The man targeted by the FBI for more than three years as the prime suspect in an alleged nuclear espionage case has now been indicted and arrested, though not for spying. Scientist Wen Ho Lee, who until earlier this year worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, has been charged with mishandling government secrets by copying and downloading a large and comprehensive volume of classified data.
If convicted, Lee could face life in prison. He acknowledges that he transferred information from secret files. Lacking in the government's 59-count indictment is any claim that he passed any of that material to China or any other country. Even so, Lee was denied bail.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday December 18, 1999 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 9 Editorial Writers Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Wen Ho Lee--A Dec. 14 editorial mistakenly stated that a House select committee report did not note that China was able to acquire some nuclear weapons information from unclassified sources. The report did note that in several places.
Meanwhile, the FBI has told Congress it is refocusing its investigation, with particular attention to the hundreds of other people in the various national laboratories, the Energy Department, which oversees the labs, and private industry and the military who had access to the information China is suspected of having acquired. That action implicitly acknowledges that the FBI's single-minded and extended pursuit of Lee, to the exclusion of other potential suspects, may well have put the government years behind in its effort to detect and halt nuclear espionage.
There should be no doubt that China has worked assiduously to obtain information about American nuclear weapons and delivery systems, as well as other technological secrets. Neither is there any question that--contrary to what a special House committee claimed earlier this year--much of this data was openly available, from published sources, through scientific conferences and the like, without need for secret agents.
Whatever the extent of actual espionage, the investigations conducted by the Energy Department and the FBI are now known to have been astonishingly inept, incomplete and--in their premature public identification of Wen Ho Lee as the prime suspect--grossly prejudicial. Asian American organizations and others are asserting that Lee, a Taiwanese who is a naturalized American, is a victim of political animosity toward China and, ultimately, of racial prejudice. That is a disturbing allegation. But given the maladroit way this espionage investigation has been handled, it's not one that can be casually dismissed.