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My Country versus Me (Book)

Updated on October 30, 2008

My Country versus Me

In “My Country Versus Me”, Dr. Lee had repeatedly admitted to the security infraction that he committed, and he was even man enough to say that he deserved some kind of punishment for the mishandling of data. But the whole point of the book, and the most important lesson one could learn from the entire affair, was the cruel and unusual torture he suffered as a result of rampant anti-Chinese racism, fed by paranoia as well as ingrained prejudices in those who persecuted him and aided in his persecution.

From the whole book only one thing has been made clear: former Director of the CIA John Deutch should probably have gone to prison for engaging in pretty much the same illegal activity as Wen Ho Lee. Does that strike you as a non sequitir? Well, unfortunately this book does not have an index, and I failed to keep track, but I would estimate that Mr. Deutch is mentioned at least 40 times in these pages, as Mr. Lee constructs a defense that is apparently based in large part on the theory which I've been told since I was four years old that no responsible human being is allowed to fall back on that: "everybody else did it, so why punish me?"

What Mr. Lee did, and he admits as much in the book, was to make backup tapes of his work on nuclear weapons at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He claims that he did so solely for the purposes of protecting his work in case of computer failure, which he says had previously caused him to lose work. But even he acknowledges that:

Many well-meaning people, including my friends and former colleagues, think that I downloaded the tapes to have work product in case I needed to find a new job... (Wen Ho Lee, 2002)

He further admits that: “I didn't want people to know I had the files or the tapes, because I knew they were not proper and would probably be a security infraction.” (Wen Ho Lee, 2002)

None of this self-admitted guilt would necessarily have mattered though assuming that his assertion that this was a common practice is correct had not Mr. Lee already been under suspicion by federal authorities.

He had first appeared on investigators' radar screens in the early 1980s when contacted a fellow scientist who was suspected of spying for China. Accounts differ as to how forthcoming Mr. Lee was in initial interviews surrounding that episode, but he eventually co-operated with authorities in their investigation. A book that has been published almost simultaneously with this one, A Convenient Spy: Wen Ho Lee and the Politics Of Nuclear Espionage By Dan Stober and Ian Hoffman, states that Mrs. Lee worked as an informant for the CIA and FBI in the mid-80s, while employed at the lab, and that she too breached security by copying files and, at one point, intentionally destroyed classified files during a dispute with her boss. He says that he had significant memory loss for almost two years afterwards (Rhoda Barkan, 2003). Further adding to the cloud of suspicion around Mr. Lee were meetings he had here and in China with the scientists developing China's nuclear weaponry; a consultancy position he held with a Taiwanese company; several bank accounts he opened in Taiwan; his attempt to access his Los Alamos files from Taiwan; and one assumes we can concede Mr. Lee's point that his ethnicity combined with the fact that China had stolen American nuclear secrets led to him being racially profiled.

As a result of all of these factors, Mr. Lee was investigated, interrogated, and even polygraphed by the FBI and unfortunately managed to cast even greater suspicion on himself by how he handled this turn of events. In one of the most bizarre moments in a crime melodrama that does not lack for oddities, Mr. Lee seems to have gone to his computer on the night of the initial polygraph interrogation (December 23, 1998) in order to delete classified files. As if this was not sufficiently dubious, he also attempted to enter the lab at 3:30 in the morning on Christmas Eve, even though his clearance had been revoked subsequent to the prior day's interrogation. (Wen Ho Lee with Helen Zia, 2001)

Now, it is obviously the case that none of this shows that Mr. Lee was in fact a spy for anybody, nor that he ever shared with anyone the materials that he had improperly copied. But it is Mr. Lee's repulsive position that despite this series of rather sketchy behaviors he was singled out for suspicion of spying solely because of his Chinese background (he was born in Taiwan) and that nearly the entire government case against him was the product of racial animus. This is a patent absurdity. Even conceding that suspicion of him was exacerbated by his race, any reasonable person looking at the facts as Mr. Lee himself lays them out would be forced to say that he was a logical target of the investigation. (The Scientific Research Society, 2005)

Instead of conceding the seemingly obvious point that someone who has at least mishandled sensitive nuclear data and has met with the head of our enemy's nuclear program, on their soil, is an automatic suspect Mr. Lee treats us to repeated assertions that it was unjust for anyone to suspect him, that the unfairness of the way he was treated is amply demonstrated by the different treatment that John Deutsch received, and that the whole sorry case shows that Americans still seethe with a hatred of Chinese Americans. It is perhaps unfortunate that he chose Helen Zia as his coauthor, as this last is one of her themes, and may not reflect his own feelings. Nonetheless, the book descends into a wallow of self pity and reverses racism that grows tiresome quickly.

