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More Than Wen Ho Lee Was Wronged

September 03, 2000|VICTOR HWANG | Victor Hwang is the managing attorney of the Asian Law Caucus, the nation's oldest civil rights law firm serving the Asian Pacific American community. The caucus has filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Wen Ho Lee, alleging selective prosecution

Why are so many Asian Pacific Americans losing sleep over the case of Wen Ho Lee? In part it's because this 60-year-old American scientist has been held without bail--a situation that the government continues to drag out--in solitary confinement for nine months without any evidence that he is guilty of espionage. Maybe it's the fact that FBI agents have recanted false testimony against him in court, lied to him in interrogations, threatened him with the electric chair and then written internal memo after memo indicating that they didn't think Lee to be a spy. Or perhaps it's because the government classified all the information (widely available in scientific journals and on the Internet) that Lee allegedly downloaded as secret only after his arrest.

But perhaps the anger of the community, civil rights groups and scientific academies goes well beyond the simple injustices committed against a single individual to the underlying racist and unconstitutional policies and practices that this case reveals. Aside from the McCarthyist aspects of Lee's prosecution, what is most disturbing is the larger question of the U.S. government's stated and unabashed policy of targeting certain citizenry for investigation based solely on their race or ethnicity.

In documents filed with the court and in public statements to the press, U.S. intelligence agents and officials repeatedly have defended the philosophy and illogic of "Kindred Spirit," as they named their espionage investigation: that it is an acceptable practice for the U.S. government to target American citizens of Chinese ethnicity based wholly on the premise that China may target Chinese Americans to obtain classified information. According to some in the intelligence community, China would go so far as to turn down free offers of nuclear secrets from individuals of other ethnicities, preferring to patiently gather their information like grains of sand only from Chinese Americans, based on some notion of shared loyalties through common ancestry.

This form of law enforcement, whereby loyal American citizens can be openly subjected to racial profiling based on the suspected practices of foreign nations, runs counter to the basic constitutional guarantees of due process, equal protection and the presumption of innocence. Taken to its illogical extreme, the U.S. presumably would be justified in discriminating against Jews depending on the practices of the Israeli government, blacks could be treated differently depending on political events in Africa or suspicion could be widely cast on white Americans based on the statements of European officials.

As an aside, it must be noted that Lee was not even born in China, but in Taiwan, which has been under constant military alert against China for the past half-century.

"Kindred Spirit" is offensive to the American people and to the spirit of the Constitution in that it treats Asian Pacific Americans as perpetual foreigners in the land in which they were born or in which they have taken an oath to defend.

The Asian Pacific American community sees Wen Ho Lee's prosecution as a dangerous sequel to the World War II internment of 120,000 loyal Americans of Japanese descent, despite internal government reports indicating that there was no evidence of espionage or disloyalty to the United States. It took 40 years for the government to acknowledge this wrong, to issue an apology and to attempt to make amends. We would hope that the nation has learned from our grievous errors. The most dangerous threat to the security and well-being of the United States is not some foreign spy but the willingness of our own government to suspend due process and civil rights under a guise of national security. If the government is allowed to continue a policy that casts suspicion on the loyalty of a group of its citizens based solely on race or ethnicity, then more people should be losing sleep, not just Asian Pacific Americans.

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