Nuclear Scientist Set Free After Plea in Secrets Case; Judge Attacks U.S. Conduct

James Sterngold - The New York Times - September 14, 2000

ALBUQUERQUE - The former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee pleaded guilty today to a single charge of mishandling nuclear secrets and left court a free man with an apology from a federal judge, who accused administration officials of abusing their power and misleading him into thinking that Dr. Lee posed a threat to national security.

This emotional scene marked the virtual abandonment of the government's case against Dr. Lee, who had spent nine months in prison awaiting a trial that will now never take place.

Dr. Lee, 60, was embraced in the courtroom by a throng of family members and supporters. But before that celebration, Judge James A. Parker of Federal District Court stunned a suddenly hushed courtroom by implicitly singling out Attorney General Janet Reno, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and senior officials in the Clinton White House for what he said was a questionable indictment, for misleading him about Dr. Lee's supposedly deceptive behavior and then for ignoring his urgings that the government ease the "demeaning, unnecessarily punitive conditions" under which Dr. Lee was being held. [Transcript, Page A25.]

It was a moment of enormous weight, since it is exceptional for a federal judge to give such an excoriating tongue-lashing to high-level federal officials.

Dr. Lee, a slight, soft-spoken man, was gleeful after the hearing and did not discuss the judge's remarks. "For the next few days I'm going fishing," he said.

Judge Parker, a Reagan appointee known for his measured manner and unusual patience, said he felt so deeply troubled by the government's consistent pattern of abusive actions that he expressed to Dr. Lee, a man who minutes before had admitted to a felony, his dismay that the government had unleashed the full force of its powers so arrogantly.

"I have no authority to speak on behalf of the executive branch, the president, the vice president, the attorney general, or the secretary of the department of energy," the judge said, but "as a member of the third branch of the United States government, the judiciary, the United States courts, I sincerely apologize to you, Dr. Lee, for the unfair manner you were held in custody by the executive branch."

At another point, the judge added that he felt he had improperly denied bail to Dr. Lee. "I tell you with great sadness that I feel I was led astray last December by the executive branch of our government through its Department of Justice, by its Federal Bureau of Investigation and by its United States Attorney for the District of New Mexico, who held office at that time."

The United States attorney who brought the indictment was John Kelly, who has since resigned and is running for Congress.

Judge Parker said the "top decisionmakers" handling the case "have not embarrassed me alone. They have embarrassed our entire nation."

The judge said he had been perplexed because an F.B.I. agent had recanted crucial testimony about Dr. Lee's behavior, and because prosecutors had fought furiously to keep Dr. Lee incarcerated claiming that he could cause the loss of "hundreds of millions of lives" - and then simply dropped its case.

The F.B.I. agent admitted he had been wrong when he claimed Dr. Lee lied to a colleague to gain access to his computer for the downloading.

A central element in the prosecution's case had been a claim that Dr. Lee downloaded the nuclear secrets to enhance his prospects of getting a job at foreign scientific institutes, but the agent admitted that the letters Dr. Lee had written to those institutes had never been sent.

After a tearful, private reunion with his family in a conference room, where he and his family members sobbed, exchanged high-fives and shared their first unsupervised moments of warmth since Dr. Lee was indicted and then arrested on Dec. 10, he stood under a broiling desert sun in front of the courthouse and thanked his supporters.

Chung Lee, his son, expressed mixed emotions over seeing his father finally set free. "It was thrilling, but at the