Column: Wen Ho Lee - Botched investigation or spy hunt?

Although I'm not a big fan of U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, I admired her courage last week when she went before a congressional committee to defend her department's handling of the Wen Ho Lee espionage case. Instead of succumbing to the current wave of political correctness, Ms. Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh described Lee's actions as a serious threat to U.S. national security.

"Doctor Lee is no hero," Reno said, rejecting his portrayal as a victim. "He is no absent-minded professor. He is a felon. He committed a very serious, calculated crime and he pled guilty to it."

"The Department of Justice and the FBI stand by each and every one of the 59 counts in the indictment of Doctor Lee," added Freeh. "Each of those counts ... could be proven today."

Freeh told Congress that federal prosecutors could have sent Lee to prison for years but agreed to let him plead guilty to a single felony charge to avoid revealing nuclear secrets at a public trial. Dr. Lee, a former research scientist at the super-secret Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, was arrested last year and charged with downloading 400,000 pages of highly classified nuclear weapons data into his personal computer. He was then held in solitary confinement for nine months, prompting protests from congressmen, Asian-Americans, civil libertarians and President Clinton himself.

"This is a textbook example of how not to conduct an investigation," said our own Sen. Richard Bryan at last Tuesday's Senate committee hearing, calling it a "Keystone Kops" operation. Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said the investigation was a "gravely flawed exercise." Earlier, President Clinton criticized his own Justice Department and FBI and practically apologized to Dr. Lee after a federal district judge in New Mexico did apologize to Lee and accused the government of embarrassing "our entire nation."

Nevertheless, Ms. Reno and Freeh stuck to their guns at the Senate hearing. "This plea agreement is our best chance to find out what happened to the computer tapes containing some of the nation's most important nuclear designs," said the beleaguered attorney general, who has steadfastly refused to appoint an independent counsel to investigate Clinton/Gore fundraising scandals.

Well, as someone who held a top secret clearance for nearly 30 years, I'm not embarrassed by the case against Dr. Lee and I reject the arguments that Lee is a hero or that he was railroaded because of his race. As columnist William Safire wrote in the New York Times, "Making a martyr out of Lee required making a villain out of Notra Trulock, the whistleblower who called attention to the abysmal security at our secret (nuclear) labs. Step two was to portray as dupes, racists and hysterics the members of Congress and journalists who forced a careless administration to get serious about security."

From the outset, the Clinton/Gore administration adopted a casual attitude toward national security. Remember when it was disclosed in 1993 that a number of top-level White House officials were handling classified materials without the requisite security clearances?

And in recent years we've seen troubling security breaches at the Energy and State departments. Just last week Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was called before Congress to explain continuing security lapses in her department, the most recent of which involves the Australian-born U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, who now needs a security escort when he visits the State Department.

Safire contends that the "revisionist" campaign in the Lee case has a sinister purpose. "It wants to use sympathy for Lee, who was harshly treated in jail while awaiting trial, to discredit all evidence of the interrelated Clinton 'Asian connections,'" he asserted. "Clinton's crocodile tears ... are intended to wash away three sins: allowing China's agents easy White House access, successful influence-by-contribution and repeated exploitation of lax nuclear lab security."

While that may be a harsh judgment, it is also a plausible theory of why President Clinton abandoned his own attorney general and FBI director in the Lee case. During an election campaign, it's much easier (and more politically expedient) to defend the "civil rights" of Asian-Americans than to enforce our necessarily strict national security laws. With the notable exception of the conservative Safire, most of the liberal media establishment has joined in the "Lee is a victim" chorus.

In a highly unusual Page 2 statement last Tuesday, the New York Times second-guessed itself "and found some things we wish we had done differently in the course of (our) coverage." And the Washington Post concluded that the plea agreement represents "a shocking retreat for the government."

But I don't think so if the agreement finally forces Lee to answer the key question of what happened to the seven tapes on which he hoarded nuclear weapons secrets, and exactly why he did so. In this case, national security considerations far outweigh possible errors in the FBI/Justice Department investigation of Dr. Lee.

CONGRATULATIONS to my old friend, longtime Appeal City Editor Sue Morrow, on her recent selection to the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame by the Nevada Press Association. She served this newspaper well for many years and deserves recognition.

(Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.)


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