The spy who wasn't

Wen Ho Lee speaks out about his ordeal at the hands of the FBI and a witch-hunting press. To many Arab men today, his story will sound all too familiar.

Published January 28, 2002 9:14PM (EST)

On Jan. 11, the sagging war-on-terrorism beat received a welcome jolt of news when federal prosecutors in Manhattan announced they had charged Abdallah Higazy with perjury after he denied owning a ground-to-air radio transceiver. The radio was found inside a locked safe, along with a Quran and a passport, in the hotel room where Higazy was staying on Sept. 11. The downtown hotel offers unobstructed views of World Trade Center.

Higazy, an Egyptian-born student doing graduate work in America, had been held as a material witness since Dec. 17. That's when he went back to the hotel to pick up possessions he left behind on Sept. 11, the day all occupants were ordered to evacuate the building. The FBI confronted him about the radio, which was found by hotel personnel. Higazy denied it was his. But FBI interrogators, after three sets of interviews, finally got him to confess, and then charged him with perjury for his initial denial.

What was so tantalizing about the case was the charge that hadn't yet been leveled; did the Egyptian help guide the al-Qaida hijackers to their final target on the morning of Sept. 11?

Commenting on CNN, Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge confirmed the case "has been a high priority within the FBI."

The media pounced. New York Post columnist Steve Dunleavy belittled Higazy's defense, suggesting "the most amateur sleuth could raise eyebrows with questions in [his] case." Dunleavy showered scorn on Higazy's attorney for claiming that amid all the chaos of Sept. 11 somebody could have planted the radio in Higazy's room: "Puh-lease."

Four days after being charged, Higazy was released when another guest, a U.S.-born private pilot, showed up at the same hotel to claim the handheld radio he'd left behind on Sept. 11. FBI investigators went back and interviewed the hotel employee who found the radio. He changed his story; suddenly the radio wasn't found in a locked safe, but on a table in plain sight.

Upon release, Higazy insisted he had never given up hope of clearing his name: "I just thought that they're going to waste a lot of time and money and effort, and they're going to realize that I was telling the truth."

The Egyptian's court-appointed attorney, who claimed the FBI obtained Higazy's confession only after investigators threatened to entangle his family members, offered a more dour postscript to his client's ordeal: "America really needs to take a deep breath and realize that a lot of people are being swallowed up in hysteria."

Reading about overzealous prosecutors locking up suspicious foreigners on dubious charges while an eager press chimes in with a chorus of "Guilty," one can't help but wonder what Wen Ho Lee thinks of recent events.

After all, the Taiwanese-born Lee was falsely accused by the U.S. government, which painted him as a grave threat to national security. Lee has worn prison garb, stumbled through bullying FBI interrogation sessions and been persecuted by the press. But unlike Higazy's case, Lee's nightmare lasted almost two whole years, which explains why his faith -- his belief that if he simply told the truth again and again the government would set him free -- did occasionally waiver. His resistance though, did not:

"I felt that the government was torturing me now, that they were trying to break me down without coming right out and shooting me. I said to myself, 'They're trying to get me to cave in and confess to something that I didn't do, to get me to say, "Okay, you're right, I'm a big spy."' I figured if I didn't confess, they'd want me to kill myself. But their dirty tricks only made me madder. My family knows how stubborn I can be. I wasn't going to let ... the government break my spirit. I kept telling myself, I will never give up, I will never surrender to their dirty tricks and lies," writes the former nuclear scientist in his new book, "My Country Versus Me."

Lee, of course, is the infamous spy who wasn't. Caught up in a manufactured scandal that, pre-Sept. 11, passed as a national security crisis, Lee became the focus of a fierce government inquiry into alleged Chinese espionage. Utterly convinced of Lee's guilt -- and busy duping complacent New York Times reporters with grand, anonymous and erroneous accusations -- government investigators were egged on by a conservative Beltway feeding frenzy (The White House is soft on China!) and tried to lock Lee up for life.

