead, Lee walked out a free man, with no probation or other restrictions on his movements. In return for his freedom, Lee admitted to the "retention" of a single tape of computer data--data that all now agree were not classified secret at the time Lee downloaded them--and agreed to tell the government what he knows. As I have been writing for more than a year, that deal could have been made without even arresting Lee, were the government not so intent on making good on its original claim that Lee was a dangerous spy.

Here's a question for the prosecutors who so relentlessly pursued Lee: Will they now go after former CIA Director John Deutch, who, unlike Lee, downloaded clearly marked "top secret" files to his home computer, where they were easily accessible to outside hackers?

Prosecutors can spin all they want to make their "spitting on the sidewalk" conviction sound like enough of a reason to have brought about the hysteria and abuse that they visited upon Lee, but that won't wash. Nor are they--or Reno and Richardson--the only culprits in this sorry case. This all began with wild charges lodged by a congressional committee headed by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) that the highly secret design for the W-88 warhead, the most advanced weapon in the U.S. arsenal, was stolen by the Chinese, claims that led prosecutors straight to Lee--claims that were leaked to the New York Times, which published an article on March 6, 1999, that got Lee fired.

Months later, after the government was forced to admit that Lee was not a suspect in that case, how could it then save face? Easy. Just label what Lee admitted downloading to his computer the "crown jewels" of U.S. weapons computer codes. And again, the media, led by the New York Times, dutifully hyped the charges.

We now know that prosecutors lied to Lee and told him he had failed a polygraph test that he had passed with extremely high marks. By dropping all but one count of their case, prosecutors are admitting that Lee never passed any secrets to anyone or any nation, nor did they have any evidence to indicate that he had an intent to do that.

Yet how can Lee--how can we?--forget the chilling scene of harassment as FBI agents badgered him and, referring to the most infamous spy case of modern U.S. history, went so far as to ask Lee: "Do you know who the Rosenbergs are? . . . The Rosenbergs are the only people that never cooperated with the federal government in an espionage case. You know what happened to them? They electrocuted them, Wen Ho." Remember, this interrogation happened here, in the United States of America, not some totalitarian country. A scientist was terrorized with the threat of a death sentence for espionage--a crime for which he would never be charged.

Lee's response was to place his faith in God to do the right thing: "God will make it his judgment," he said.

Thank goodness it was God and not the administration that he had his faith in, because being the government means never having to say you're sorry.

Robert Scheer, a contributing editor and columnist at the Los Angeles Times, is editor of USC's Online Journalism Review:


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