ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Nine months after he was branded a threat to national security and put in solitary confinement, Wen Ho Lee was set free Wednesday with an apology from a judge who said the government's actions ''embarrassed our entire nation.''
Supporters cheered as a smiling Lee left the courthouse alongside his family. He thanked them and said, ''I'm very happy to go home with my wife and children today.''
With a chuckle, he added: ''The next few days, I'm going fishing.''
Lee, 60, pleaded guilty to a single count of mishandling nuclear secrets as the government all but abandoned its crumbling case against the former Los Alamos scientist.
Under the terms of the plea bargain, he was sentenced to 278 days - essentially the time served since his arrest last December.
Lee had been charged with 59 counts of breaching national security and faced life in prison if convicted. Fifty-eight of those counts were dropped.
''I sincerely apologize to you, Dr. Lee, for the unfair manner in which you were held in custody by the executive branch,'' U.S. District Judge James Parker said.
Parker said the Departments of Justice and Energy ''have embarrassed our entire nation and each of us who is a citizen of it.''
Lee, a Taiwanese-born naturalized U.S. citizen, read a statement in court in which he admitted using an unsecure computer to download a national-defense document onto a tape. He said he knew his possession of the tape outside of the top-secret area where he worked was unauthorized.
Lee agreed to cooperate with the government and tell them everything he knows about seven missing tapes.
The government said that the fate of the tapes was paramount and that Lee's willingness to explain what happened to them was the turning point in 2-month-old plea discussions. Lee has said the tapes were destroyed.
Federal prosecutor George Stamboulidis said Lee did not deserve a government apology. He called the downloaded information ''a personal library'' of nuclear defense secrets.
''Which Americans among us would want us to turn our backs on that?'' he asked.
The judge said he was only sorry the plea agreement prevented disclosure of information that would have shed light on the reasons for Lee's detention. Lee's supporters have said he was unfairly singled out as a Chinese-American.
The judge, who was appointed by President Reagan, said he did not blame the prosecutors: ''It is only the top decision-makers in the executive branch of the government, in particular the Department of Justice and the Department of Energy.''
The White House declined to comment on the judge's criticism. ''It is time to close this chapter, find out what happened to the missing tapes and move on,'' spokesman Jake Siewert said.
Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin said in Washington: ''We respectfully disagree with the judge. We have an obligation to the American public to protect the national security. Before we had the assurance from Dr. Lee that he would tell us what he knows, we could not afford to do anything but detain him.''
Prosecutors also said that there are powerful incentives for Lee to cooperate.
''If at any time we believe he is not being truthful, we can seek to void the agreement and prosecute the case to the full extent of the law,'' Attorney General Janet Reno said.
The investigation began as an offshoot of a Chinese espionage case, with government attorneys making dire accusations that Lee had stolen the ''crown jewels'' of U.S. nuclear weaponry science with the intent of handing them over to a foreign power. At the time, the government claimed the information could alter the global balance of power.
The case began disintegrating last month at a renewed bail hearing, with one embarrassing turn after another for the government.
Defense experts disputed the claim that the data contained vital defense secrets. The government was forced to acknowledge that the material was classified ''restricted'' rather than secret. And a defense expert testified that ''99 percent'' of the material was already available to the public.
Also, an FBI agent whose word was key in denying Lee bail acknowledged giving incorrect testimony that made the scientist appear deceptive.
The two sides worked out a plea bargain on Sunday. However, Lee's release was delayed twice while attorneys wrangled over details.
On Wednesday, Lee beamed as he entered the courtroom and gave his son, Chung, the OK sign. Lee's wife, Sylvia, also smiled as she arrived.
Cecelia Chang, an organizer of the Wen Ho Lee Defense Fund, sobbed with joy as she left the courtroom.
The judge ''just basically told us that the executive branch is to blame. He had the courage to say that and to apologize to Dr. Lee. That is the apology we have waited for from the government,'' Chang said. ''I would love to see the country follow his example.''
A group of Lee's Los Alamos neighbors came to court in ''Free Wen Ho Lee Now'' T-shirts. The backs of the shirts read: ''Los Alamos Scientist - Is He Guilty Before Proven Innocent?''
''We are elated that Dr. Lee is having his name cleared of the false allegations that he ever intended to injure the country for which he spent 20 years designing codes to protect,'' defense attorney Mark Holscher said. ''We fully intend to cooperate completely with the government and provide them whatever information they need.''
Stamboulidis, the prosecutor, said that if Lee had been tried on the one count to which he pleaded, he could have spent eight years in prison without disclosing the handling of the tapes.
Some law professors have called for an investigation of the government's conduct.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he will resume a Senate subcommittee investigation that he began and then suspended.
''All I can say is I've thought from the beginning that that was a botched investigation,'' said Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
On the Net:
Supporters of Lee: http://www.wenholee.org
Department of Justice: http://www.usdoj.gov
Department of Energy: http://www.doe.gov