Wen Ho Lee: Railroaded

By Eric Boehlert

By Salon Staff
September 25, 2000 11:15PM (UTC)
main article image

Read the story

The New York Times will never admit to any wrongdoing in its coverage of Whitewater, the Loral allegations or the persecution of Lee. They have acted too badly too long to back off now and are pretty much stuck with claiming that Alfred Dreyfus really was guilty and anyhow has to take the blame for obfuscating the investigation.


Thinking about Jeff Gerth makes me long for the good old days when a disgraced club member was loaned a revolver and expected to do the right thing.

-- Jim Harrison

Not one of the senators, government officials and other accusers of Lee seems to have noticed that Wen Ho Lee, by passing U.S. nuclear secrets to China would be betraying not only his adopted country, but his birthplace as well. The man was born in Taiwan.


This fact is mentioned frequently in connection with his ethnicity. Yet no one in this whole long, drawn-out, ugly affair has stopped to ask why on earth a Taiwanese would hand China a larger stick with which to bludgeon his homeland. And in a rhetorical atmosphere in which defending democratic Taiwan is basically equivalent to defending U.S. world interests, few of us can claim not to know that China's and Taiwan's interests are very different.

It's not just the New York Times that should take the blame for this silly, depressing and embarrassing episode -- it's all of us, for not noticing, not asking about and not questioning the obvious.

-- Lissa Michalak


The case of Wen Ho Lee represents a watershed moment in the political history of Asian-Americans. Lee was a 20-year veteran of the Los Alamos lab. He was fired for the same offense -- transferring secrets to a non-secure computer -- that a former CIA director was recently merely reprimanded for. Furthermore, the security level of Lee's secrets was upgraded post facto. Lee was denied bail, shackled and left in solitary confinement for nine months. To keep him in prison FBI agents provided false testimony.

This all sounds like the due process Chinese immigrants received in 19th century America.


Beijing may well present national security challenges to our nation. Let's not grab the first Taiwanese-American that satisfies the race requirement for a scapegoat.

President Clinton does well to echo the doubts of the judge in this case. Like the Irish, Italians and Jews before them, Americans of Asian descent should pull together and speak out loudly against their defamation, personified by Wen Ho Lee.

-- Robert Eason


Eric Boehlert's piece on Jeff Gerth's New York Times frame-job on Wen Ho Lee correctly identifies the shared features of Gerth's "journalism": ominous conclusions from questionable evidence, loaded language, flawed sources with axes to grind and charges that never pan out. He fails to mention another thread that runs through Gerth's work: its perfect utility to the strategic political goals of the Republican National Committee. He repeatedly has turned the reputation of the "newspaper of record" as an instrument to savage President Clinton and his administration. In the process, beyond the political damage and waste wrought, he has grievously damaged the paper's credibility, made the Pulitzer committee and its prize look ridiculous and has shamed journalism itself to an extent which could hardly be exceeded.

If Gerth has served any useful purpose, it is to reveal the malignant arrogance that has become the New York Times. Such an institution ill-serves our democracy.

-- Louis J. Van den Berg


In Chapter Six of the famous Cox Report, I found the following paragraph:

"As an example, simply giving a foreign national an article from the Encyclopedia Britannica is not an export requiring a license. If, however, the article is provided to a foreign national by an experienced engineer in the context of specific technical discussions, a defense service that requires a license may have been performed."

And that is national security: Loral was accused of telling the Chinese they had a bad solder joint in the rocket that blew up. And the Cox committee proclaimed that a crime based on the logic quoted above.

No wonder we cannot protect our national security. Our government in its infinite wisdom proclaims that everything under the sun is national security.


Next thing you know, you cannot even talk about the sun to a foreigner.

