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Case's Legacy Is Distrust in Scientific Community

Reaction: Laboratory workers say lingering 'suspicion' about Asian Americans hurts recruiting efforts and undermines national security.

September 14, 2000|USHA LEE McFARLING | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

As news of Wen Ho Lee's impending release from jail reached laboratories across the country, vocal jubilation was tempered by the realization that deep problems plaguing classified weapon research and Asian American scientists will not be solved simply by letting Lee out of his jail cell.

"I think it's good news, but I'm not sure the damage is undone," said Robert C. Richardson, a 1996 Nobel-laureate physicist at Cornell University and member of the National Science Board, which advises Congress.

In recent weeks, Richardson and other leading scientists publicly questioned the harsh treatment of Lee and expressed fears that elaborate security procedures and distrust toward Asian American scientists were undermining national security by making it difficult for the nation's weapon labs to attract and retain the best workers.

"If you can't recruit the people, the whole system falls apart and there aren't any secrets left worth protecting," Richardson said.

The Lee case turned a very public spotlight on problems that Asian American scientists have long experienced, many scientists said.

"There's always this suspicion. You don't feel comfortable," said Cheuk-Yin Wong, a high-energy physicist at Tennessee's Oak Ridge National Laboratory who heads the 400-member Overseas Chinese Physics Assn.

Members have described having their loyalty questioned, being left out of classified discussions and being kept below a "glass ceiling" that rarely lets Asian American scientists be promoted.

The problems are not as acute among those working on nonclassified research or among scientists in universities, Wong said. But even those scientists are often made to feel like "perpetual foreigners"--even those Asian Americans born in this country, he said.

"I don't think the fight for equality is finished," he said. "If it happened to Wen Ho Lee and we don't speak out, it can happen again."

Although the Lee case is less than a year old, it has already resulted in early retirements and transfers from Los Alamos and other labs.

"The labs are having great difficulty recruiting Asian scientists and engineers, and many who are there are considering other jobs," said Bob Suzuki, president of Cal Poly Pomona and a member of the National Science Board.

According to the science board, 30% to 50% of those who hold science and engineering doctorates in the United States are foreign born. Restricting their flow into crucial scientific jobs "could really have serious consequences" for science, engineering and national security, Suzuki said.

The Lee case already has led many young Asian scientists to alter their careers. "They try to avoid anything to do with classified work because they're afraid it will bring them trouble," Wong said.

Others are boycotting jobs at Department of Energy labs at the instigation of L. Ling-chi Wang, director of the Asian American studies department at UC Berkeley.

"We felt a gross injustice had been committed and not just against Wen Ho Lee," Wang said. "All Asian Americans became either spies or thieves."

Lee's release does not affect the boycott because, said Wang, more improvements at labs are required.

The chilling effect of the Lee case has coursed through the entire physics community.

"At every physics society meeting I've been at, there was talk--and fright. People were scared," said Joseph L. Birman, a distinguished professor of physics at City College of the City University of New York. "The climate of the labs has been one of suspicion, fear--not an open environment to do the best work."

Birman is among a group of American scientists who have toiled for years to protect the human rights of scientists, mostly in the former Soviet Union and China. He and his colleagues have been dismayed to be doing the same work on American soil.

"I spent a lot of time trying to keep scientists out of the hands of the KGB. It was very distressing to see similar things happening to Wen Ho Lee," said Edward Gerjuoy, a lawyer and physicist who used his scientific contacts to aid the Lee defense team.

Many scientists were personally shocked to learn of the harsh treatment Lee received: denial of bail, shackles and, for a time, nearly complete isolation.

"Governments have enormous powers. They must use them with careful consideration," Gerjuoy said. "They did not do that in this case."

Birman and others said it was important now for the government to conduct a careful examination of how the charges against Lee were inflated to include so many counts of espionage that appeared to lack proof.

The prestigious National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine last month called for "those responsible for any injustice that [Lee] has suffered be held accountable."

Such openness on the part of the government would be the first step in restoring faith among scientists, several experts said. Others said that austere security regulations, such as polygraph tests and restrictions on foreign visitors, be relaxed and that any xenophobic language directed against any ethnic group be swept out of lab regulations.

Cal Poly's Suzuki said that the science board believed the Taiwan-born Lee had been singled out because of his national origin. He suggested that President Clinton assure the nation--and its many minority scientists--that such actions would never be taken again, lest the nation lose some of its brightest scientific minds.

"Every physics, engineering and life sciences department has brilliant young scientists born in Asia and the Pacific Rim," said Richardson. "And we'd be in deep trouble if we didn't have them here."

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