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My Country Versus Me: The First-Hand Account by the Los Alamos Scientist Who Was Falsely Accused of Being a Spy (2001)
When the reader finishes this book, only one thing has been made clear : former Director of the CIA John Deutch should probably have gone to prison for engaging in pretty much the same illegal activity as Wen Ho Lee. Does that strike you as a non sequitir? Well, unfortunately this book does not have an index, and I failed to keep track, but I would estimate that Mr. Deutch is mentioned at least 40 times in these pages, as Mr. Lee constructs a defense that is apparently based in large part on the theory--which I've been told since I was four years old that no responsible human being is allowed to fall back on--that : "everybody else did it, so why punish me?"
What Mr. Lee did, and he admits as much in the book, was to make backup tapes of his work on nuclear weapons at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He claims that he did so solely for the purposes of protecting his work in case of computer failure, which he says had previously caused him to lose work. But even he acknowledges that :
Many well-meaning people, including my friends and
former colleagues, think that I downloaded the tapes to have work
He further admits that :
...I didn't want people to know I had the files or
the tapes, because I knew they were not proper and would probably be
None of this self-admitted guilt would necessarily have mattered though--assuming that his assertion that this was a common practice is correct--had not Mr. Lee already been under suspicion by federal authorities.
He had first appeared on investigators' radar screens in the early 1980s when contacted a fellow scientist who was suspected of spying for China. Accounts differ as to how forthcoming Mr. Lee was in initial interviews surrounding that episode, but he eventually co-operated with authorities in their investigation. A book that has been published almost simultaneously with this one, A Convenient Spy : Wen Ho Lee and the Politics Of Nuclear Espionage By Dan Stober and Ian Hoffman, states that Mrs. Lee worked as an informant for the CIA and FBI in the mid-80s, while employed at the lab, and that she too breached security by copying files and, at one point, intentionally destroyed classified files during a dispute with her boss. It isn't clear if investigator's knew of one danger sign that Mr. Lee mentions almost elliptically several times, but he suffered what seems to have been a major psychological or neurological trauma after being treated for colon cancer in 1987. He says that he had significant memory loss for almost two years afterwards. Further adding to the cloud of suspicion around Mr. Lee were meetings he had here and in China with the scientists developing China's nuclear weaponry; a consultancy position he held with a Taiwanese company; several bank accounts he opened in Taiwan; his attempt to access his Los Alamos files from Taiwan; and one assumes we can concede Mr. Lee's point that his ethnicity combined with the fact that China had stolen American nuclear secrets led to him being racially profiled.
As a result of all of these factors, Mr. Lee was investigated, interrogated, and even polygraphed by the FBI and unfortunately managed to cast even greater suspicion on himself by how he handled this turn of events. In one of the most bizarre moments in a crime melodrama that does not lack for oddities, Mr. Lee seems to have gone to his computer on the night of the initial polygraph interrogation (December 23, 1998) in order to delete classified files. As if this was not sufficiently dubious, he also attempted to enter the lab at 3:30 in the morning on Christmas Eve, even though his clearance had been revoked subsequent to the prior day's interrogation.
Now, it is obviously the case that none of this shows that Mr. Lee was in fact a spy for anybody, nor that he ever shared with anyone the materials that he had improperly copied. But it is Mr. Lee's repulsive position that despite this series of rather sketchy behaviors he was singled out for suspicion of spying solely because of his Chinese background (he was born in Taiwan) and that nearly the entire government case against him was the product of racial animus. This is a patent absurdity. Even conceding that suspicion of him was exacerbated by his race, any reasonable person looking at the facts as Mr. Lee himself lays them out would be forced to say that he was a logical target of the investigation.
Instead of conceding the seemingly obvious point--that someone who has at least mishandled sensitive nuclear data and has met with the head of our enemy's nuclear program, on their soil, is an automatic suspect--Mr. Lee treats us to repeated assertions that it was unjust for anyone to suspect him, that the unfairness of the way he was treated is amply demonstrated by the different treatment that John Deutsch received, and that the whole sorry case shows that Americans still seethe with a hatred of Chinese Americans. It is perhaps unfortunate that he chose Helen Zia as his coauthor, as this last is one of her themes, and may not reflect his own feelings. Nonetheless, the book descends into a wallow of self pity and reverse racism that grows tiresome quickly.
There's also a bizarre quality to certain portions of his argument that seem to take a "so what if I did do it" approach. When explaining why he thought it was important to make backups, he alludes to the importance of his work to America and the nuclear program. But when the prosecution charges him with copying important data, he says it was really junk. Presumably, we are to believe that although he did do something technically wrong, it really didn't matter because the information was useless anyway. Likewise, when the government changed its theory of the case to reflect the possibility that he had been spying for Taiwan instead of China, he seems to believe that the fact that Taiwan is an ally would mitigate against a prosecution. Tell it to Jonathan Pollard.
