August 25, 2000
EDITOR'S NOTE: In the eight months since Dr. Wen Ho Lee was first arrested and imprisoned, what was presented as a case of "Chinese espionage" has fallen apart. Instead, there is mounting evidence that the government singled out Dr. Lee as a suspect because of his Chinese ethnicity, making his case of paramount importance to all Americans concerned about racial profiling.
By Theodore Hsien Wang and
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE
SAN FRANCISCO While Republicans and Democrats have been busy showcasing new-founded racial diversity at their conventions, a 60-year-old Chinese American scientist sits in solitary confinement, a victim of old fashion racial stereotypes.
Dr. Wen Ho Lee, the former Los Alamos nuclear scientist, has been accused of downloading nuclear data to portable, unsecured tapes and later failing to account for all of the information. Originally accused of espionage, Lee became the first civilian charged with mishandling classified information and faces up to 39 life sentences if convicted. In the eight months since Lee was arrested, what was presented as a case of "Chinese espionage" is falling apart.
Federal prosecutors concede that they have no evidence that Lee turned over secrets to any foreign government, and the information he allegedly mishandled was not even labeled "classified" at the time he downloaded them. Indeed, the New York Times reports an FBI agent provided inaccurate testimony making Lee appear deceptive when he had not been, and prosecutors have also had to answer charges that the federal government targeted Lee because of his ethnicity. The court's decision on these charges are important not only for Lee but for all Americans concerned about whether the government should be able to launch criminal investigations based on the race of a suspect. Lee's case poses this question in unusually stark terms because many of his government investigators confirm that racial profiling occurred.
Robert Vrooman, the chief counterintelligence officer at Los Alamos during the investigation, has testified that Department of Energy (DOE) officials "chose to focus specifically on Dr. Lee because he is `ethnic Chinese'; Caucasians with the same background and foreign contacts as Dr. Lee were ignored." Similarly, the Acting Director of Counterintelligence of DOE stated in a memo obtained by the Washington Post that DOE investigators were "unfairly singling out Lee and another Chinese American scientist at Los Alamos."
Witnesses quoted Nora Trulock, the senior DOE official who directed the espionage investigations, as saying "ethnic Chinese should not be allowed to work on classified projects." The sworn affidavit the U.S. Attorney's Office used to obtain the search warrant for Lee's home claimed that Lee is more likely to commit espionage for China because he is an "overseas ethnic Chinese." Lee has been a United States citizen for over 25 years.
In discussing Lee's case on national television, then Deputy Director of the FBI, Paul Moore, appeared to agree that federal agencies may consider race as a factor when investigating espionage. Moore justified this practice on grounds that foreign countries tend to target ethnic Americans who have ancestry ties. Using Lee's case as an example, Moore explained that because China primarily attempts to recruit Chinese Americans as spies, it is proper for the FBI to target Chinese Americans in cases involving alleged Chinese espionage.
The problem with Moore's rationalization is that there is no proof to support the theory that Chinese Americans are more susceptible than other citizens to spy for China. Indeed, Moore admits in a subsequent interview that "China's track record with Chinese Americans is extremely poor."
When pressed to provide evidence that Chinese Americans are more likely than others to spy for China, counterintelligence officials cannot cite any studies, statistics or examples. Instead, they fall back on their "extensive experience" on Chinese espionage methods and essentially ask for the public's trust that the use of racial profiles in espionage investigations is justified.
On this issue, the public and the courts should not be trustful. The practice of targeting ethnic Chinese Americans harkens back to the dangerous rationale used to imprison Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II based upon a presumption of shared loyalty through common ethnicity or ancestry. It took over 40 years for the government to acknowledge its mistake and apologize to thousands of loyal American citizens. It should not repeat the same mistake. The harmful effects of racial or ethnic profiling falls not only on the actual victims but is also damaging in many other ways. By focusing only on Asian Americans, a real spy may have escaped the scrutiny of the federal government altogether. The govern-ment's practices are also causing many Asian Americans to leave the national laboratories, creating a brain drain that could damage this country's nuclear program for generations to come.
The Clinton administration has taken a strong stand against racial profiling and has threatened sanctions against state and local law enforcement agencies which stop suspects based on race. It should apply the same standard to its own criminal investigations. The government should acknowledge the mistakes it has made in prosecuting Lee and stop using race as a basis for launching espionage investigations. It wrongly targeted Lee from the start, and the case has unraveled. The government should end this shameful prosecution and allow Wen Ho Lee to go home.
Theodore Hsien Wang is the Policy Director of Chinese for Affirmative Action and Victor Hwang is the Managing Attorney for the Asian Law Caucus.