Defense Argues Ethnicity Made Scientist a Suspect

James Sterngold - The New York Times - August 16, 2000

ALBUQUERQUE -- In the first of two days of potentially pivotal hearings in the case of the scientist accused of mishandling important nuclear weapons secrets, defense lawyers offered evidence today suggesting that he had been singled out for prosecution largely because he is Chinese-American.

The lawyers for the scientist, Wen Ho Lee, who has been held for eight months on charges that he improperly downloaded some of the country's most sensitive nuclear secrets, offered affidavits and interviews from top intelligence officials suggesting that Dr. Lee had been made the target of the investigation at least in part because of his ethnicity, while some whites who could have been suspects were not pursued.

Although the prosecutors have denied these accusations, the defense contentions are among the reasons that Asian-Americans, the American Civil Liberties Union and some other legal groups have embraced the case as an example of racial profiling.

The outcome of the arguments in Federal District Court here today are not expected to be known for several days at least as the judge, James A. Parker, decides whether to allow the defense to gain access to reams of government documents regarding investigations of Asian-Americans on security matters. If the defense is given access and is able to prove that Dr. Lee was unfairly singled out for prosecution, the judge could order that the charges in the 59-count indictment be dropped.

Another significant hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, in which the defense will argue again that Dr. Lee, who is 60, be released on bail.

Dr. Lee was denied bail twice, largely because government experts contended that he had mishandled what amounted to the "crown jewels" of the country's weapons program and that if the secrets found their way to a foreign power they could alter the international balance of military power.

The defense has affidavits from a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and other experts arguing that much of what Dr. Lee downloaded from a secure computer at Los Alamos was either already available publicly or would be of modest use or none to most countries, and was not even given a secret classification until after Dr. Lee had been fired last year.

In addition, the judge had earlier appeared to rely heavily on government accusations that Dr. Lee had deceived another Los Alamos scientist when he used the other person's computer to do the downloading. The defense says it now has evidence that no such deception took place.

  • The Wen Ho Lee Page