SAN FRANCISCO — In his first public comments since his release from prison, former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee quipped Thursday that if he could turn the clock back 20 years, he would go to work for IBM or Intel, develop semiconductors and “make big money.”
Lee spoke briefly and answered a few questions from a crowd of about 100 who had gathered at a downtown bookstore.
San Francisco was the second stop for Lee and his co-author, Helen Zia, who were promoting Lee’s memoir, “My Country Versus Me.”
“I wrote the book because I want to tell all the American people the true story of my ordeal, step by step, and how I went through all this,” said Lee, 62, a Taiwanese-born naturalized citizen.
Lee was arrested in December 1999 and indicted on 59 felony counts alleging he transferred nuclear weapons information to unsecure computers and tape. He was held in solitary confinement for nine months, though never charged with spying.
He read a short passage from his book about his first time in prison:
“Not knowing my rights as an American to be free of cruel and unusual punishment,” Lee read, “I was constantly cold, shivering most of the time because all I had was a red jumpsuit ... an undershirt and two very thin blankets.”
Lee, who believes the FBI wanted him to be “as miserable as possible,” said that during his incarceration he worried most about his lost reputation.
“You don’t know how important reputation and dignity are until you’ve lost them,” he said.
In September 2000, Lee pleaded guilty to a single count of downloading sensitive material and was set free.
He said Thursday he had downloaded the files for “safety reasons” because he had lost files in the past after Los Alamos changed computer systems.
“If I could turn my clock back 20 years, I would probably go to work in industry,” he said. “IBM or Intel ... and make big money.”
Despite his experiences, Lee, dressed in a suit and tie, was gracious, soft-spoken and appreciative of his audience.
“I do believe the American system is the best system in the world,” he said. “However, I want to say when the system is handled by the wrong people, our lives can be very miserable. ... I hope they don’t make a mistake again.”
The Lee investigation caused nearly two years of controversy and heated exchanges in Congress over the alleged loss of nuclear secrets to China and lax security at the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons laboratories.