-- Eng Ha

If Lee had been an athlete, a politician, an actor or a farmer, would he have been locked in chains in a prison for nine months, without bail or trial? Of course not. But it is common practice in the U.S. for scientific geniuses to be feared, despised and viewed with a wary sense of contempt.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress is getting ready to flood America with another quarter-million foreign replacement workers, targeting U.S. citizens in high-tech jobs. In 1998, half a million U.S. high-tech workers were fired in order to keep stock prices up; many of them became homeless and destitute. Except for a handful of super-rich business magnates posing as wizards, America's high-tech geniuses have no social capital, no political clout and no place at the table of U.S. prosperity. As a former NASA engineer who spent the Clinton-Gore years in deep poverty, I should know. Lee's case shows clearly that civil rights and social capital only belong to the extremes of the wealthy and the uneducated, not to hard-working, well-educated members of the middle class.


-- Tom Nadeau

Eric Boehlert has chosen to overlook or minimize two undeniable facts: First, that Wen Ho Lee absolutely, positively knew that it is expressly forbidden to copy classified data. Or to remove it from the secure facility. Or to share it with others. Second, that he admits that he did some or all of the above.

Lee has admitted that, in violation of law and his security oath, he repeatedly copied highly classified data. He's admitted that he removed such data from the secure facility. He's chosen to be a little coy about what happened to it then.

The things Lee has admitted are sufficient to strip him of his clearance and his job and to subject him to prosecution. The thing that he's coy about is espionage. No security clearance and no job are one thing. Life in a federal prison is another. No wonder he's coy and is working hard on a plea bargain.


Did the security team pick on Lee because of his ethnicity? Who knows. They probably picked on him because he has access to the data, has been to China and has had contact with Chinese scientists. I'd guess that everyone with that same profile got the same scrutiny. Wen Ho Lee just happens to be the guilty one.

If the guilty party was an ethnic Anglo-Saxon born in Ohio rather than an ethnic Chinese born in Taiwan, would there be such an outcry about discrimination rather than guilt? You can ponder that question all you want. You already know the answer.

-- Ron Ralston

Your story charging that the New York Times "made a spy" of nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee reminds me an awful lot of the breathless opining from the late '50s and early '60s about how Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of leaking American nuclear bomb secrets to the Soviet Union during the 1940s, were just two nice, innocent folks caught up in and killed by the hysteria of the era. But now we know better, since the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of the archives. We know only too well the real damage Julius and Ethel and their friends did to the United States in particular and to the world in general -- the enormous cost in lives and treasure the treachery of just a few can do to the many.

And frankly, I think it is also a little far-fetched on the part of Boehlert to conclude the New York Times is a willing tool of either Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), ex-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, the Republican Party or people in general who are bent on trying embarrass the Clinton administration. (Really, I don't think anybody can outdo President Clinton when it comes to embarrassing his administration.)

I hope, like Boehlert, that the charges against Lee are not true. I hope, but I do not know. And neither does Boehlert. Only a few in the Chinese government (and Lee, of course) will ever know the full truth. That is, until the Bamboo Curtain falls and the archives open.

-- Bob Evans

I certainly have no idea whether or not Lee was involved in espionage or if there is some other explanation for clear violations of security procedures and the evaporation of the computer tapes and the many copies he made thereof. It would not be the first time that lax security ended up creating problems. However, even in a magazine that is an opinion journal rather than a news journal, it is important to consider the likelihood that where a U.S. warhead design shows up in another country, it has been obtained by espionage of some sort. Dismissing the possibility, indeed the probability, because it doesn't fit with your political view gives credence to the saying that conservatives believe what they see and liberals see what they believe.

Reality suggests that we all tend to see what we believe. The public interest rests in criticism that explores both the likelihood of security lapses and the errors that occur in pursuing, or not pursuing, the fact-based probabilities.

It is as likely that the night will follow day that espionage has occurred at Los Alamos. It apparently has occurred at the State Department recently. No doubt it is occurring elsewhere where secrets are kept. Of course, it's also occurring in Moscow and Beijing, etc. Ridiculing the possibility of an everyday event suggests minds and visions dimmed into "nanodom."

-- P.J. Moran

Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------