The Modern-Day Rosenberg Case: A Look Back At How the Gov’t Framed Chinese-American Scientist Wen Ho Lee

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Journalist Helen Zia joins us at the UNITY 2004 conference to discuss the book “My Country Versus Me: The First-Hand Account by the Los Alamos Scientist Who Was Falsely Accused of Being a Spy” which she co-wrote with Wen Ho Lee. [includes rush transcript]

We move from post 9/11 stories to a pre-9/11 story and that is the story of Wen Ho Lee, the American scientist who was born in Taiwan. He had devoted almost his entire life to science and to helping improve US defense capabilities. Then, suddenly everything changed and he found himself in the spotlight, accused of espionage by members of Congress and the national media and portrayed as the most dangerous traitor since the Rosenbergs.

  • Helen Zia, Journalist and activist. Author of “Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People” and “My Country Versus Me” about Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Helen Zia took up this case, author, wrote the book, My Country Versus Me: The Firsthand Account by the Los Alamos scientist who was Falsely Accused of Being a Spy. She wrote the book with Wen Ho Lee himself, and she joins us in the studio. Welcome. It’s great to have you with us.

HELEN ZIA: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: This is a name, Wen Ho Lee, that many people say, oh, yeah, what happened to him? Well, tell us his story, because we’re not talking Guantanamo. We are not talking post-9/11. We are talking pre-September 11, 2001.

HELEN ZIA: It’s kind of amazing that there’s such a separation today post-September 11 and people have kind of put Wen Ho Lee in a separate category that because in a way, to me, there’s a direct line between what happened to Wen Ho Lee and what’s going on now. You could almost look at Wen Ho Lee 's case as a prequel to a dry run for what is going on today in the detentions and the U.S. Patriot Acts One and Two and so forth. Wen Ho Lee was on ordinary, quiet citizen working in nuclear weapons technology at Los Alamos National Labs, which is the only work they do there is nuclear weapons. This is national security to the umpteenth degree. That was his work as a physicist. He was accused in 1999 — though he was under surveillance for quite a while — of being a conduit to the People's Republic of China. Now, this is a man who was born in Taiwan, came to the U.S. in the 1960’s, became a U.S. citizen. He worked in the most secure facility, one of the most secure facilities in the country. He worked there more than 20 years. The political backdrop kind of changed. You know, in the mid and late 1990’s, suddenly China had become the evil empire. Of course, the Soviet Union had dissolved, and so the Soviet Union was no longer was evil empire, so the politics had changed. There was in Washington a drat deal of trying to find some — something on the Clinton administration to show that they were soft on national security, that they weren’t protecting the country, the homeland, and that they were, you know, somehow leaking information to China. So, for a few years, there was actually a whole effort to try to find some sort of spy conduit thing to China. Lo and behold, there’s one individual in the Department of Energy who said there’s a leak from the Los Alamos National Labs, and this is the guy. This is the guy, Wen Ho Lee. You know, he — there are leaks, then, to the The New York Times and to the national media. It gets broken in the national press, The New York Times did, in 1999, saying that the entire U.S. national security is at stake, it’s been compromised because of one said individual of Chinese background. Somebody who has never lived in the P.R.C. (People’s Republic of China) and actually whose family is in Taiwan and they have had many hostilities. So, never questioned why this guy would want to jeopardize his whole family by giving secrets to China. Anyway, that’s where it was announced that the crown jewels of American national security had been given to China, and that it was a case worse than the Rosenberg’s. Here immediately this accelerates the members of congress. All of the names we now see all of the time in post-September 11 and in the Senate Intelligence Committee, the House Intelligence and all of the various groups that now make up homeland security interests started calling for investigations. Why hasn’t this man been fired? Why aren’t we prosecuting this man for treason, for espionage? Anyway, is he immediately fired by Bill Richardson, which we just most recently saw at the Democratic National Convention

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Richardson then in charge of the Department of Energy.

HELEN ZIA: Department of Energy.

AMY GOODMAN: Now governor of New Mexico and in charge of the Democratic Party.

