Public Interests

By Gail Collins

(From "New York Times", August 29, 2000)

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 he "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.

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