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My Country Versus
The people v. Wen Ho Lee
By Steven Martinovich
The Wen Ho Lee spy drama will either go down in history as one of the worst abuses of government power or as a failure by U.S. intelligence agencies to stop the transfer of detailed information about America's nuclear weapons to China. The man at the center of that storm has finally weighed in with his side of the story.
While defenders of Lee like to believe that only the most radical critics of China still believe the diminutive nuclear scientist passed classified information off to that country, Lee's actions justifiably raised some red flags. My Country Versus Me: The First-Hand Account by the Los Alamos Scientist Who Was Falsely Accused details the ordeal that the Taiwanese born scientist endured and attempts to make the case that what he did may have been foolish but it wasn't espionage.
"Trouble came roaring into my safe and steady world on December 23, 1998, like the kind of flash rainstorm in the mountains that can turn a placid fishing trip deadly," Lee says of the day that changed his life for good. Upon returning from a trip to Taiwan, Lee was called into an office at Los Alamos for a standard debriefing. What he didn't know at the time was that he was suspected of providing classified information on the W-88 nuclear warhead, the most advanced in America's arsenal.
After repeated questioning by the FBI, Lee quickly found himself at the center of an investigation that could charitably be described as zealous. Initially believing that he was assisting the FBI, Lee soon learned that he was in fact the target. Over the next year, the agency's espionage case fell apart due to a lack of evidence and was replaced by another investigation into Lee's downloading of files into an open system and backed up on a set of tapes.
That second investigation resulted in 59 charges with Lee facing the prospect of a maximum sentence of life imprisonment if convicted. If Lee is to be believed, his placing the files - ones that he argues are hardly the "crown jewels" that the government described them as - on tape was merely showing good sense as he had previously lost files due to operating system changes and changes to code. While leaving the files on an open and less secure system, but one still not accessible to "hackers" as many claimed, was foolish, Lee maintains that there was no intent to spread the information to other nations. Lee eventually pleads guilty to one count and is effectively sentenced to time served - nearly nine months in jail.
Even the most cynical observer would have to admit that Lee's explanation for moving the files is entirely believable. Anyone who's ever lost valuable data would understand why someone would want copies of their work safeguarded. However, equally plausible is the explanation forwarded by people like Dan Stober and Ian Hoffman in their book, A Convenient Spy: Wen Ho Lee and the Politics of Nuclear Espionage. They believe that Lee may have copied the data to create a portfolio in a job hunt that would have stretched to Europe and Asia, a claim that Lee doesn't do much to refute though he does argue repeatedly that he enjoyed his work and his life, hardly the talk of a man looking for a new job.
Even if you weren't inclined to believe Lee's explanation about his activities, you would be hard pressed not to like the man himself. Lee portrays himself as a quiet man whose passions in life consist of his family, his work and fishing. Lee and Zia have done a remarkable job in portraying the tribulation he suffered at the hands of the government and media and have created a plausible defense for his actions. Whether their work will convince those who still believe Lee betrayed his country is another matter but it is interesting to see the parallels between the Lee case and those Arab-Americans unfairly caught up in the law enforcement net immediately after September 11.
In both cases, race was the determining factor why one person got arrested and another didn't. As Lee points out quite rightly, former CIA chief John Deutch wasn't punished for transferring top-secret files to his home computer, one that was accessed by all members of his family and also hooked up to the Internet. Lee, it seems, was only targeted because of his Chinese background and despite the fact that empirical evidence shows Chinese-Americans are no more likely to spy for China than anyone else.
The same apology that Lee received in court after the government's case was revealed for what it was will soon likely be made to many Arab-Americans who were also only arrested because of the way they look. If anything, we can take away from Lee's book a renewed believe that perhaps we should start considering people loyal citizens first. Decades of work on behalf of America and a fierce anti-Communism only bought Wen Ho Lee one thing, hatred, and all because he was born in the wrong country. How many Arab-Americans will say the same thing in two or three years time?
Steve Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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