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Wen Ho Lee Case Discussed at Colloquium

By Matthew Palmer


Even though the investigation of Wen Ho Lee has ended, a recent forum at MIT showed that the many issues surrounding the case of suspected espionage are still as fresh as ever.

The colloquium, titled “National Security, Civil Rights, and Politics: Lessons Learned from the Wen Ho Lee Case,” tried to answer why the investigation was bungled and what can be done in the future.

“I was surprised ... to see a slight man [Lee] be led in shackles as if he’d attack the court,” said Professor of Physics Philip Morrison, a panel member. “I knew then this was no espionage trial -- it was for political purposes.”

Several panel members questioned what motivations the FBI had for charging Lee and what evidence the bureau had gathered against him. Juliette Kayyem, the Executive Director of the Executive Session on Domestic Preparedness at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, said that when the FBI applied for a permit to wiretap Lee based on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the court denied it because of lack of evidence. She said it was the first time she could think of that a FISA request has been rejected.

“The lesson here is that the government can, from time to time, get it very wrong,” said Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy. However, he stressed that the case was not all negative. Several heroes emerged, he said, such as the Internet, which allowed people to share information, Judge Parker, who freed Lee, and Lee’s skilled defense team.

In 1999, nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee was arrested and charged with 59 counts of mishandling sensitive information. He spent 278 days in solitary confinement before being released, with an apology from the presiding judge, last September. The case was an embarrassment for the government, which thought it had found the person leaking nuclear weapons secrets to the Chinese.

Dean for Undergraduate Education Robert P. Redwine said this event may be the first in a series of colloquiums at the Institute.

Overzealous media blamed in case

Several panel members spoke about how they felt Lee was treated unfairly by the media.

“When a case is leaked to the media, all bets are off,” said Washington Post National Security Correspondent Vernon Loeb. He said that without the leaks, Lee may not have been charged in the first place. He called the leaks “highly damaging to Lee and the nation.”

“There was a deep political reason” to publish the Lee story, Morrison said.

“The press, in general, is too cavalier about the presumption of innocence,” Loeb said.

On the other hand, the lack of publicly available information was also criticized. Aftergood called the lack of information “a void at the heart of this case,” but said he expected several reports about the case to be released soon.

Was Lee targeted because of race?

Whether Lee was singled out for prosecution based on his race was another debated issue at the forum.

Co-Director of the Institute for Asian American Studies and Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Boston Paul Watanabe said that the discrimination against Asian-Americans is “nothing new.” He pointed to the larger issue of the government’s and citizens’ treatment of different ethnicities throughout history, including hate crimes, Japanese internment during World War II, and the fundraising scandal during Bill Clinton’s presidency.

“Why was John Deutch pardoned and not Wen Ho Lee?” Watanabe asked to audience applause.

“It was an awful case for Asian-Americans,” Kayyem said, “but it galvanized them and brought them to government circles.”

Case may bring about changes

Now that the Lee case has ended, some of the panel members saw lessons that could be learned from the ordeal.

“The society we have is the result of our efforts,” Aftergood said. The case may bring about some positive changes if people are willing to work for them, he said.

Morrison saw the case as a possible way to ease tensions between different nations, especially the United States and China. “Are we to live in world that is war torn or trying to get over the disasters of the century?” he said.