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Only an Independent Inquiry Can Remove Cloud in Lee Case

October 19, 2000|HENRY S. TANG | Henry S. Tang is chairman of the Committee of 100, a New York-based nonprofit group that seeks to protect the civil rights of Chinese Americans and to promote better understanding between the United States and greater China

Although some brief congressional oversight hearings have been held on the Wen Ho Lee matter, those efforts did not and could not search widely or deeply enough to reach the full truth about the Justice Department's handling (or mishandling) of it. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno should take immediate steps to ensure a more exhaustive review of this case in order to return credibility to the Justice Department and the FBI, just as she did when she appointed former U.S. Sen. John Danforth to settle the controversy over the government's actions in the Branch Davidian tragedy in Waco, Texas.

That is why prominent Asian American groups, including the Organization of Chinese Americans and the National Asian Pacific American Bar Assn., met with Reno earlier this month to press her to appoint an impartial outside investigative panel. In response, Reno offered to release to those groups a classified internal Justice Department report on its handling of the case. Even if she did that (which remains uncertain), such a sanitized report would be inherently suspect as self-serving and lacking in credibility. However sincere her offer may be, it is not a substitute for an in-depth independent inquiry.

In the Waco case, Reno and Congress understood that, even with the congressional hearings that were held, the stain on the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies would not be erased until a respected and impartial authority had reviewed the evidence and issued a public report on the findings, which Danforth did this past July. The Lee case urgently requires a similar airing of the facts.

Reno should establish a small, bipartisan committee with subpoena power and proper security clearances and empower it to take testimony under oath and to examine the documents withheld from the judge in the case. The committee would not have to release those documents to the public but must have access to them.

Only such a special and impartial body, including respected Asian Americans among its members and staff, can restore credibility to the justice system. Many Asian Americans feel only anger and disillusionment about the Lee case and the apparent widespread use of racial profiling in security programs and investigations at those national laboratories.

If Lee can be so grossly humiliated and pilloried, potentially so can thousands of other loyal and dedicated Chinese American scientists--indeed, millions of other patriotic Asian Americans--who may someday be regarded as having "divided loyalties" simply because they or their ancestors came from Asia. The lack of a full explanation in the Lee case leaves these Asian Americans all living and working under an unwarranted cloud of suspicion.

We should not forget that "military necessity" was once used to justify the wholesale and racist incarceration of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 in 1942. It took 46 years before the government made an official apology to those Americans and belatedly acknowledged that there had never been such a danger. Asian Americans--indeed, all Americans--will not wait another half-century to learn that there was also no "national security risk" in Lee's conduct.

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