Unfortunately, no one comes out of this tale with any glory. The FBI and the Justice Department made a complete hash of the case against Wen Ho Lee. At least one FBI agent actually lied to the federal judge overseeing the case and he should certainly be prosecuted for abusing his power. Meanwhile, government officials used what has become an accepted practice, though it remains repellent, of leaking stories to the press about the theory and progress of the case, which tended to portray Mr. Lee in a worse light than he necessarily deserved. Meanwhile, the press and Republicans, schooled in Clinton scandal, saw here a likely story of Chinese spying that dovetailed nicely with the previous storyline of China making huge campaign contributions to the 1996 Clinton/Gore campaign. In their zeal both institutions went overboard in their accusations and willingness to call Mr. Lee a spy before anything had been proven, indeed before he'd even been officially charged with such things--which he never was. In all these areas, the institutions we depend on served Mr. Lee, us, and the truth poorly.
Two specific complaints of Mr. Lee seem to me to be without much merit though. Firstly, he is particularly exercised over an interrogation where an FBI agent dwelt on the fact that the Rosenbergs were executed because they were atomic spies. The government later said that this had been inappropriate but one wonders why. If you had a murder suspect in custody and were trying to get information from him you'd be inclined to mention the severity of the troubles he faced, right? It is hard to see what was so heinous about telling a suspected spy that his future was potentially quite bleak unless he cooperated.
Secondly, Mr. Lee resents having been sent to prison and the measures, including solitary confinement and limited communication with the outside world, that were used against him. In all, he spent 278 days in custody. As a threshold matter, this seems like a reasonable, perhaps even lenient, sentence for someone who endangered national security and who did something (we may never know what) with nuclear data that he downloaded improperly. His repeated refusal to account for all the tapes that he had made certainly gave the government grounds to worry that he might still intend to turn them over to someone (he has since stated that he destroyed them all, though his plea bargain nearly unraveled when he revealed that he had made more copies than he had previously acknowledged). Under these circumstances, to have allowed him to communicate freely with others would have been foolhardy and irresponsible. One final, somewhat irreverent point in this regard : if I was ever, God forbid, sent to prison, the least of my worries would be not getting to "interact" with my fellow prisoners.
Beyond these specific complaints against the government, Mr. Lee has a bone to pick with America itself, hence the book title. As mentioned above, he feels that his treatment at the hands of the government and the press makes a larger statement about the status of Chinese Americans, which is, in his opinion, a decidedly second class status. Though he says he was never political prior to this whole fiasco, he now appreciates the importance of Asian Americans banding together to assert their solidarity and nascent political clout. In one appalling example from the book, he cites with approval a call by the Association of Asian American Studies for Asian American scientists to boycott federal laboratories to protest his case. He seems oblivious to the fact that this leaves him in the untenable position of denouncing the American people for suspecting that Chinese Americans may be inclined to have some residual loyalty to China, while he's applauding the decision of a group of Asian Americans to place ethnic solidarity in front of American national security. How can one be anything but contemptuous of such a naked appeal to race by someone who is simultaneously complaining of racism?
Ultimately, the case was disposed of when Mr. Lee pled guilty to one charge and time served. Then began the ugly round of firings, recriminations, hearings, press exposes, and general blame-shifting, as government functionaries who once thought they had hold of a career making case discovered that instead they had only a low level perp and a massive political disaster. For all Mr. Lee's anger, the system would seem to have worked, however imperfectly. He was convicted and served time for the crime he says he committed, but beat the rap on the stuff he says he didn't do. It may not be a process that was much fun to watch, but in the end it made the sausage.
Finally, just in case the rest of the book (which will apparently be followed by a, presumably hagiographic, movie--effectively refuting the old adage that "Crime does not pay") has not been infuriating enough, Mr. Lee closes with a statement that is truly shocking : "I do not regret making the tapes..." If Mr. Lee was in any way willing to take responsibility for the wrong that he had done, it might be possible to muster some sympathy for the ordeal that he went through. But here he practically throws his misbehavior back in our faces. What response is left to us in light of this lack of basic contrition but to say : we do not regret sending him to prison.
