Bay area Asian Americans today reacted with a mixture of anger and relief to news that jailed Chinese-American scientist Wen Ho Lee might be freed, despite late word that a plea agreement had been postponed.
Lee, 60, a Taiwan-born nuclear physicist who worked at the Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory, had been accused by the U.S. government of stealing sensitive nuclear weapons secrets – allegedly for sale to the Chinese government.
After months of legal proceedings and closeted plea negotiations, Lee was expected to enter a plea agreement on a 59-count federal indictment this afternoon in a New Mexico federal court.
Late this afternoon, however, U.S. District Judge James Parker reportedly announced a delay until Wednesday in the agreement between federal prosecutors and defense lawyers.
According to the reported terms of the deal, Lee will plead guilty to just one felony count of the indictment – all other charges will be dropped. He will be sentenced to nine months in prison and released for time already served behind bars.
In exchange, Lee has apparently agreed to cooperate with federal authorities to disclose all he knows about several pieces of sensitive information he allegedly downloaded onto a personal computer.
He will also reportedly drop his own charges that authorities prosecuted him solely because of his ethnicity, although he will retain the right to file suit against the government in civil court.
This afternoon, a coalition of civil rights activists and Asian
American community rights organizations said that while the fight for Lee's freedom is over, the battle to end racial profiling and the selective prosecution of minorities has only begun.
“It's a very, very limited victory,” said Diane Chin, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, commented earlier today.
“This is something we cannot now simply let go by the wayside just because Dr. Lee has rejoined his family.”
Victor Hwang, managing attorney of the Asian Law Caucus, a San Francisco-based legal rights group, said federal prosecutors were hypocrites for simultaneously refusing to allow Lee to leave jail on bail while negotiating a plea bargain.
“This is a virtual acknowledgement that they have no case,” he declared.
The controversial case of the scientist and the disappearing data has aroused the suspicions of many Asian Americans that the federal government had focused on Lee solely because of his ethnic background.
Lee was fired from his post at Los Alamos in March 1999, shortly after the missing data had been discovered. He was subsequently arrested in December and held in solitary confinement to loud protests from Asian American groups over the seemingly heavy-handed treatment of the scientist.
“I guess from an idealistic perspective it leaves a bad taste in my mouth that Dr. Lee had to plea to anything,” he said, citing statements by several high-level investigators on the case who admitted to practicing racial profiling.
“Regardless of what China may or may not do, they can't target Chinese-Americans because of what some foreign country is doing.”
Dorothy Ehrlich of the American Civil Liberties Union said Lee's case was only the most recent instance of “a long and dishonorable history in this country.”
“We are deeply disturbed by the happenings of the last nine months,” she said.
“We don't think today's decision by the court . . . resolves this problem.”
In San Francisco this morning, Supervisor Michael Yaki issued a statement expressing both anger and acceptance at Lee's ordeal.
“I have a sense of both relief and anger upon receiving the news that the U.S. government has reached a plea bargain deal with Dr. Wen Ho Lee, resulting in his possible release,'' Yaki said. “Relief, in that Dr. Lee's nine month ordeal in jail is finally over and that the Department of Justice appears to understand that any mistakes he made were not detrimental to national security.
“Anger, in that nine months in jail is hardly proportional given the offense.”
Yaki hinted that federal prosecution of Lee had critically ruptured the trust of varied Asian American communities in the government, a broken faith reflected in the declining participation of Asian American scientists at the national labs.
“I still believe that the U.S. government shamelessly engaged in scapegoating Dr. Lee because he was Chinese-American,” Yaki added.
“It will take more than this plea bargain deal to regain the trust of Asian Americans who used to, would want to, or currently work for the Department of Energy.”Hwang concurred with Yaki's assessment.
“I think the Department of Energy is going to have to work very hard to repair the damage done by this case,” he said, adding that “there has been no meaningful attempt to correct the hostile atmosphere at the labs.”
The case has also drawn attention from the international media due to the nature of the mishandled data, which experts at one time called the “crown jewels” of the U.S. nuclear weapons program, as well as prosecutors’ speculation that it might be sold to a foreign power.
In a statement this morning, the Coalition Against Racial and Ethnic Scapegoating said the case revealed the hypocrisy of the investigation.
“What began as the greatest espionage case since the Rosenbergs is now revealed as nothing more than a case of mishandling classified information. ... (a) common practice at the national laboratories,” the group said in a release.
“The case remains as a symbol and a caution of the dangerous power of the government when individuals choose to abuse the system to persecute an individual based on his race and identity.”
Hwang said today’s sudden retreat by federal prosecutors will also have repercussions beyond U.S. borders.
“This is an embarrassment to the United States of international proportions. The U.S. is going to have to do a little bit more to clean up its reputation on the international level.”