The case eventually imploded in open court, becoming just another in the laundry list of fiascoes suffered by the FBI during Louis Freeh's tenure as chief.

Lee's book, written with Helen Zia, details his strange, unwelcome tango with American courts. (In his acknowledgments, Lee thanks no fewer than 24 members of his legal team and their staffs.)

Since Wen Ho Lee's name has already become synonymous with an egregious miscarriage of justice, it's important to have his version of the story on the record. Those who followed the nuclear scientist's saga closely, though, probably won't find much new information in the book.

Readers won't find many fireworks either. Calm and quiet almost to a fault, Lee, who's never watched the Super Bowl (he prefers fishing), never voted and only listens to music written centuries ago, continues to hold his cards close to the vest. His anger and frustration still simmer, but he allows himself only the mildest outbursts in print.

"Trouble came roaring into my safe and steady world on December 23, 1998, like the kind of flash rainstorm in the mountains that can turn a placid fishing trip deadly," writes Lee. On that day, having just returned to his job at the Los Alamos National Lab from a trip to Taiwan, Lee was summoned into the security office for a debriefing.

He didn't know it at the time (and by not quickly hiring a lawyer, he needlessly remained the dark for months), but Lee was suspected of providing the Chinese with design features for the United States' W-88 miniature nuclear warhead. Why Lee? In part, because he knew how the W-88 was designed, and he'd visited China.

In the end, the government's Operation Kindred Spirit, which examined Lee's supposed hand in the supposed espionage, fizzled. But that was simply replaced by Operation Sea Change, which charged Lee with illegally downloading computer files. On Dec. 10, 1999, Lee was arrested, charged with 59 counts, and faced a maximum sentence of life in prison.

In his book, Lee insists that the tapes he made, and subsequently threw away, were simply backups to protect his own files, and that other people, such as former CIA Director John Deutch, have also been guilty of transferring files to unsecured computers, but were never prosecuted like Lee.

In their recent book, however, "A Convenient Spy: Wen Ho Lee and the Politics of Nuclear Espionage," reporters Dan Stober and Ian Hoffman criticize the government's investigation but take issue with Lee's explanation of the tapes. They suggest his highly unusual downloading activities justifiably raised suspicions, and that Lee was building up a library of bomb data in hopes of landing a better job outside of LANL. Lee's critics still insist that his foolish actions were the cause of his troubles, but only his most radical detractors suggest that he was ever a spy.

Lee's saga is all about a crusade run amok, but unfortunately neither book can answer the crucial questions of how and why the operation jumped off track. The key players who can provide the answers aren't talking.

One of them is FBI agent Carol Covert, whose shockingly inappropriate interrogation session with Lee on March 7, 1999, became a national embarrassment when Lee's advocates obtained transcripts and posted them on a Web site while he was behind bars. Another is former Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson, who caved in to political pressure and OK'd the Lee witch hunt.

And then there's supervising FBI agent Robert Messmer, whose inflammatory testimony helped make sure Lee was imprisoned for nearly a year while awaiting trial; Messmer was later forced to recant that testimony as "misstatements." Renegade, self-styled whistle-blower Notra Trulock, a discredited former Energy Department intelligence officer, became fixated on Lee early on and then leaked fictional accounts of the spy investigation to the New York Times. (During the height of the frenzy, NBC's Tim Russert welcomed Trulock on "Meet the Press" and treated him with reverence.)

Another culprit is Lee's old LANL boss Dick Krajcik, who testified that Lee had downloaded "the crown jewels of the nuclear weapons program," and Dr. Paul Robinson, LANL's former associate director for national security, who testified that Lee's tapes "could truly change the world's strategic balance." Both assertions were proven to be pure nonsense.