There's also a bizarre quality to certain portions of his argument that seem to take a "so what if I did do it" approach. When explaining why he thought it was important to make backups, he alludes to the importance of his work to America and the nuclear program. But when the prosecution charges him with copying important data, he says it was really junk. Presumably, we are to believe that although he did do something technically wrong, it really didn't matter because the information was useless anyway. Likewise, when the government changed its theory of the case to reflect the possibility that he had been spying for Taiwan instead of China, he seems to believe that the fact that Taiwan is an ally would mitigate against a prosecution. Tell it to Jonathan Pollard.

Unfortunately, no one comes out of this tale with any glory. The FBI and the Justice Department made a complete hash of the case against Wen Ho Lee. At least one FBI agent actually lied to the federal judge overseeing the case and he should certainly be prosecuted for abusing his power. Meanwhile, government officials used what has become an accepted practice, though it remains repellent, of leaking stories to the press about the theory and progress of the case, which tended to portray Mr. Lee in a worse light than he necessarily deserved. Lee a spy before anything had been proven, indeed before he'd even been officially charged with such things which he never was. In all these areas, the institutions we depend on served Mr. Lee, us, and the truth poorly.

Two specific complaints of Mr. Lee seem to me to be without much merit though. Firstly, he is particularly exercised over an interrogation where an FBI agent dwelt on the fact that the Rosenbergs were executed because they were atomic spies (Stephen I. Schwartz, 2002). The government later said that this had been inappropriate but one wonders why. If you had a murder suspect in custody and were trying to get information from him you'd be inclined to mention the severity of the troubles he faced, right? It is hard to see what was so heinous about telling a suspected spy that his future was potentially quite bleak unless he cooperated.

Secondly, Mr. Lee resents having been sent to prison and the measures, including solitary confinement and limited communication with the outside world that was used against him. In all, he spent 278 days in custody. As a threshold matter, this seems like a reasonable, perhaps even lenient, sentence for someone who endangered national security and who did something (we may never know what) with nuclear data that he downloaded improperly. His repeated refusal to account for all the tapes that he had made certainly gave the government grounds to worry that he might still intend to turn them over to someone. (Stephen I. Schwartz, 2002)

Beyond these specific complaints against the government, Mr. Lee has a bone to pick with America itself, hence the book title. As mentioned above, he feels that his treatment at the hands of the government and the press makes a larger statement about the status of Chinese Americans, which is, in his opinion, a decidedly second class status. Though he says he was never political prior to this whole fiasco, he now appreciates the importance of Asian Americans banding together to assert their solidarity and nascent political clout. In one appalling example from the book, he cites with approval a call by the Association of Asian American Studies for Asian American scientists to boycott federal laboratories to protest his case. He seems oblivious to the fact that this leaves him in the untenable position of denouncing the American people for suspecting that Chinese Americans may be inclined to have some residual loyalty to China, while he's applauding the decision of a group of Asian Americans to place ethnic solidarity in front of American national security. How can one be anything but contemptuous of such a naked appeal to race by someone who is simultaneously complaining of racism?

Ultimately, the case was disposed of when Mr. Lee pled guilty to one charge and time served. Then began the ugly round of firings, recriminations, hearings, press exposes, and general blame-shifting, as government functionaries who once thought they had hold of a career making case discovered that instead they had only a low level perp and a massive political disaster. For all Mr. Lee's anger, the system would seem to have worked, however imperfectly. He was convicted and served time for the crime he says he committed, but beat the rap on the stuff he says he didn't do. It may not be a process that was much fun to watch, but in the end it made the sausage.

In conclusion, in the rest book, that will be followed apparently, presumably hagiographic, movie effectively refuting the old adage that "Crime does not pay", has not been infuriating enough, Mr. Lee closes with a statement that is truly shocking: "I do not regret making the tapes” If Mr. Lee was in any way willing to take responsibility for the wrong that he had done, it might be possible to muster some sympathy for the ordeal that he went through. But here he practically throws his misbehavior back in our faces. What response is left to us in light of this lack of basic contrition but to say: we do not regret sending him to prison.


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