Monday, July 17, 2000

Should Wen Ho Lee Cop A Plea? Making A Deal Would Be A Disservice To All Americans

The facts in the Wen Ho Lee case get more and more curious as time goes by. Recently, the judge has suggested the prosecution negotiate with Lee's lawyers on questions of bail, which raises the possibility of a plea bargain -- a possibility that PNS commentator George Koo finds unsavory indeed. Koo is a business consultant and a member of Committee of 100, a national organization of prominent Chinese Americans.

The latest development in the case of Wen Ho Lee comes from U.S. District Judge James Parker, who has ordered lawyers from both sides to confer and agree on one or more senior judges to mediate possible terms of bail for Lee -- and perhaps a plea bargain.

Lee's sudden dismissal from the post he had held at Los Alamos National Laboratory captured every front page in the country. Congress and mainstream media expressed anguish over the loss of America's "crown jewels," nuclear weapon design secrets allegedly leaked to China.

Since Lee was charged, information has come to light that raises doubts as to whether any secrets were stolen at all -- for one thing, it has been shown conclusively that Los Alamos was only one of hundreds of venues where the alleged secret could have been obtained. Moreover, Lee had no access to "W-88 secrets" and therefore could not be the spy titillating the public.

Although it waited nine months after his dismissal to arrest Lee, the government did not have sufficient evidence to charge him with espionage, only with illegally downloading computer data. Some time after his arrest, the government quietly upgraded the data in question to a level high enough to justify threatening Lee with life imprisonment.

Recently, more than eight months after Lee's arrest, the prosecution responded to a defense challenge to produce the names of eight countries Lee is charged with trying to contact. The list included Switzerland, Germany, France, Taiwan, Singapore, Australia and Hong Kong (then still a British colony). The prosecution's source, evidently, is a series of job application letters Lee wrote when he was warned of potential layoffs at Los Alamos. Perhaps the government thinks Lee used copies of classified work to enhance his resume.

The Los Angeles Times calls the government's case against Lee a joke. Considering the price he has paid so far, Lee, his family and defense team are not likely laughing yet.

Rather than investigate leaks at Los Alamos, the FBI decided Lee was their spy and then set out to find evidence to support that conclusion.

When they could not come up with any such evidence, they found a logbook at Lee's home that provided the basis for accusing Lee of downloading secured data.

This was used to justify denying Lee bail, putting him in solitary confinement and in chains and shackles for 23 hours per day. He has been denied contact with his family except for one hour per week. He has been restricted in choice of reading material, in access to news and television and even in selection of a diet that would provide him with his accustomed nourishment.

If the government sought to crack Lee by subjecting him to such treatment, they surely must be disappointed. If they equated his unassuming, quiet manner with docility and assumed Lee would take the rap if properly intimidated, they have been proven wrong.

Lee may have originally assumed that he had no need to engage a lawyer if he had done nothing wrong. He may have assumed that as a citizen of the world's greatest democracy that he could count on equal protection and due process. Events have proven otherwise, and he has disappointed his tormentors by choosing to fight for his rights instead of caving in. Perhaps the government did not expect Lee to behave like the American that he is!

Over the next few months, Lee will likely have ample opportunity to plead to lesser charges in exchange for time already spent incarcerated. The question is -- should he settle and allow the government off the hook?

Lee could only do this at great personal cost. Even though the government could not charge him with espionage, the media have already branded as a key figure in a mythical "spying" scandal. Without full exoneration, Lee could never cleanse himself of the stigma.

Then there is the financial loss in terms -- lost wages and pension and the cost of a legal defense. Presumably any settlement would preclude any monetary compensation, much less the right to sue for damages as a victim of racial profiling and character defamation.

In the end, the decision on is a personal one. Asian Americans and all other Americans interested in justice can only hope that Lee will go the distance.

Indeed, the day Asian Americans are treated as full citizens will arrive that much sooner when if Lee receives an official apology, full restoration of his status in Los Alamos, and compensation for his pain and wrongful prosecution. Anything less will be hard to swallow.

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