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A TALE OF ESPIONAGE OR A GOVERNMENT WITCH HUNT?:
A Review of Wen Ho Lee's My Country Versus Me


By MARK S. ZAID


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Friday, Feb. 22, 2002

Wen Ho Lee with Helen Zia, My Country Versus Me (Hyperion, 2002)

If you are interested in espionage, nuclear weapons, China or governmental abuse, or all of the above wrapped up together, then My Country Versus Me may be the book for you. The book sets forth the firsthand account of Dr. Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese American who was publicly vilified amidst accusations of espionage while employed at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

In its press release, the publisher asserts the book "answers every question anyone would ever have for Dr. Lee." That's far from true.

The Accusation Against Dr. Lee, and Its Resolution

Dr. Lee was initially accused of - though never actually charged with - providing nuclear weapon design information concerning the W-88 warhead to the Chinese government. Much of the later controversy centered around how Dr. Lee disposed of computer disks onto which he had downloaded nuclear weapons design codes. (In the book, Dr. Lee claims he destroyed all copies).

Dr. Lee ultimately pled guilty on September 13, 2000 to one felony count (out of fifty-nine) of mishandling sensitive information. He was sentenced to 278 days, the time he had already been imprisoned.

Amazingly, the same judge who had confined Dr. Lee to pre-trial detention, based on the government's representations at the time, issued an astounding apology at sentencing. U.S. District Judge James Parker stated, "I might say that I am also sad and troubled because I do not know the real reasons why the Executive Branch has done all of this. We will not learn why, because the plea agreement shields the Executive Branch from disclosing a lot of information that it was under order to produce that might have supplied the answer.... I sincerely apologize to you, Dr. Lee, for the unfair manner you were held in custody by the Executive Branch."

Shameful Conduct By Our Government

In the book, Dr. Lee recounts the experiences he suffered at the hands of those he describes as overzealous (if not biased) prosecutors and inept government agents. His stories will likely instill in the reader a deep sense of anger and shame.

Dr. Lee tells of the FBI's around-the-clock surveillance, and its interviews with every neighbor, friend or co-worker with whom he struck up even a brief conversation. He also asserts that the government spread misstatements about him, and confined him for nine months under terrible jail conditions (including a possible attempt to poison him). Taken as a whole, the account sends chills up one's spine.

The Civil Suits By and Against Dr. Lee

While the accusations against Dr. Lee have been resolved in the criminal courts, the saga continues through civil lawsuits. Several such suits remain pending, and discovery in these actions will likely reveal additional information regarding the genesis and handling of the government's case.

In another suit, Dr. Lee found himself defending claims of defamation filed against him and two former government officials by Notra Trulock, the Energy Department's former security chief. Trulock, on whom Dr. Lee places much of the blame for the actions taken against him, alleged that he was defamed by the suggestion that race was a factor prompting Dr. Lee's prosecution.

Trulock's lawsuit resulted in the release of previously sealed information. However, it was recently dismissed based upon the government's assertion of the State Secrets privilege.

The Broader Implications of Dr. Lee's Case

Interestingly, the publication of Dr. Lee's book was delayed four months because of concerns that it might contain classified information. Over the years, Dr. Lee had been required to sign secrecy agreements which obligated him to submit to the government, prior to publication (as well as sharing with any non-authorized person, such as his co-author), all writings relating to his work at Los Alamos. Dr. Lee failed to do this in a timely fashion, and the delay resulted.

Although it appears that no classified information was found within Dr. Lee's manuscript when the government reviewed it, Dr. Lee's case seems to have had wide-ranging implications.

For instance, in 1999, Danny Stillman, a former Los Alamos intelligence chief and colleague of Dr. Lee's, submitted a manuscript detailing nine visits to China's nuclear weapons plants and testing sites. The book recounts Stillman's experiences, including statements made by Chinese scientists and officials refuting the allegations against Dr. Lee.

At the height of Dr. Lee's prosecution, the government refused to allow Stillman's book to be published, citing secrecy concerns. The filing of a June 2001 lawsuit (in which I am the attorney representing Stillman) prompted the government's declassification of approximately 80% of the manuscript. However, the litigation continues.

A Simple, Quick Read

My Country Versus Me offers a simple, quick read. Somewhat annoyingly, the book often repeats itself, and contains no index. Nevertheless, its message is quite powerful.

The abuse is compounded when one compares the government's laxer treatment of other contemporaneous high-profile cases in which suspects were thought to have mishandled classified information. Former CIA Director John Deutch, for instance, was pardoned by President Clinton despite the allegations against him and an impending plea bargain.

For Chinese-Americans, many of whom have significantly contributed to the development of America's nuclear weapons program, Dr. Lee's case is a painful reminder of the misconduct levied upon many innocent Japanese-Americans in World War II, and other innocent Americans during the McCarthy rages in the 1950s.

As with the Rosenbergs, who were executed in 1953 for spying for the Soviets and whose fate the FBI threatened Dr. Lee, no doubt the passage of time will give rise to a continuing debate about whether Dr. Lee was truly as innocent as he claims, or whether our government was simply out of control, hunting for a spy who may never have existed.


Mark S. Zaid is a Washington, D.C. attorney who is Of Counsel to the law firm of Lobel, Novins & Lamont. Mr. Zaid specializes in national security, FOIA and First and Fifth Amendment cases. He is also the Executive Director of The James Madison Project (www.jamesmadisonproject.org), a non-profit organization that seeks to reduce secrecy and promote government accountability.

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