A National Embarrassment

The federal government should thoroughly investigate Wen Ho Lee's prison treatment

Civil liberties have always occupied a sacred place in our nation's history. At the same time, they have also been vulnerable to the claims of national security. The recent case of Taiwanese-American nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee is an example of the terrible consequences of the government's zeal for security gone awry.

In 1999, as part of a crackdown on China's alleged theft of U.S. nuclear secrets, the FBI found that Lee, a Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist, had downloaded classified information to his home computer. Lacking any evidence that those secrets were leaked to any foreign country, the FBI charged Lee with 59 counts of mishandling classified information--not quite espionage, but still punishable with a life sentence. Government prosecutors successfully argued that Lee should not be set free on bail before trial, since he represented a "a clear and present danger to the security of the United States." And so Lee spent nine months in solitary confinement, under a light bulb that burned 24 hours a day. During his single daily hour of exercise, he wore shackles on his legs.

Such treatment should normally be reserved for the most dangerous of criminals. But even more stunning is the extent to which the government grossly exaggerated their claims against Lee. Last August a FBI agent admitted that he gave false testimony at Lee's bond hearing. Experts testified that the information Lee downloaded wasn't as sensitive as the government argued. And last week, U.S. District Judge James A. Parker set Lee free after a plea agreement to a single minor charge. After apologizing for the "demeaning, unnecessarily punitive conditions" of Lee's confinement, he sharply admonished the government's handling of the case.


Cases like Lee's are typical when political interests supercede the rule of law. Since 1996, the Clinton administration has been rightly criticized for its lackadaisical manner concerning Chinese gathering of American secrets. The 900-page Cox Report, unanimously approved by the bipartisan House Intelligence Committee, put enormous pressure on the White House to act. When political winds are swirling, the ability to conduct a thorough investigation is, to be sure, difficult. But to single out just one employee and saddle him with the blame is inexcusable. Even more worrisome is suspicion that Lee, a naturalized American citizen, was targeted because of his Taiwanese ancestry.

President Clinton has called for a narrow review of the government's handling of the case, specifically to determine if the government was justified in holding Lee without bail. But it is only appropriate that the entire investigation--including any alleged racial motivations--be subject to wide-ranging and thorough scrutiny. Such a review may have grave implications for the future of civil liberties, not just for Chinese Americans, but for all our nation's citizens.

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