The U.S. District Court in Los Angeles sentenced former FBI agent Denise Woo to probation and a $1,000 fine to a misdemeanor for improperly sharing confidential information.
It could have been much worse. She was originally charged with 5 felony counts alleging serious national security breaches and faced up to a 15-year prison term.
Woo’s pro bono attorneys at O’Melveny & Myers promptly declared overwhelming victory at the end of the court hearing, but Woo did not really win. To win, she would have had to receive a medal for courage and conscience beyond the call of duty.
She was accused of having informed Jeff Wang that he was under investigation for sale of secrets to China. Wang was identified by a paid informant the FBI considered rock solid.
It turned out that the informant actually knew Wang personally and bore a grudge against him. She reported to her superiors that their target was innocent and their informant unreliable. In response, the FBI dismissed her from further involvement of the investigation.
Woo persisted and raised questions about other suspected spies for China that were fingered by the same FBI “asset.” This merely infuriated the FBI.
Ironically, the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Justice credited the same informant for calling attention to the sexual misconduct between Supervisory Special Agent J.J. Smith and another paid informant Katrina Leung.
Smith was Leung’s handler and also the one who prevailed on Woo to go undercover and spy on Wang.
As if all the misconduct and misfired investigations proved too much to bear for the FBI, they had to take it out on someone. That someone was Denise Woo.
Woo left a successful fast track career at IBM, where she made partner in the consulting practice in less than 12 years, so that she could make a difference in the public sector by combating child pornography.
Her first mistake was to join the FBI. She found a white, male dominated world with little respect for ethnic minorities and women.
She was initially assigned to the section on white collar crimes where she won several commendations for her analytical skills, hard work and persistence.
By the end of 1998, she was finally assigned to the child pornography desk where she thrived under 60-hour work weeks. It was then that she was asked to take on additional undercover work by the counter-intelligence office in Los Angeles.
She felt the ethical sting of having to spy on a close family friend. She did not realize that it was also wrong for the FBI to have placed her in a situation of potential conflict of interest.
When she reported back that Jeff Wang could not be the spy FBI was seeking, her supervisors were not pleased. They only wanted corroborating evidence.
Woo’s “crime” was in not realizing that FBI was an organization incapable of owning up to a mistake. They certainly were not going to take the findings of a young Asian woman agent seriously.
Woo only wanted to correct the way the FBI conducted counter-intelligence. Instead of seeking remedies, they set out to teach her a lesson for disrupting a macho white hierarchy.
Without the pro bono counsel of Mark Holscher and his colleagues at O’Melveny & Myers, Woo’s prospect would have been bleak. As was with Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos scientist also rescued by Holscher from indefinite incarceration, it was the might of the federal government against one lonely individual.
Woo can find some solace in the four former colleagues and now retired veteran FBI agents that attended her court appearance. They shook their heads and could not believe that this travesty could have gone on so long.
However, can the American taxpayers find comfort in an organization responsible for domestic counter intelligence that depends on paid professional informants? That FBI lacks the cultural sensitivity needed to work with ethnic minorities and lacks the integrity to own up to mistakes they make?
Can Americans feel protected when the very organization that is supposed to protect them is the one most likely to use their power and authority to railroad innocent victims, suppress findings and run the wheels of justice over individuals that beg to differ?
America is founded on the principle of truth and justice for all. Somebody needs to tell this to the FBI.