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Government Owes Wen Ho Lee an Apology

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Robert Scheer is a contributing editor to The Times

Guilty until proved innocent. That is, if you’re a Taiwan-born scientist caught in the cross hairs of media that have lost all sense of proportion and fairness.

Wen Ho Lee is a U.S. citizen who’s faithfully served U.S. national security interests throughout his adult life. Yet his honor and patriotism to his adopted land have been vilified in a manner rivaling the famous anti-Semitic Dreyfus affair in 19th century France. In the process, the loyalty of every Chinese-surnamed scientist working for the government has been called into question.

For six months, Lee’s good name has been dragged through the media mud based on unsubstantiated leaks of information alleging he was responsible for passing W-88 miniaturized nuclear warhead secrets to China. These charges now turn out to have absolutely no factual foundation.

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On Sept. 22, the Clinton administration announced that Lee and the Los Alamos laboratory where he worked were no longer targets of the investigation, which has moved on to the hundreds of other labs, military bases and private contractors where thousands have had access to these so-called secrets.

A Los Angeles Times story on Sunday by Washington correspondent Bob Drogin quoted a U.S. official (unnamed) with knowledge of the case, who conceded: “It seems abundantly clear that we can’t, from anything we have, conclude Wen Ho Lee disclosed the W-88 information.” But the government has failed to openly restore the man’s reputation, and media coverage of the denials has been sketchy compared to months of references to Lee as being at the center of a spy scandal. This case was brought to public attention March 6 in a 4,000-word New York Times Page 1 story that linked an unnamed scientist at Los Alamos laboratory with the alleged theft of the secret design for the W-88 warhead. The story was based on information leaked from a congressional committee headed by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach). The charge against the scientist was based primarily on the testimony of one man, Notra Trulock, a former Energy department security official.

The New York Times reported Trulock’s charges as truth, leading with the claim that, “Working with nuclear secrets stolen from an American government laboratory, China has made a leap in the development of nuclear weapons.” The newspaper termed this “a breakthrough that officials say was accelerated by the theft of American nuclear secrets from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.” The New York Times also reported that “government investigators had identified a suspect, an American scientist at Los Alamos laboratory.”

Three days after the New York Times account, which blasted the administration for not acting more expeditiously in the case, Lee endured three days of intense questioning by the Energy department, was fired by department secretary Bill Richardson, and his name was splashed throughout the media.

The gang-up on Lee’s reputation was massive. As Drogin wrote, “After the case became public last March, some counterintelligence officials, members of Congress and media accounts painted the shy, 60-year old nuclear weapons expert as potentially one of the most damaging spies in U.S. history.” Cox, the congressional champion of the China spy scandal, claimed the theft involved “the crown jewels of our nuclear arsenal.”

Now we know the supposed “theft” of those “crown jewels” occurred during the Reagan administration in the mid-1980s, and that there’s no evidence linking Los Alamos or Lee with this case. Nor is there evidence that the Clinton’s administration’s laxity in investigating this case, as alleged by Cox and echoed by the New York Times, compromised the nation’s nuclear secrets.

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On the contrary, it’s now conceded that the hysteria that focused the investigation on Lee and Los Alamos led investigators down a false trail. As the New York Times reported two weeks ago, there’s a consensus among experts “that the federal investigation focused too soon” on Los Alamos and Lee, because “the lost secrets were available to hundreds and perhaps thousands of individuals scattered throughout the nation’s arms complex.” That story by William Broad, The Times’ nuclear weapons expert, was an important corrective to the lurid tales previously published, but it came too late to provide much solace to scientist Lee.

It’s a sad day for American journalism when the New York Times, one of the leading news organizations in the country, so uncritically publicizes inflammatory charges of spying against a U.S. citizen based on scandalous leaks from a congressional committee. But even worse was the behavior of the administration, which panicked in the face of these charges and fired Lee without a hearing in order to placate those calling for his scalp. Apologies to Lee are in order.

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