As old news I would normally not have posted this story, but with Governor Richardson in the news, little else to report today, and so many new blog readers recently... well, here it is.
With the People's Republic of China rattling sabers over the visit of the Dalai Lama, it might pay to re-read the tea leaves of the Wen Ho Lee case and see what they portend for America's future.
A native of Taiwan, Wen Ho Lee had gotten his American citizenship in part, as he himself admits, because it allowed him to seek employment at a national lab. Still, for the 20 years he worked at Los Alamos, Wen Ho Lee seemed very much the "model minority."
He and his Taiwanese wife worked hard, obeyed the law and raised two good kids. In 1999, however, Lee's American idyll came to an indecorous end. The FBI shocked Lee's friends and colleagues when they arrested him on suspicion of espionage.
Notra Trulock, the Department of Energy intelligence chief who helped bring the Lee case to light, admits that even he does not know whether Lee had actually betrayed his country.
"I do know," Trulock elaborates in his fair-minded book, "Code Name Kindred Spirit," "that he was a walking security nightmare who violated every security rule in existence at Los Alamos National Laboratory."
It is possible that Lee was, in fact, a bumbling innocent. Left to his own devices, he might never have dreamed of playing the race card. The Lee that I will be talking about, however, is the politicized Lee that the reader meets in his memoir, "My Country Versus Me."
Given the limitations of Lee's English, co-author Helen Zia almost assuredly drove the content of the book, which oozes anti-American agitprop. This second-generation Chinese-American and first-generation radical feminist lesbian has been at play in the fields of the left since she quit medical school to work as a labor organizer in Detroit.
If Zia's goal were to undercut America and to cause her fellow Asian Americans to question their national identity, she succeeded marvelously.
In fact, Lee first fell afoul of the authorities in 1982 after he called a Taiwanese scientist at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory near San Francisco. Lee had never before talked to this guy. In his book, Lee claims that he called to learn if Livermore had terminated the scientist's employment as he had read and, if so, why.
Lee was unaware that the scientist was under court-ordered FBI surveillance for passing nuclear secrets to Beijing. When the FBI questioned Lee about the call, he denied making it. Later, he would deny the denial. Says Lee obliquely, "I don't agree with the FBI version of the story."
This was the first of perhaps six flaming red flags in Lee's career. What he takes away from this misadventure is this typical bit of ethnic posturing: "I didn't know that the FBI monitored Chinese-American scientists." In truth, the FBI did not profile Chinese, despite the fact that it made sense to do so. The People's Republic was conspicuously targeting Chinese-Americans scientists.
In 1988, a year before the Tiananmen Square massacre, Lee visited Bejing with his wife. While she just happened to be out shopping, two Chinese scientists visited Lee in his hotel room and asked some pointed questions about nuclear warheads. Lee knew that he had an absolute obligation to report such contacts. He did not.
Says Lee unconvincingly, "I was afraid that if I reported their visit, I would be subjected to the kind of FBI questioning I'd received before."
By the late 1990s, senior scientists at Los Alamos had become convinced that the Chinese had acquired – "probably by espionage" – vital data on the W-88 nuclear warhead, the most modern in the U.S. arsenal.
As one might expect – hope, actually – authorities moved to plug the presumed leak at Los Alamos. On an initial list of a dozen possible suspects, six were Chinese in origin, including Wen Ho Lee.
When the FBI asked Lee during a polygraph exam if he had worked on the W-88, he denied it. "With what I now understood," writes Lee later, "my answer might have been 'yes,' but I wondered if it was really a 'yes,' since I didn't know I was working on the W-88."
Young readers should be aware that, in the age of Clinton, answers like this made more sense than they do today.
Whether guilty or not of espionage, Lee clearly deserved the FBI's scrutiny. To be sure, its agents botched the case. Lee ended up in prison, without bail, and was indeed treated badly.
His skilled legal and PR teams quickly turned the imprisonment to his advantage. To arouse public indignation, they portrayed Lee as an "American Dreyfus," a dedicated patriot persecuted only because of his race. This strategy may have frayed the bond between the nation and its citizens of Asian origin, but from Lee's perspective, it worked beautifully.
"Asian American – Arrest me too," read a fairly typical sign, carried in this case by a young woman at a pro-Lee rally. The pressure built as planned. No one likes to be called a racist.
After nine months in prison, Lee was allowed to cop a plea to just one of the 59 counts against him and walk away a martyr, his halo dimmed only by the fact that this all happened on a Democrat watch. Major book deals and lawsuits followed.
The book is dishonest from front cover to back. Lee, for instance, often compares himself to Caucasians who had run afoul of the authorities on security breaches.
"They were all excused," he writes, "because they were assumed to be good Americans." Contemporaries like Aldrich Ames, John Hanssen and Jonathan Pollard might take exception. Dying in prison on spy charges is probably not their idea of being "excused."
Then too, Lee's case is more worrisome than the rest. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the People's Republic looms as America's most serious potential enemy, and its leaders are not afraid to say so.
In 1996, a Chinese military officer had warned American ambassador Chas Freeman, "If you hit us now, we can hit back. So you will not make those threats [about Taiwan]." The officer then proffered the following not so cryptic caveat, "In the end, you care more about Los Angeles than you do about Taipei."
Jack Cashill is an Emmy-award winning independent writer and producer with a Ph.D. in American Studies from Purdue.