Wen Ho Lee and the Los Alamos Witch Hunt

Revolutionary Worker #1070, September 17, 2000

Over the last year newspapers have been full of reports of the "China Spy Scandal." In April 1999, Dr. Wen Ho Lee, a 60-year-old scientist, was fired from his job at the government’s Los Alamos Lab where he had worked for 19 years. In December, Wen Ho Lee was charged with 59 counts of violation of the Atomic Energy Act and the Foreign Espionage Act. 

For nine months, Lee was held in prison under extremely harsh conditions of solitary confinement--without bail, facing a possible life sentence. Then on September 13, federal authorities suddenly released Lee from prison and announced a plea-bargaining agreement. A federal judge "apologized" to Lee and said this had been a case of "abuse of power" by administration officials.

Lee’s release has produced great embarrassment in the government -- especially the FBI and Justice Department. Prosecutors had argued against releasing Wen Ho Lee on bail while he waited for a November trial -- saying they had massive evidence against him and that releasing him (or even allowing him to speak to other prisoners) was a major risk to national security.

Wen Ho Lee was released "for time served," after pleading guilty to only one of the 59 charges he faced – a single charge of mishandling nuclear secrets. It is now clear that the government agents had persecuted this man with no solid evidence -- in what amounts to a counter-espionage case of "racial profiling."

The government's case against him had collapsed step by step. Most recently, a lead FBI investigator in Lee’s case was forced to admit in court that he had given inaccurate testimony during Lee’s bail hearing last December. The agent’s lies falsely painted Lee as highly deceptive and were a key factor in denying bail. Following the revelations, the judge in the case ordered that Lee be released from jail on $1 million bail. However the government appealed the decision and, on September 1, a federal appeals court blocked Lee’s release.

The persecution of Wen Ho Lee has given rise to outrage and resistance from Asian-Americans, scientists, civil libertarians and others. Lee’s supporters claim that he is being singled out because he is Chinese-American, that he has been unfairly tried in the media, that the government has no evidence against him and that similar incidents of mishandling classified material have not been prosecuted.

From "Model Minority"
to Maximum Security

In the 1960s and ’70s, the U.S. sought scientists from around the world, as political and military competition escalated with the Soviet Union. Wen Ho Lee’s background is typical of many scientists who immigrated to the U.S. from China and other countries in Asia during this time.

Lee earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Taiwan’s Cheng Kung University in 1963. Two years later he secured a student visa to the U.S. He attended Texas A&M University where he received a doctorate in mechanical engineering in 1969.

Lee became a U.S. citizen in 1974 and in 1980 began working at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), one of three nuclear weapons labs run by the U.S. government. Lee’s work involved writing computer codes that model the effects of shockwaves from nuclear explosions. These models were used by U.S. weapon designers.

For over two decades, Wen Ho Lee helped the U.S. government develop technology used to create weapons of mass destruction. He led a comfortable middle class life—a so-called "model minority" with a nice house, wife and kids. Then in 1995, despite his many years of shameful service to U.S. imperialism, Wen Ho Lee became the principal suspect in an investigation into the loss of U.S. nuclear missile technology.

In the early 1990s China exploded its first miniaturized nuclear warhead and the U.S. suspected that the design was copied from a U.S. warhead known as the W-88.

There was almost no evidence against Lee. The government claims that Lee’s trips to China in 1986 and 1988 were suspicious. But the U.S. Department of Energy and LANL approved these trips, which were work-related. And during the 1986 trip, Wen Ho Lee’s wife, Cynthia Lee, was also acting as a faithful servant for U.S. imperialism—as an informant for the FBI, spying on Chinese scientists.

Wen Ho Lee did have access to the W-88 documents, but so did thousands of people throughout the government—one document containing a detailed description of the W-88 had a distribution of 548 mailing addresses. And it is now admitted that the W-88 design documents which ended up in China’s possession came from a later version than the one which Wen Ho Lee had access to at Los Alamos.

The government alleges that the information that Lee downloaded was crucial top secret information of the U.S. weapons programs. But this is disputed by Lee's attorneys and supporters, who argue that much of what Lee downloaded was either already available publicly, was of little or no use to other countries, and was not even given a secret clearance until after Lee was fired last year.

Senior U.S. officials now say openly that Lee was targeted because he was Chinese. Robert Vrooman, former head of counterintelligence at LANL, who was in charge of the investigation against Lee, said, "Mr. Lee’s ethnicity was a major factor." Charles Washington, former head of the Department of Energy’s counterintelligence branch, said, "I have concluded that if Dr. Lee had not been initially targeted because of his race he may very well have been treated administratively like others who allegedly mishandled classified information."

