John M. Deutch, the former director of the CIA, stands accused by his own agency of having illegally moved “enormously sensitive material” from his office to an unsecured computer at his home, where family members and possibly enemy hackers had easier access. He has not been prosecuted for any crimes, retains his Pentagon security clearance and is still able to earn a handsome living working on lucrative Defense Department contracts involving the nation’s military secrets. Deutch sits on the board of directors of seven key high-tech corporations.
Meanwhile, Wen Ho Lee sits in solitary confinement in a New Mexico prison for allegedly having violated the very same regulations on handling government classified information. Lee, who was fired from his job as a weapons scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, is being held without bail, is severely restricted in his contact with lawyers and family and faces the threat of life imprisonment.
To bolster their case, prosecutors have described the secrets downloaded by Lee as the “crown jewels” of nuclear weapons science. But that inflammatory description is undermined by the fact that the files in question were not even classified as top secret. Those accessible through Deutch’s computer apparently were.
My point is not to demand harsh prosecution of Deutch. If everyone in government who ever downloaded a secret file to an unclassified computer were jailed, we would lose many if not most of the professionals who protect this nation’s security. But the unequal treatment of these two cases dramatically underscores the selective prosecution of Lee.
And make no mistake about the political purposes of the vicious treatment meted out to this man. Lee has been denied bail simply to placate those in Congress and the media who have an interest in whipping up a Clinton administration China spy scandal. In turn, the administration has thrown the book at Lee to defuse the issue in the coming campaign.
Clearly, Al Gore’s supporters are afraid that the campaign financing scandal, involving wild but totally unsubstantiated charges of Chinese government meddling in the 1996 campaign, will be used against the candidate. Lee, who had nothing to do with Gore’s problem and who is not charged with passing information or money to any government, is a convenient bone to throw to potential GOP critics. How else to explain the administration’s zealous prosecution of Lee while no comparable action was taken against the former CIA director?
One irony in this “China connection” is that Lee, who was born in Taiwan, is a U.S. citizen who has worked openly and with the full permission of his Los Alamos superiors as a consultant to the Taiwanese military’s weapons program. If he has foreign ties, they are with Taiwan.
The case against Lee has been contradictory and politically driven from the beginning. Last year, a congressional campaign committee investigating the possible theft by China of U.S. nuclear weapons secrets got overly excited about a long, fruitless investigation that had been conducted by the FBI as to the possible theft of design information relating to the W-88 nuclear warhead. A Chinese double agent had turned up some time before with a document containing some details of the weapon. The investigation centered on Lee, for reasons that a former security chief of Los Alamos has said related only to his Chinese surname.
Now the Justice Department concedes that this was a false trail and that Lee had no access to the document in question, nor is he currently being charged with any act of espionage. The hunt for the W-88 spy, if one exists, has moved elsewhere. But to save face, Lee was arrested on the totally unrelated charge of mishandling classified data.
Further muddying the waters is an admission by the FBI that agents lied to Lee about the results of a lie detector test, telling him he had failed when he had passed with high marks. Lee has offered to take another test to demonstrate his innocence, but prosecutors have refused. Lee’s attorneys also have suggested that instead of being jailed, he could be held under house arrest, including wearing a monitoring bracelet, thereby eliminating any prospects for flight. But again the Justice Department, which never threatened CIA director Deutch with a single day in jail, insists that Lee remain behind bars as a sacrificial lamb.
Perhaps this discrepancy is because Deutch is a leading member of the old-boy intelligence establishment, and Lee is not.