Country Versus Me: The First-Hand Account by the Los Alamos Scientist Who Was
Falsely Accused of Being a Spy , by Wen Ho Lee, with Helen Zia. Hyperion,
332 pages, $23.95.
The title of this gripping memoir of one scientist’s battle with the system gone awry-which included a torturous
nine months in solitary confinement-could also have been called The New York Times Versus Me .
It was the presumed newspaper of record that ran the lurid
headline on March 6, 1999, announcing that a Chinese spy had stolen America’s
most precious nuclear secrets, and it
was The Times again, three days later, that named Wen Ho Lee as that spy
based on unnamed sources. Mr. Lee would never actually be charged with spying,
however, and the slander of treason still sticks to him in freedom.
As Ed Curran, the ex–F.B.I. agent and Department of Energy
officer who for a time led the prosecution of Mr. Lee, put it: “One of the
worst things that happened in this whole affair was the press feeding frenzy about Wen Ho Lee, triggered mainly by the
coverage in The New York Times .”
Mr. Lee and Helen Zia, who collaborated on this understated,
well-documented account, don’t go that far. And certainly The Times , while a major
player, did not author this travesty on its own. But as this book reminds us,
the newspaper brought the often erroneous and almost always unsubstantiated
claims of Congressional and administration officials who found it extremely
useful to single out the Taiwan-born Mr. Lee as a spy for Red China.
The Republican hawks in
Congress, led by Representative Christopher Cox, were determined to prove that
the Clinton administration traded the nation’s nuclear secrets to the Chinese
in return for secret campaign contributions. This patently absurd charge was
advanced because it was a much more meaningful basis for impeaching a President
than his sex life or a dubious decade-old land investment. (It also played to
the racist notion that Asian-Americans are disloyal.)
Whatever the source of its information, The Times failed to do the most elementary checking of the “facts”
they had been fed. For example, The Times
made Mr. Lee’s infrequent trips to China appear suspicious-forming, in fact,
most of the circumstantial case against him. “The suspect had traveled to Hong
Kong without reporting the trip as required,” wrote The Times , mistakenly.
“In Hong Kong … the [F.B.I.] found records showing that the scientist had
obtained $700 from the American Express offices. Investigators suspect that he
used it to buy an airline ticket to Shanghai.”
In fact, Mr. Lee’s
trips-including this one-were authorized by officials of the Los Alamos
National Laboratory, where he worked. “I never made a secret trip to Hong
Kong,” writes Mr. Lee in his book. “My trip to the conference in Hong Kong in
1992 had full LANL and D.O.E. approval. I paid the $700 for my hotel room and a
tour for [my daughter] Alberta with my credit card-there was no secret trip to
Shanghai or anywhere else! New York Times
Pulitzer Prize–winning reporters who wrote these lies could have found the
facts, had they bothered to question any of the information leaked to them by
the lab, the D.O.E. and the F.B.I.” Mr. Lee complains in particular of the
“hatchet job” done by Times reporters
James Risen and Jeff Gerth.
Mr. Lee writes: “I could not understand how such a powerful and
influential newspaper could be so one-sided …. The case against me was built on
misleading sensationalism, and this newspaper let itself become a conduit for
those lies and leaks about me. Maybe that is how they sell newspapers, but it
came at the expense of my family and me. The
New York Times ought to have apologized to us, because their article pushed
Congress, the D.O.E., the F.B.I. and LANL over the edge. According to their
article and the people quoted in it, there was no room for doubt: China got its
nuclear technology by spying on America, the spy was from Los Alamos, and I was
it. Yet not a single one of those assertions has been proven true.”
The initial fear was that data about the W-88, the most advanced
U.S. nuclear warhead, had been pilfered. The scare was apparently based on a
crude design drawing of a missile received from a Chinese double agent. (It
turns out that this drawing had been distributed to a mailing list of thousands
of defense contractors, National Guardsmen and scientists.)
The case against Mr. Lee
began to fall apart when leading weapons scientists-including Harold Agnew, a former Los Alamos director
who ran the lab until the early 1980′s,
when the W-88 was designed-challenged The Times ‘ and the government’s wild claims
about the significance of the codes that Mr. Lee had downloaded to an unsecured
computer. No nation would be likely to use those codes, Mr. Agnew pointed
out: Most of them were antiquated and nearly
worthless without the specific computers and operating systems of the U.S.
But by the time of Mr. Lee’s imprisonment, the government was no
longer talking much about W-88 secrets, the focus of those first Times reports. The Justice Department
actually admitted late in the day that the original charge leveled by The Times
was not even significant to the case the government eventually brought against
Mr. Lee faced 59 counts, including 39 violations of the Atomic
Energy Act, which carried a life sentence (Mr. Lee was the first person ever to
be charged under that act). But he was not charged with espionage or spying-and,
when pressed, the government conceded that it had no evidence he had passed
secret information to any nation.
Unable to make a case against Mr. Lee-and after the glaring
admission in court by Robert Messemer, the lead F.B.I. agent on the case, that
he lied in his testimony concerning Mr. Lee’s conversations with another
scientist-the feds were left with nothing more serious than the mishandling of
coded data, which Mr. Lee had full authority to work on and which was not even
classified as secret when he downloaded it.
In fact, the codes-which The
Times had described as containing the “crown jewels” of the U.S.
nuclear-weapons program-had a lower classification of “Protect as Restricted
Data,” or PARD. Lab regulations did not even require locking PARD data in
safes-reams of PARD printouts were even used by lab scientists as doorstops-and
it could legally be sent to colleagues through the mail.
Mr. Lee writes, ” Newsweek magazine described my situation
accurately: ‘Though the case against Mr. Lee may be crumbling, the Feds appear
determined to get him on something. “I think the case will just linger and keep
spiraling down,” says one top F.B.I. official. “Then we’ll find that he spit on
the sidewalk, and we’ll charge him with that.”‘” The government attempted to
squeeze Mr. Lee into some sort of confession by subjecting him to truly abysmal
jail conditions-an abuse denounced by virtually every major scientific
organization as well as Amnesty International.
In the end, the quite frail 60-year-old Mr. Lee, a colon-cancer
survivor, was willing to accept a plea bargain on the most minor charge leveled
against him-improperly handling secret data-and went home free for time served.
After evaluating the government’s case, most of it still secret,
Judge James Parker (a conservative Reagan appointee) took the unprecedented
step of apologizing to Mr. Lee for the way he’d been treated. “What was the
government’s motive,” Judge Parker asked, “in insisting on your being jailed
pretrial under extraordinarily onerous conditions of confinement, when the
Executive Branch agrees that you may be set free essentially unrestricted?”
For its part, The Times
ran lengthy re-evaluations of its coverage on both its news and editorial
pages, and yet never came close to an apology (in large measure, the same
people who had written and edited the original stories produced the evaluation
of the paper’s coverage). Evidently, being an investigative reporter for The Times means never having to say
Robert Scheer, a contributing editor for The Nation ,
is a syndicated columnist based at the Los Angeles Times and has written over 20 columns on the Wen
Ho Lee case.
Follow Robert Scheer via RSS.