Cho, J. (2000). After the Fire: The Lingering Aftershocks of the Wen Ho Lee Investigation. A. Magazine on-line.
(Download After the Fire as a PDF)
Wen Ho Lee, a 60-year-old nuclear physicist who has worked for Los Alamos National Laboratory
for over twenty years is now sitting in a New Mexico prison fighting for his life.
Lee immigrated to the United States in 1965. He graduated from Texas A&M University
with a master’s degree, made America his home, and became a citizen. He accepted a position at Los Alamos Laboratory in 1978, and moved his family to New Mexico. Sylvia, his wife, also found work at the laboratory as a data analyst. They raised two successful children.
The Lees have opened their home to their friends and usually leave their door unlocked, with sleeping bags in the closet, welcoming friends to spend the night if they need to travel long distance. It would seem like the Lees have achieved the American dream. However, ever since the arrest of Wen Ho Lee on December 10, 1999, "The Lees have cringed at the flood of racist stereotypes that have been cast at their father by politicians and political cartoonists. They have been beset by reporters, who’ve set up surveillance camps outside their suburban home. And, worst of all, they have watched as whispers insinuating Lee’s guilt have built in volume, becoming screams calling for his head, all without benefit of trial, evidence or conviction."
The town of Los Alamos has a population of 18,344 and sits at the top of a mesa, at the base of the Pajarito Mountains:
At first glance, downtown Los Alamos appears to be like any other American small town. But behind its facade of stores, restaurants and welcoming domiciles is an intellectual powerhouse built upon a massive foundation of secrecy and privacy. The Los Alamos National Laboratory occupies 43 of the 110 square miles that constitute Los Alamos County. While the laboratory can be seen from downtown Los Alamos, many of the facilities are off limits to public viewers or visitors, their access ways marked with stark yellow signs that say ‘vehicles traveling on these roads are subject to search.’ The reason for Los Alamos’ veil of security is its inhabitants, who number among them an extraordinary number of Ph.Ds, and who—almost to a head—work for the legendary laboratory.
The Los Alamos Laboratory was one of the key research centers working on the Manhattan Project, which gave birth to Fat Man and Little Boy
, the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the 1940’s.
This event led up to Wen Ho Lee’s arrest and the status of his trial date:
Wen Ho Lee worked in the laboratory’s ‘Division X,’ a highly classified area devoted directly to the design of nuclear weapons. He was a critical member of the team responsible for the design of the W-88 warhead—America’s most advanced nuclear device.
In 1995, a U.S. intelligence report frighteningly revealed that China possessed a nuclear device similar to the W-88. This sparked a thorough, three-year FBI investigation to determine if America’s nuclear secrets had been leaked. Lee was one of five scientists investigated based on his record of outside contacts. The FBI’s hunt narrowed on Lee after he apparently failed a polygraph test (which, due to their unreliability, are not admissible in a court of law). The fact that Lee has, in fact, passed at least one polygraph test has received little media coverage.
Ultimately, the FBI charged Lee with downloading classified computer codes that documented the U.S. nuclear weapons program onto ten high-volume tapes. Three have been recovered; seven remain missing. (Lee’s legal team maintains that the seven have been destroyed.)
Even before the first piece of evidence has been presented against him in a court of law, Wen Ho Lee lives the life of a tried and convicted man. Since his arrest, Lee has spent his 60th birthday and Christmas in a New Mexico jail cell. His defense team hoped to win a bail appeal to grant him release in time for New Year’s, but the appeal was summarily denied. The judge also refused his lawyers’ request for an extremely restrictive house arrest for Lee, because he was deemed a flight risk and a threat to national security. Lee rang in the new millennium alone in his jail cell, under the less than celebratory supervision of the FBI. (During the appeal hearing, the judge did suggest that the FBI ease some restrictions on Lee’s incarceration. As of press date, no concrete plans existed for such changes.)
