Saturday, February 5, 2000

The Difference between John Deutch and Wen Ho Lee

Recent revelations of the national security breach committed by former Central Intelligence Agency director Dr. John Deutch enable a more detailed comparison of his case versus the case against Dr. Wen Ho Lee, the scientist accused of security breach at Los Alamos Lab. Lee’s defense team and supporters have accused the government of selective prosecution. We now have enough information to judge whether there are grounds for their accusation.

At his bail hearing, the prosecution contends that Lee has downloaded “massive” amount of secret computer data and is the reason his case is different from the common, run-of-the-mill infractions. According to New York Times, investigators found 17,000 pages of top-secret files in Deutch’s unsecured computers. Since the prosecutors did not define “massive,” we can only wonder why 17,000 pages and 26 volumes of his daily log do not constitute a massive breach by Deutch.

According to the prosecutors, Lee mishandled enough data to design a nuclear bomb. In Deutch’s case, the data dealt with “some of the government’s most sensitive covert operations.” Hard to tell which is more damaging but there is one distinct difference. Investigators found Deutch’s downloading in his computers at his home. Lee has been accused of downloading into his unsecured computer at his desk inside the Los Alamos Laboratory. The only thing the investigators found in Lee’s home was one logbook containing a series of passwords.

Reportedly Deutch used the same home computer to surf the Internet thus exposing his top secret files to electronic theft by those with unfriendly intentions. Lee, on the other hand, imposed three layers of passwords on his unsecured office computer to deter unauthorized break-ins. However, the prosecutors ascribe Lee's presumed unfriendly intentions as a criminal offense while Deutch's action dismissed as well-intentioned sloppiness.

Deutch through his lawyer indicates that he has cooperated fully with CIA's investigation. CIA choose not to hold his failing a polygraph test against him. Lee also cooperated fully with the FBI, at least he did until he found out he was entrapped and lied to by the FBI. The FBI apparently resented Lee for having passed a polygraph test and proceeded to keep Lee confused and bewildered and gave him the impression that he failed.

Deutch and Lee share one other similarity. Both deleted files of classified information from their computers after they learned that they were under investigation. Lee performed the erasure at work while Deutch did his at home.

There are of course some glaring differences. Deutch is white while Lee is ethnic Chinese. Deutch was a high ranking government official and beltway insider while Lee was merely one of many scientists working in Los Alamos. Deutch got a reprimand and lost his security clearance. Lee after months of round the clock surveillance was arrested, put in solitary confinement and denied bail.

One of the reasons for denying Lee bail according to prosecution is their fear of some unidentified foreign power making a surprise grab and whisk Lee away for leisurely debriefing, a fear that reflects poorly on their confidence in the vigilance of FBI. No one seems concerned that Deutch’s knowledge of sensitive covert operations would render him an appealing target for abduction.

Dr. Deutch, a highly respected educator, has had a distinguished career in public service. One can reasonably assume that at the time of discovery, he was given the benefit of the doubt and his offense charged to well-intentioned but sloppy carelessness. It must distress him hugely to have to undergo a belated public scrutiny now for certain past indiscretions.

Lee, on the other hand, was the beneficiary of only doubt and intimidation. Had it not been for reputable law firms willing to come to his aid pro bono, Lee’s distress would be many times more unbearable.

Certainly the purpose of calling attention to the inequality in the treatment of Deutch and Lee is not to subject Deutch to a similar witch hunt, but to point to the vast contrast and inequality that can occur among Americans. This uneven treatment can only put to a lie that this country is a democracy governed by rule of law and equal protection for all citizens.

Ironically, astrophysicist Fang Lizhi points out that Lee’s treatment is identical to the kind of treatment China is criticized for. Fang is arguably the best known, non-self promoting dissident from China, now teaching at the University of Arizona. He spoke up for democracy in China and had to hide in the American embassy after the Tiananmen incident in 1989.

Leaders in Washington hide behind a shroud of classified information beyond public access to justify the treatment accorded Lee. However, instead of tiptoeing around a stink bomb of their own making, someone with the requisite courage needs to step forward and say, “Stop. Enough of this shameful charade. Set Lee free.”

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