As the government's wobbly case against him closes, will Chinagate close along with it?
Today in Albuquerque, New Mexico, after a few final fits and starts, federal prosecutors closed the book on a case once widely touted as the biggest spy scandal since the Rosenbergs, and concluded what can only be considered one of the more embarrassing and shameful chapters in the history of federal law enforcement.
Days ago U.S. Attorney Norman C. Bay successfully sought to prevent accused nuclear weapons scientist Wen Ho Lee from being released on bail, telling a circuit court judge that Lee’s release would represent “an unprecedented risk of danger to national security.”
Today Lee walked out of prison with no restrictions whatsoever, after being held in solitary confinement since last December. And the same federal prosecutors stood before the media and pronounced themselves happy with the result. Case closed. Job well done.
U.S. District Judge James Parker, however, was hardly so generous in his appraisal of the their work. “I sincerely apologize to you,” Parker told Dr. Lee in remarks from the bench, “for the unfair manner in which you were held in custody by the executive branch.” And the judge went on to level against the government a verdict which could scarcely have been more scathing. The Departments of Energy and Justice, Parker said, “have embarrassed our entire nation and each of us who is a citizen of it.”
Under the plea agreement, Lee pled guilty to one felony charge of mishandling government secrets, and was sentenced to time served — some nine months behind bars. In addition, Lee pledged to cooperate with government investigators and, particularly, to tell them just what became of the tapes he used to download the top-secret data.
Thus, apparently, ends a case which ramified far beyond the confines of the courtroom, roiling the nation’s politics for more than a year, and leaving many in the media splattered with mud.
The case first erupted into public view on March 6, 1999, when Jeff Gerth and James Risen of the New York Times reported that China had stolen top-secret American technology used to miniaturize nuclear warheads. Though the thefts had taken place as long ago as the mid-1980s, Gerth and Risen further alleged that the U.S. Justice Department had been slow to press the investigation.
Two days later Lee was abruptly fired from his job at New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. And months after that, on December 10, 1999, Lee was arrested and charged with offenses which, if proven, would have earned him life behind bars several times over. From the moment the New York Times broke the story, the case was quickly swept into congressional Republicans’ effort to tar the Clinton administration over its China policy.
Despite the uproar, the government’s case against Lee was an ever-dwindling thing from the start. Claims of espionage were succeeded by charges that Lee had mishandled government secrets with an unknown, but nefarious, purpose. Now it turns out that that purpose was apparently not nefarious enough to garner Lee even 12 months in prison.
Now the real questions that remain have less to do with the narrow legalities of this case than the broader plume of political hysteria it ignited. For more than three years Republicans have been pressing the scandal stemming from campaign finance violations in the 1996 presidential campaign. The Lee case became the centerpiece of a tangled web of charges that the Clinton administration had either been soft on Chinese espionage or even willfully transferred American secrets to Chinese agents in exchange for a few hundreds of thousands of dollars of campaign contributions.
Before the Lee case ever came to light, Newt Gingrich had already charged that President Clinton “had approved turning over missile secrets to the Chinese.” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., chairman of the House Space and Aeronautics subcommittee, claimed the president “betrayed the interests of our country,” and Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., charged that Bill Clinton was “guilty of high treason.”
Once the Lee case came to light, the media, and particularly the New York Times, picked up the story and ran with it, blaring charges that it was the most serious instance of nuclear espionage since the Rosenbergs. The accusations about Chinese spying and Clinton administration involvement seeped into contemporary political folklore. As recently as Monday, in a Washington Post article describing voters’ opinions about the presidential race, a Michigan voter tells Post reporter Tom Edsall that Gore “scares the hell out of me. I think he and his boss are in bed with the Chinese — They’ve sold their souls.”
But the Lee case was more than a morality play about evil Republicans eager to politicize the case for partisan gain. There was plenty of blame to go around: The coverage of the case in the mainstream press was shameless and lazy. And few in the Clinton administration were willing to remain firm in the face of the unfolding media firestorm. Particularly blameworthy, in retrospect, was Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who fired Lee two days after the Times story ran and awarded one of his principal accusers, Energy Department counter-intelligence investigator Notra Trulock, with a $10,000 bonus for a job well done. Lee is no hero in this whole mess. But Richardson’s actions were no more than reckless grandstanding.
It’s worth asking now whether those in politics and the media who hyped and sensationalized the story in the first place now question the larger political hysteria to which the case gave rise. But the real import of the Lee case transcends politics and any assignment of blame to particular persons. It’s about the ricketiness of our own political culture and the rapidity with which hysteria can infect not only political life but the judicial system as well.
We rightly treat the McCarthy era as an object lesson in the perils of political witch hunts and the fragility of civil liberties in moments of national crisis. Yet, in the early 1950s the United States really was endangered. The Cold War was real. This doesn’t excuse the villainies and excesses of those days. But it at least provides some mitigation and context for those who threw the baby out with the bath water. What’s our excuse today?
Lee isn’t quite out of the woods. Prosecutors retain the right to prosecute Lee if polygraph tests say he’s not telling the whole truth. In the words of the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus, who first reported many of the key developments in the case, “He’s home, but he’s not home free.”
The government now says, and the argument should not be too easily dismissed, that the sentence Lee received cannot be taken at face value. Punishment is not the government’s only priority. Finding out what actually happened is often more important, and this deal allows them to do just that. (The federal government will sometimes just sit on damning evidence and let a spy go free, simply to avoid exposing top-secret information; it’s happened before.).
But given the government’s record, and the judge’s stinging words, in this case there’s an uglier, more probable, explanation: The government never had much of a case to begin with. And after a year of chest-thumping and bluster, instead of having the good grace to admit they were wrong, they forced Lee to plead to a felony as the price for getting out of jail.
More Related Stories
- Illinois' fracking and coal rush is a national crisis
- Developers evict historic women's shelter to build luxury hotel
- Kaitlyn Hunt refuses plea offer, will go to court over high school relationship
- DHS admits "impossible" to control 3D-printed guns
- Journalists file suit against Manning trial secrecy
- Russia: Syrian regime ready to talk peace
- Report: Nearly a quarter of all Americans struggle to afford food
- Ted Cruz against the world
- Louie Gohmert: Women should be forced to carry nonviable pregnancies to term
- 2 men arrested for endangering commercial aircraft
- Oversized load blamed for bridge collapse
- This is what Guy Fieri looks like as a balloon
- Iran hackers aiming at U.S. energy firms
- Lawyers release data in attempt to discredit Trayvon Martin
- Anonymous rallies behind Kaitlyn Hunt
- Bridge collapse: Part of "aging infrastructure"
- Mistrial in penalty phase of Arias case
- Amanda Bynes arrested after hurling bong from window
- Interstate 5 bridge collapses north of Seattle
- Mississippi could begin prosecuting women for miscarriages
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11