Political Infighting and
Ethnic Scapegoating

In April 1998, political infighting between the Democrats and Republicans erupted that would have important ramifications for the investigation at Los Alamos. Republicans charged that the Clinton administration gave sensitive satellite information to China in exchange for campaign contributions. The House of Representatives created a special committee headed by California Republican Congressman Christopher Cox to look into the allegations. The Cox Committee became a political battleground between the Democrats and the Republicans. The Republicans sought to portray the Clinton administration as "soft on China" and "loose on national defense."

Despite differences on China policy, both the Republicans and the Democrats have had common ground in coming down hard on Wen Ho Lee—using him as a scapegoat for their political objectives. Republicans have tried to use him as a symbol of the Clinton administration’s supposed "softness on China," while the administration has wanted to use him as an example to show they are tough.

Although the Cox Committee was called to investigate satellite technology, not nuclear weapons, it ended up having two days of secret hearings on the supposed atomic espionage. Before the Cox report was even released the New York Times published a major story, based on leaks from the investigation, identifying Wen Ho Lee as the prime suspect in passing along top-secret information to the Chinese government.

The same day as the Times story was published, the FBI interrogated Lee. They lied to him, saying that he had failed lie detector tests which he had actually passed. And they "reminded him" of what happened to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg — who were executed in 1953 by the U.S. government after being accused of giving U.S. atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The day after Lee’s interrogation by the FBI, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson ordered that Lee be fired from Los Alamos.

Meanwhile, the Washington establishment and the media went into a frenzy with the "Wen Ho Lee Scandal." There was a strong anti-Asian racism in the way that the mainstream media covered the story, always referring to Wen Ho Lee’s Chinese ethnicity, as if that alone was evidence of his guilt.

After Wen Ho Lee was fired, an FBI investigation found that Lee had downloaded files from his secure computer onto computer tapes. The media implied that the downloading of the files was somehow linked to the spying allegations. In fact, the downloading of the files, which occurred in 1994 and 1995, could not have been linked to the alleged theft of the
W-88 technology, which happened in 1988 or earlier. On December 10, 1999 Lee was arrested and charged with downloading classified information.

It is not clear exactly why Lee downloaded the files. His supporters say the kind of technical violations Lee is accused of are commonly committed by many others who have access to such files, and that Lee is being targeted and used as a scapegoat because he is Chinese.

In fact, Lee was assigned to the lab’s archiving project and it was his job to download vast amounts of information. A former computer systems manager at Los Alamos who worked with Lee for many years told The Nation, "Of course he moved a lot of files. This wasn’t anything sinister. What they have done to Wen Ho Lee is an outrage." A Director of Intelligence at the Department of Energy admitted, in an interview with The Nation, that violations of security protocols like Lee’s downloading were commonplace at Los Alamos. And former CIA Director John Deutch kept important classified information on his home computer, a violation very much like that allegedly committed by Wen Ho Lee.

Shackled in Prison

Since his arrest on December 10, 1999, Wen Ho Lee has been held without bail at a federal prison in New Mexico. Under special security measures he is being held in isolation, he is being denied visitors and is only allowed one hour-long meeting per week with family members. For months he was not even allowed a daily one-hour outdoor break.

Alberta Lee, Wen Ho Lee’s daughter, described what it is like to visit her father in prison. "When he’s brought in to see me he’s shackled, with handcuffs linked to a chain around his waist. His ankles are chained together. He’s being treated like an animal. I’ve never seen anything like this before. He can’t walk because his ankles are handcuffed, so he has to creep in. We meet in a room that’s partitioned by glass and there’s an intercom next to the glass where we have to press a button to speak to him…"

Amnesty International has protested the conditions of Wen Ho Lee’s incarceration. "Amnesty International believes that the overall conditions under which Dr. Lee is detained contravene international standards," the organization wrote in a letter to the U.S. government.

Lee’s family has also come under intense government surveillance. "I don’t know if any of you have seen the movie Enemy of the State—it’s a Will Smith movie where everything is tapped—but that’s what the last year has been like for me," Alberta Lee recently said. She described how all communications with her father are monitored and how she cannot even mention anyone’s name over the telephone fearing they will come under government investigation.

Global Backdrop

Behind the persecution of Wen Ho Lee are U.S. concerns about the stability of Asia and the role of China. In the current international order the countries on the Pacific Rim of Asia—where workers slave in sweatshops for a few cents per hour— have become a center of global manufacturing, producing everything from computer components to tennis shoes. China alone receives fully one-third of all manufacturing capital inflows into the Third World. There are over 280,000 foreign-owned enterprises in China. More than half of the Fortune 500 companies have operations in China and many smaller U.S. companies also do business there.

Before 1949 China was dominated, exploited and ravaged by countries like the U.S. and Britain. But the revolution led by Mao liberated China, kicked foreign powers out and embarked on the road of socialism. For over 25 years the Chinese people built a new, revolutionary society aimed at getting rid of all oppression. Then, in 1976, a reactionary coup, led by Deng Xiaoping, overthrew proletarian rule in China and restored capitalism—and welcomed back imperialism. Now China has once again fallen under the domination of foreign powers.