As a prisoner, Lee has been cut off from his family and the world. He is allowed one hour per week with his family, and even then, his conversations must be spoken in English, with an FBI agent present in the room. He is not allowed to place collect calls to his family, and he is barred from communicating with third parties other than his lawyer.
To date, there is no evidence of Lee actually selling warhead secrets to the Chinese. The fact that Lee has been a U.S. citizen for over 25 years holds no value.
This automatic assumption of alienness has persisted since the beginning of Asian immigration to the United States. According to community activists and leaders, "permanent foreigner" stereotyping affects every Asian American, reviving the age-old stigma of "Yellow Peril." Daphne Kwok, executive director of the Organization of Chinese Americans, said in a statement for a Department of Energy
briefing that the result is a
broad paintbrushing of Asian Pacific Americans as ‘foreigners,’ ‘spies,’ ‘disloyal America’...We seem to be the [root of the] problem of the flawed campaign fundraising system, the lax security at national labs, the draining of the welfare system, and the overpopulation of this country due to U.S. immigration policies.
Some think Lee is being singled out because of his race and ethnicity.
Unable to find enough evidence to charge Lee with espionage, the federal indictment focuses on the illegal downloading of classified files and on the seven missing data tapes. The indictment does not charge Lee with the intent to distribute this information, and Lee’s guilt even on these counts is yet to be proven. However, cases in which non-Asians have mishandled classified information have gone uninvestigated and led to no criminal charges. Most recently, John Deutch, former director of the CIA, was discovered to have routinely transferred classified documents to his home computer
. Deutch lost his security clearances, but was not prosecuted. There were other instances within the company where high security information has been sent to outsiders via the internet, so this sort of activity is not uncommon.
Englehardt’s (who worked at Los Alamos until 1986) allegation is supported by a scathing report of the five Department of Energy weapons laboratories, including Los Alamos, from the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. The report depicts gross mismanagement of classified information through out all of the laboratories, including the sending of classified information to outsiders via the Internet, and finding classified documents in the public library of one laboratory. The report also confirms that, over the past decade, W-99 warhead data—information that investigators have intimated Wen Ho Lee passed on to China—could have been leaked by private contractors, the Department of Defense, and even other parts of the Department of Energy, all of whom were privy to information. Ultimately, even U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno was led to suggest in a press conference that the FBI focused too quickly on Lee.
Lee’s arrest has not only affected his and his family’s lives, but also other Chinese Americans. In October, Kalina Wong, a scientist at Lawrence Livermore (one of the four major U.S. nuclear weapons research centers), testified to the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus that, before Lee was arrested, she was invited by the lab to join a team on a China-based project. After questions rose around Lee, she says the invitation was summarily rescinded, without explanation. Since then, Wong and eight other Asian American employees of the lab have filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing against the University of California
, which manages Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos, claiming years of discrimination in pay and promotion. As of January, lawyers were drafting a class-action suit on behalf of 300 others:
Wen Ho Lee remains in jail, awaiting his day in court. His family tries to keep their lives together, despite mounting financial and emotional distress. At the research center where Lee worked, and others like it, Asian Americans wonder whether they, too, might someday find themselves caught in a sudden and devastating storm.
Wen Ho Lee was released from prison in 2000 after pleading guilty to one of 59 federal counts held against him and explaining his downloading of classified materials. He served nine months in prison.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
- Would you say that Wen Ho Lee was singled out because of his race and ethnicity? Why or why not?
- Have you had similar experiences? If you have, how did you resolve the discrimination?
- How does it make you feel that Wen Ho Lee is still in prison and has not had a fair trial? What if you were in his shoes? What would you have done differently?
- What are some practical ways you and your community can help Lee’s family and people in similar situations?
- This article strongly indicates that there is racism against Chinese Americans.
- This article does not offer a solution to the problem of racism against Chinese Americans. It is up to the individual to decipher what actions are appropriate against racism and how to work towards reconciliation with those who entertain stereotypical views of Chinese Americans.
Marianne Lin cCYS