If all goes as planned, Los Alamos physicist Wen Ho Lee will plead guilty tomorrow to one felony count of "unlawful gathering of national defense information." He originally had been indicted on 59 charges concerning top-secret national security documents.
It turns out that neither the most nefarious, nor the most innocent, portrait of Lee is accurate. Federal investigators apparent ly have concluded that Lee is not a spy for the People's Republic of China. They also have demonstrated that the 60-year-old Taiwanese American is not the blameless victim of racism, as some supporters have represented him to be.
According to the feds, Lee has admitted to downloading classified data in an attempt to win employment in another country. If true, Lee jeopardized the safety of Americans to facilitate a career move.
Critics are right to fault the federal government for leaking Lee's name to the press and lying in court in a successful attempt to prompt courts to deny Lee bail. In lying about the nature of what Lee downloaded, the FBI showed itself to be more interested in looking as though it were tackling a scary hole in U.S. security than actually doing something about it.
With the focus on Lee, the story on this sorry episode has focused on racism-induced prosecutorial overkill. But there's a more scary story: There have been real breaches in the national security apparatus that make this country more vulnerable to nuclear attack.
Was Lee the victim of racism? One might be quicker to believe activists if they weren't so selective and political in their choices. They blame racism for Lee's prosecution and the Senate investigation into fund-raising irregularities involving the Democrats, Asians and Asian Americans. Yet they have been silent as the Clinton Justice Department has prosecuted many Asian American donors in the 1996 campaign money scandals -- as in Johnny Chung, John Huang, Maria Hsia, Charlie Trie, Pauline Kanchanalak -- but not the white suits to whom these people handed illegal checks.
I'll add, it would behoove Lee's fan club to remember that the racism started with the People's Republic of China. A House investigation headed by GOP Representative Christopher Cox found that China targeted Chinese Americans for spy recruitment. Of course, the Department of Energy would be wrong -- evil, even -- to discriminate against Chinese Americans because of PRC practices, but it also would be foolhardy to ignore that phenomenon when such vital secrets are at stake, just as it would be foolish to ignore information as to how the PRC spies try to enlist men or women.
A congressional committee should look into the racial elements of the case. Oh, and this delicate question: How long did the Justice Department know that Lee was not a spy?
I suspect that investigators overreacted in this case partly to compensate for an earlier under-reaction to the alarming news that lethal technology had leaked abroad. In the mid-1990s, intelligence operatives learned that the Chinese government had information on the W-88 nuclear warhead and began to suspect that someone from Los Alamos had leaked it. The Department of Justice was slow to act, and declined to permit a wiretap on Lee, despite the seriousness of the allegations against him. One wonders if things might have turned out if the FBI had acted faster, and found out what it needed to know earlier.
It turns out the top-secret information could have come from a number of locations. That's good news for the Lee defense team, but not for America. The key to America's most sophisticated nuclear missile is in the hands of a hostile nation.