The U.S. counts on China to play a stabilizing role in the region. However they are concerned that China, which, although dependent on the U.S., also has its own regional capitalist ambitions, will take actions that could destabilize the region and send shockwaves through the global economy. Of particular concern to the U.S. are China’s nuclear weapons. A recent article in Foreign Affairs argued, "Over the next decade it will likely be China, not Russia or any rogue, whose nuclear weapons will concern America most."

U.S. nukes back up a global order of gross inequality—where half the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day and 40,000 children die every day from hunger and preventable diseases. As the top imperialist exploiter in the world, the U.S. threatens the world with its massive stockpile of nuclear bombs—while hypocritically squealing about nuclear weapons in other countries. China only has 20 nuclear missiles capable of reaching the U.S.—while a single U.S. Trident submarine carries 192 nuclear warheads.

In this global context the U.S. is using the case of Wen Ho Lee to clamp down on security in U.S. universities and society and to send a message to a broad strata of Asian and Asian American scientists and other professionals. UC Berkeley Ethnic Studies Professor Ling-Chi Wang described the impact of the Wen Ho Lee case for Asian Americans, "Overnight all Chinese American scientists were denaturalized and became foreigners, rendering Chinese Americans synonymous with espionage and treason."

This is not the first time anti-Asian racism has reflected and served U.S. policy toward countries in Asia. In WW2, when the U.S. was at war with Japan, 120,000 Japanese Americans were put in concentration camps. During the Korean War, many foreign-born scientists, especially those from China, came under government suspicion. In the most famous case, Tsien Hsue-Shen, a Chinese-born scientist who was director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Cal Tech, was accused of being a Chinese spy. Although charges against Tsien were never proven he was placed under house arrest for five years and was deported to China—where he became a pioneer in developing the missile program for socialist China.

Inside the Weapons Labs

In the wake of the firing and arrest of Wen Ho Lee the anti-Asian atmosphere inside at the U.S.’s nuclear weapons labs has intensified and many Asian and Asian American scientists have spoken out. One woman worker at the government’s Lawrence Livermore Lab described how she had been subjected to lower pay, racially insensitive comments from officials, removal from sensitive projects, and unexplained erosion of authority. "The whole Chinese spy allegation has set us back further. It seems that now there is license to do as was done to me because we Asians are potential spies."

A climate researcher at LANL told the New York Times, "Before the Wen Ho Lee case the chances of getting promoted were very low, but now it’s getting worse." Another researcher, an engineer from Hong Kong told the Times, "They associate foreign-born with being a threat."

The number of Asian applicants at LANL has fallen dramatically since the arrest of Wen Ho Lee. There were only three Asian applicants in the first half of 2000 compared to an average of 28 in 1998 and 1999.

Security Clampdown

The government has also instituted some extreme new security measures. A new ban was recently passed that prevents visitors from 26 countries from visiting any of the U.S. government’s three weapons labs. Previously foreign visitors were only barred from classified areas of the labs. Now, scientists from these countries cannot even visit sections of the labs that are not engaged in any military-related research.

The Department of Energy has proposed giving lie detector tests to the 5,000 Department employees who have access to sensitive information.

New government restrictions have also been instituted at all universities. These regulations deny foreign students and researchers access to certain kinds of technology and data. Under the regulations a Chinese student at Stanford was barred from working on a spacecraft control algorithm that he designed.

More than half of all doctoral students in science and engineering at U.S. universities are from other countries. And foreign students are being targeted for scrutiny and suspicion by the governmnet. In a report issued in June of this year the National Commission on Terrorism called, among other things, for setting up a national database to monitor over 500,000 foreign students in the U.S. The report calls for tracking academic information like the students’ majors.

"Don’t Trust the Government"

In response to the outrageous charges against Wen Ho Lee, a significant movement has been developing across the U.S. to challenge his imprisonment and to combat the racial profiling of Asian Americans. There has also been significant support from scientists and civil libertarians.

After Lee’s arrest a statement was published by 14 leading Asian Pacific American organizations. The statement said that the groups "were deeply concerned about the Justice Department’s manner in investigating and prosecuting Dr. Wen Ho Lee…and the negative effects of this case upon the Asian Pacific American community in the United States." Many of the most prominent scientific organizations in the U.S. have also written letters and statements denouncing the government’s treatment of Wen Ho Lee and the implications of the case for the scientific community.

There have also been rallies in a number of cities. At a rally in Silicon Valley on May 31 supporters wore signs on their backs that said "I am Asian American. Arrest me too."

At a rally for her father in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Alberta Lee told the crowd, "I used to trust the government but not anymore! Know your rights. Don’t trust the government."

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