And then there are Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, John McCain, R-Ariz., and Trent Lott, R-Miss., who all banged the proverbial table during more than a dozen Lee-related congressional hearings, demanding to know what the Clinton administration was going to do about the Chinese spy in its midst and why the scientist hadn't yet been indicted for, let alone convicted of, spying.

And finally there's the New York Times, whose editors and publisher must wish they'd never heard the name Wen Ho Lee. It's almost impossible to overstate what a profound impact the paper's overly sensational and utterly unfair coverage had on both creating the Beltway hysteria surrounding the questions of Chinese espionage and making Lee's personal life hell.

The paper's Page 1 blockbuster on March 6, 1999, "Breach at Los Alamos," was written by James Risen and Jeff Gerth, or, "those two guys from the New York Times" as Lee refers to them in his book. The story, coming straight from Turlock's mouth and reportedly printed just as the FBI was about to drop its case against Lee for lack of evidence, trumpeted China's supposed theft of nuclear secrets and implicated Lee.

It really is a piece of journalism that will live in infamy, one that, along with the paper's subsequent series of accusatory articles, should serve for years to come as a case study in J-schools for how not to practice the craft.

As Lee notes, "According to their [March 6] article and people quoted in it, there was no room for doubt: China got its nuclear technology spying on American, the spy was from Los Alamos, and I was it. Yet not a single one of these assertions has been proven true."

Just how close did the New York Times come to simply taking dictation from government sources who were busy hounding Lee and pushing their own obvious agendas? On March 25, the paper ran one of its many follow-up stories, ominously informing readers that Lee's former research assistant had "disappeared." The paper reported, "He returned to the University of Pittsburgh, officials said. They said they were not sure whether the assistant ... was still in the United States."

Note the information was entirely based on what "officials said." Did the New York Times reporters ever try to track down the mysterious University of Pittsburgh student on their own? Apparently not, since the assistant's name would have been easily located on the university's Web site or in the local phone book. (To the paper's credit, it eventually assigned the Lee story to other reporters who treated the topic fairly.)

Lee's story does, however, come with a set of heroes. There's Jo Starling, a former teacher of Lee's adult daughter, who offered her own home as a guarantee toward his bail. And Lee's attorney, Mark Holscher, who along with the prestigious Los Angeles firm O'Melveny & Myers, provided nearly $2 million in pro bono work on Lee's behalf.

Important members of the scientific and counterintelligence communities came forward to buck the conventional wisdom and question the government line. They included Harold Agnew, former director of LANL and revered nuclear physicist, Stephen Schwartz, a physicist and the executive director of the Education Foundation for Nuclear Science, and Bob Vrooman, LANL's former counterintelligence chief. (In retrospect, the government's case against Lee really began to collapse on Aug. 12, 1999, when Secretary of Energy Richardson disciplined Vrooman for failing to distribute an assessment of Lee; Vrooman fired back in public, detailing the flaws in the case and charging that Lee was the victim of ethnic profiling.)

Meanwhile, there was Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer, who was out front calling the Lee case what it was: a witch hunt. (Although not cited in Lee's book, the late Lars-Erik Nelson, a longtime New York Daily News columnist, also deserves credit for his dogged pursuit of the story, long before it became fashionable.)

Perhaps the most heroic performance, though, was turned in by Chief Judge James Parker of the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico. He brought the sad case to a close by helping both sides hammer out a plea bargain for which Lee pled guilty to one of the 59 counts. And on Sept. 13, 2000, Parker then took the time (30 minutes) in open court to issue an unusual apology to Lee and his family: "I am sad for you and your family because of the way in which you were kept in custody while you were presumed under the law to be innocent of the charges the executive branch brought against you."

Which brings us back to the tale of Abdallah Higazy, the Egyptian student held for more than a month and erroneously charged with perjury. Here's hoping that in the coming months when the hysteria of the day passes and the evidence being used to detain so many Middle Eastern men is fully examined, there won't be more officers of the court who, like Judge Parker, feel compelled to issue apologies on behalf of our government.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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