The Associated Press
LOS ALAMOS, N.M. – Alberta Lee grew up a sheltered young woman out of touch with her Asian-American heritage. That would change dramatically when her father, former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, was thrown into solitary confinement.
In the nine months since then, Ms. Lee, a 26-year-old technical writer in San Francisco, has emerged as a graceful, impassioned spokeswoman for her father and for Asian-Americans.
And now, with her father a free man, she wants to go to law school and make a career out of defending others’ rights.
“I think the one stellar person in all this is Alberta. She’s the one to watch. She’s going places,” said John Vance, a safety engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory and a supporter of Ms. Lee’s father.
This week, Ms. Lee celebrated her father’s freedom after the government dropped all but one of 59 counts alleging he breached national security. Neighbors threw a big backyard welcome-home party for the 60-year-old Taiwan-born scientist, and Ms. Lee brought him cups of tea and introduced him to supporters.
“Before this, I really was kind of going through the motions and didn’t really know what to do with my life,” she said at the party. “I really felt like there was something more important out there for me, but I didn’t know what it was. I think I’ve discovered that now.”
Her coming of age began in 1998 when she began getting worried phone calls from home that her father was being asked to take polygraph tests.
“I was begging him from the first polygraph in December ’98 on to get a lawyer,” she said, adding that her father kept insisting he had done nothing wrong.
Four months later, Lee was fired from Los Alamos, his name was leaked to the media and reporters camped out on the Lees’ front lawn. Ms. Lee said she began calling friends at the nation’s best law schools to find her father an attorney.
Her role as family spokeswoman came by default, she said, explaining that her brother, Chung, was busy with medical school and her mother, Sylvia Lee, was too shy to face the media.
Somewhat reluctantly, she wrote her first statement to the media from a bench outside a federal courtroom.
“I really wanted to communicate to people that there was a family suffering here. That there was a family going through hell. It was a nightmare,” she said. “I wanted to communicate that people should think twice about branding my father so blatantly and that he could possibly be a real man, a real person.”
The investigation has made Ms. Lee “extremely ashamed” of her country, she said. “My dad came here for a better life and a more stable political system and look what’s happened to him,” she added.
His case — which led to allegations that investigators had unfairly singled out her father because of his Chinese background — also forced her from the comfort of her sheltered upbringing, she said.
Neighbors in White Rock, a bedroom community outside Los Alamos where many of the world’s brightest scientists live, said Ms. Lee was a typical American teen-ager who did above-average work in school. But in a community filled with Ph.D.s, her academic record wasn’t remarkable, and she lived in the shadow of her brother, now 28.
“He was on the prom court, homecoming court, he was class president and voted most likely to succeed. I wasn’t any of those,” Ms. Lee said with a laugh. “I really felt like the dorky little sister following her big brother around in high school.”
Ms. Lee said the main tie to her Asian heritage was that she grew up speaking Mandarin Chinese at home.
But Ms. Lee said she has the language level of a 7-year-old, and her Chinese is peppered with English in a combination she calls “Chinglish.”
As a teen-ager, Ms. Lee said, said she and her conservative father clashed, especially when it came to popular American culture.
“I couldn’t wear a tank top until I was 18. I had very limited access to boys in high school. My parents were very strict about dating and relationships,” she said. “I think I rebelled when I really wanted to go to a Michael Jackson concert.”
Ms. Lee went away to college at the University of California at Los Angeles, where during what she calls her “identity-search period,” she tried out five majors, including Asian-American studies, before settling on English literature.
With her father back home, Ms. Lee said she hopes to return to a more normal life and set a wedding date. She is engaged to Jack Ribble, a 28-year-old technical writer who lives with her in San Francisco.
She said she wants to take her ability as a spokeswoman and fledgling human rights defender a step further and become a civil rights lawyer.
“I’ve realized there is a need for an Asian-American voice out there to really ask for fairness and justice so that Asian-Americans will be treated like all Americans and not have their loyalties doubted,” she said.