Wen Ho Lee case: More like Dreyfus than Rosenbergs

Tony Karon - CNN - September 11, 2000

Wen Ho Lee's most fervent pursuers had proclaimed his case the biggest thing since the Rosenbergs, but the historical parallel may in fact be closer to the Dreyfus case. Like the turn-of-the-century Jewish Frenchman falsely accused of treason in a blaze of anti-Semitism and finally vindicated after a spell in prison, the Taiwanese-American nuclear scientist is set to go free Monday after reaching a plea agreement with federal prosecutors.

Unlike Dreyfus, of course, Wen Ho Lee isn't entirely innocent, but the government has been forced to concede that what he's guilty of is simply the negligent handling of highly classified material rather than any Rosenberg-style treason. (The Jewish-American couple were executed in the '50s after being convicted of passing U.S. nuclear secrets to the Soviets.) And Dr. Lee's supporters insist that, like Dreyfus, the Los Alamos nuclear scientist was targeted primarily because of his ethnicity -- a charge the FBI and Justice Department vehemently deny.

The feds will make the case that the plea agreement gives them what they most needed from Lee -- his cooperation in accounting for the seven missing tapes of highly classified material he downloaded. Lee's detention without bail in solitary confinement had long been explained as a hardball strategy to force the supposedly recalcitrant scientist to cooperate with the investigation. But the fact that the agreement comes after a number of courtroom setbacks for the government -- the most disturbing of which was the recent admission by an FBI agent that he'd provided false testimony in Lee's bail hearing -- and shortly before the deadline by which the feds would have been compelled to hand Judge James A. Parker documents that would allow him to pursue the claim that Lee was singled out because of his ethnicity leaves the government facing a banquet of crow.

Indeed, Americans may well find some cause for disquiet at the spectacle of the nation's leading law enforcement agency, in the eye of a political firestorm over China's apparent access to blueprints of some U.S. nuclear warhead designs, appearing to rush a man into court for allegedly helping a foreign power steal the "crown jewels" of the nation's nuclear secrets, only to recant nine months later and concede that the accused was guilty only of something even a former CIA director has admitted doing -- mishandling classified information. So while the feds may have finished with Wen Ho Lee, it's unlikely that Lee is finished with the feds.

  • The Wen Ho Lee page