Wen Ho Lee on his book tour repeatedly confesses to his audience that he does not know why his own government targets him as the spy for China. Indeed his book, My Country vs. Me, confirms that he does not have a clue.
What his book does reveal is the ghastly unprincipled behavior of our government, especially the Federal Bureau of Investigations. When they conclude they need a suspect, they will even lie to the presiding judge to make sure that Lee does not get bail.
While incarcerated, Lee was not allowed any reading material, deprived of radio or TV, kept in solitary confinement with a light on around the clock, kept in chain and shackles for the one hour of daily exercise or when he saw his family for one hour each week and fed food that he could not eat. Even convicted murderers were treated more humanely and Lee was not even tried in court as yet, much less convicted of anything.
To justify treating Lee as something less than human, the government went to great lengths to build up Lee’s capability to do harm to the U.S. With great deal of imagination, they convinced the judge that the lives of 270 million Americans were at risk if Lee was loose. FBI agent Robert Messemer drawing on his Chinese language expertise suggested that even a remark like “Uncle Wen says hello” could represent a signal to trigger unimaginably dastardly deeds from the enemy.
In a way, Lee was the ideal suspect/victim. He never voted. He did not read the newspapers nor watch the evening news. He was living the American dream with the full faith that his adopted country would take care of him. He did not know his rights and did not know that no citizen should have to undergo the cruel and unusual punishment that he suffered. The meaning of due process was foreign to him.
Had Mark Holscher, a young lawyer of admirable conscience not come to his rescue just before the showdown at high noon, Lee surely would have been railroaded to the penitentiary to rot and forgotten by now.
While Lee’s book might explain his selection because he was perceived to be an easy mark, a second book released about the same time goes a long way to explaining how this debacle came about. Written by journalists Dan Stober and Ian Hoffman, A Convenient Spy, Wen Ho Lee and the Politics of Nuclear Espionage is a content-rich companion to Lee’s own story.
The second book is almost as much about Notra Trulock as about Lee. Trulock dreamt of the one big case that would catapult him from being director of intelligence and counterintelligence in the Department of Energy to the exalted directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Until the House Select Committee headed by Congressman Christopher Cox came along, Trulock was a lonely voice inside the beltway. Trulock decided that China stole the design of the W88 missile from Los Alamos and the spy must be a Chinese American scientist. Nobody agreed with him and nobody listened. Until the Cox Committee hearing, that is.
Prior to Trulock’s appearances before the Cox Committee, the committee did not find much relating to China to embarrass the Clinton administration. After Trulock’s testimony, the Committee was energized. Every bit of Trulock’s unsubstantiated and uncorroborated assertions became bombshells in the Cox Report to be leaked to the media, one delicious bit by bit.
The leaks worked beautifully when New York Times bought them as facts. March 6, 1999 marked the beginning of the most disgraceful human rights violation perpetrated by the U.S. government since the unlawful incarceration of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II.
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson fired Wen Ho Lee on March 8 in response to the firestorm created by the New York Times and Lee’s name was leaked to the press. The world arrived and camped on to Lee’s front yard. Everywhere Lee and his family went, a caravan of FBI agents followed. The authors pointed out that what Lee earned in a year, about $80,000, the FBI spent in a day tailgating the family.
The circus affected Lee most directly but all Asian Americans felt the sting. The Cox Report in alleging China’s practice of “grains of sand” espionage effectively accused all Chinese Americans of being potential spies for China, solely based on their ethnicity. “In the Cox lexicon,” the authors wrote, “Possibilities became probabilities and qualified speculation became hard fact.”
The most vocal proponent of the mosaic technique of spying was Paul Moore, since retired from FBI. Moore carpooled with Robert Hanssen for years and had no inkling that his friend was a double agent, but seeing a couple of Chinese standing around at a cocktail party would set Moore off speculating as spies passing secrets.
Unfortunately Stober and Hoffman did not question Moore as to why China persisted in using the mosaic technique when it was terribly ineffective, as Moore himself pointed out. They could have simply asked Moore if he knew the difference between the legitimate collection of publicly available information and spying.
There was an even bigger obvious question the authors did not answer. Well before Lee was arrested in December 1999, Trulock’s thesis was already shot full of holes. There was no evidence that China possessed secrets of the W88 or made use of them. The secrets of the W88 design could have leaked from a number of places and not just from Los Alamos. Lastly, Lee had no access to the secrets of the bomb design and could not have been the source in any case.
If Richardson’s preemptive firing was in response to perceived pressure from Cox and other Congressional colleagues from the right—as many obervers claimed--why did Richardson insist on prosecuting Lee after the dubious nature of Trulock’s assertions came to light?
Initially Richardson gave Trulock a $10,000 cash award. Months later, Trulock unhappily resigned. Why?
Lee was brutalized under conditions euphemistically called “special administrative measures.” These measures had to be approved personally by Attorney General Janet Reno and Bill Richardson. What were the grounds for their approval?
None of the individuals mentioned above, Cox, Moore, Reno, Richardson or Trulock, would publicly condone racial profiling or admit to racist inclinations. And, they are ambitious but honorable politicians and bureaucrats. The Chinese might describe the entire episode as wuliao, for which there is no English equivalent. Closest is to define wuliao as a state of being asinine, nonsensical, silly, vapid and ridiculous.
Historian Haynes Johnson commenting on the recent decade said, “Instead of seizing the moment, addressing the kinds of questions that are in our interests, we allowed ourselves to be caught up in a wave of self-indulgence, scandal, illusion and entertainment.”
Perhaps September 11 is the wake-up call we need. Perhaps we can once again look at the world in real terms. When we arrest someone because the person fits a terrorist profile, we better ask the question: Is it that or is it ethnicity?