-BOOK SITE : My Country Versus Me : The First-Hand Account by the Los Alamos Scientist Who Was Falsely Accused of Being a Spy By Wen Ho Lee with Helen Zia (Hyperion)
-Los Alamos National Laboratory
-FBI INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT : The following is a transcript of a consensually monitored interview between Special Agent (SA) CAROL COVERT, SA JOHN HUDENKO and WEN HO LEE on March 7, 1999
-ARTICLE : BREACH AT LOS ALAMOS: A special report. : China Stole Nuclear Secrets For Bombs, U.S. Aides Say (JAMES RISEN and JEFF GERTH, March 6, 1999, NY Times)
-ARTICLE : Scientist moved hundreds of classified files, undetected for years by Los Alamos officials (Dan Stober, 12/17/00, San Jose
Mercury News Special Report)
-Wen Ho Lee and Los Alamos (Washington Post)
-FindLaw Investigations - Wen Ho Lee
- Wen-Ho Lee Espionage Investigation Ý (US Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs)
-INDICTMENT : of Wen Ho Lee (IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW MEXICO)
-STATEMENT : by Judge James A. Parker of Federal District Court in Albuquerque to Dr. Wen Ho Lee (September 14, 2000)
-ARTICLE : Los Alamos Scientist Criticizes FBI in Book : Lee Calls Copied Tapes 'Crown Junk' (Walter Pincus, Washington Post, January
-ARTICLE : Book claims Lee Wen-ho's wife helped CIA and FBI (REUTERS, 12/30/01)
-ARTICLE : Feds Fed Up at Bill's Wen Ho-lier-Than-Thou Act : On the Cell Phone From Washington: TIME's Elaine Shannon reports that while FBI and Justice officials feel bad about the outcome of the Wen Ho Lee case, they don't appreciate being lectured by the President (ELAINE SHANNON, Sep. 15, 2000, TIME
-ESSAY : Judgment Day (The Editors, 09.14.00, New Republic)
-ESSAY : The China Syndrome (The Editors, March 29, 1999, New Republic)
-ESSAY : Not Serious About Surveillance : Neither the administration nor Congress will do what's needed. (Gary Schmitt, 10/15/2001, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY : It's an Outrage (Never Mind What): Wen Ho Lee and the Amazing Flexible Senators. (Michael Kinsley, September 19, 2000,
-ESSAY : How the New York Times helped railroad Wen Ho Lee : Its reporters relied on slim evidence, quick conclusions and loyalty to
sources with an ax to grind. Too bad the paper of record learned nothing from its role in Whitewater. (Eric Boehlert, Sept. 21, 2000,
-EDITORIAL : The Times and Wen Ho Lee (THE EDITORS, September 26, 2000, NY Times)
-DISCUSSION : COVERING WEN HO LEE (Online Newshour, September 26, 2000)
-ESSAY : Wen Ho Lee case: More like Dreyfus than Rosenbergs (Tony Karon, September 11, 2000, TIME.com)
-ESSAY : The Imprisonment of Dr. Wen Ho Lee (Edward Gerjuoy, April 2000, The American Physical Society)
-ESSAY : Los Alamos 'Spy' Case Should Alarm Us All (Richard Cohen - New York Daily News - September 12, 2000)
-ESSAY : The Persecution of Wen Ho Lee, Redux (Robert Scheer, August 7, 2001, Los Angeles Times)
-ESSAY : Spy Stories : The Wen Ho Lee Cover-Up (Salon.com | October 3, 2000)
-ESSAY : Clinton critic says he was targeted : Uncovered spying on nukes by China (Bill Gertz, THE WASHINGTON TIMES, November 14, 2000)
-STATEMENT : The FBI 'Profiles' Wen Ho Lee : An excerpt from the joint statement for the record by Attorney General Janet Reno and Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Louis J. Freeh on the investigation and prosecution of Wen Ho Lee, before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sept. 26, 2000 (Wall Street Journal, September 29, 2000)
-ESSAY : The Wen Ho Lee Flake-Out : A bungled prosecution, another scandal dodged. (September 29, 2000, Wall Street Journal)
-ESSAY : Will the 'Times' Take It Lying Down? : White House Calls Paper 'Near Hysterical' (Cynthia Cotts, September 2000, Village Voice)
-ESSAY : Twin Leaks : Trulock Gives 'Times'-Bashing a Bad Name (Cynthia Cotts, October 2000, Village Voice)
-ESSAY : Not a Chinaman's Chance : Advocates Doubt Wen Ho Lee Release Will Change Anti-Asian Politics (Chisun Lee, September 2000, Village Voice)
-ARCHIVES : Wen Ho Lee (Salon)
-ARCHIVES : "wen ho lee" (Mag Portal)
-ARCHIVES : "Wen Ho Lee" (Find Articles)
-REVIEW : of My Country vs. Me (JOSEPH E. PERSICO, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of 'My Country Versus Me' by Wen Ho Lee with Helen Zia and A CONVENIENT SPY : Wen Ho Lee and the Politics Of Nuclear Espionage By Dan Stober and Ian Hoffman (James Bamford, Washington Post)
-REVIEW : of My Country Versus Me: The First-Hand Account by the Los Alamos Scientist Who Was Falsely Accused of Being a Spy, by Wen Ho Lee, with Helen Zia (Robert Scheer, NY Observer)
-REVIEW : of My Country vs. Me : The spy who wasn't : Wen Ho Lee speaks out about his ordeal at the hands of the FBI and a witch-hunting press. To many Arab men today, his story will sound all too familiar. (Eric Boehlert, Jan. 28, 2002, Salon)
-REVIEW : of My Country vs. Me (The Economist)
-REVIEW : of My Country vs. Me (Diego Ribadeneira, Boston Globe)
-REVIEW : of My Country vs. Me (Michael Parks, LA Times)