HELEN ZIA: Right. So, after that front page story in the The New York Times Bill Richardson goes on television saying that we are firing this man. We are going to prosecute him to the fullest, and so now there’s this idea that this one man is responsible for compromising the entire national security.

AMY GOODMAN: The charge was what — what did he specifically do? Tell it from his perspective, when the people came to his home and what they were saying that he did at Los Alamos?

HELEN ZIA: Well, we are talking March, 1999. He is being accused, tried and convicted, really, in the media, of espionage and treason, which are capital crimes. So, this man understands that he could be executed for this. That’s the level of the discussion in the media and from the halls of congress, kind of echoing back and forth. It’s not until December of that year — I mean, he’s under intense surveillance everywhere he goes, everywhere his family goes. There’s a wagon train of F.B.I. agents following him, going around the neighborhood, staking out the neighborhood. I mean, where he lives in this quiet, you know, Los Alamos town. In December — so, all of these months go by. He’s finally charged with 59 counts of mishandling classified information. Now, that’s quite a leap from, you know, espionage and treason. Mishandling of classified information, in fact, is one of those things that up until Wen Ho Lee, nobody had been criminally charged with. So, he then gets 59 counts of this, and what it is that he mishandled, downloaded some of the computer files he works with. Those were the things that the government said that the — the F.B.I. said, were the crown jewels of American nuclear secrets.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, according to My Country Versus Me,the book you wrote with him, he downloaded these because he was concerned about corruption of the database or that they would crash and he would lose what he had been working on for a long time?

HELEN ZIA: Right. He is a computer programmer of these highly technical codes. Now his codes were called Legacy Codes. Legacy Codes are what, for example, the original Apple computer, or the original, you know, Windows program, the original codes, you know, a long timing that we no longer use at all, but he was involved in maintaining those codes. So, those are not codes — you know, you wouldn’t take an ancient computer today and start using it, and expect it to work. Right? Those are Legacy Codes. It really just means old, ancient codes. So, those are what he was working on. Those were the so-called crown jewels, which, you know, when you start talking to nuclear physicists and it’s not that they’re useless, however it’s not like you could use them and stick them in your nuclear weapon and make it work. So, anyway, that was a whole debate, a kind of a misrepresentation of what had been going on, but as far as the public and the members of congress, you would think that he actually took, you know in a suitcase in fact, there were —- the kind of allegations against him by the F.B.I. were that if he said hello, if we were sitting here and he said 'hello', that there would be a secret coded message that would then in his ’hell’o provide the last bit that would be needed for an advanced nuclear weapon. So, he was arrested and placed in solitary confinement for nine months, shackled and chained every day. This is the prequel to Guantanamo. His family didn’t know where he was going. There was no information to the public. What was—-There were these vague charges, but what did it mean? Nobody had been prosecuted for this before.

AMY GOODMAN: So, he was held in what prison.

HELEN ZIA: Was held in a Sante Fe maximum security prison. He was locked down with murderers, but actually in solitary confinement under the most stringent conditions that any serial killer or, you know, organized crime head could be under, even more than they would be under. The intent there, looking back, was to really break him down, to try to get him to confess to something. He was still living under the idea that he could be executed or these charges could have been life in prison, 59 counts of life in prison, and nobody had experienced this before. So, part of it was how do you defend somebody on something like this? What does the public need to know? It didn’t actually get out for months what conditions he was living under because his attorneys had to get top secret clearance just like the attorneys for the detainees in Guantanamo. The information was considered top secret classified information. So, even what he was being charged with, people didn’t know. This is before the Patriot Act so once people did know the information could get out. It was just shocking, he was a U.S. citizen, so it wasn’t a question of, you know, now with the Patriot Act stuff that, okay: alien enemies — this was a citizen. He was being denied representation. People were not being given access to what was going on with him.

AMY GOODMAN: He was held in shackles. He wasn’t allowed to speak his native tongue to his family, even. What ultimately — the judge allowed this to happen, and what ultimately did the judge say?

HELEN ZIA: He was in solitary confinement in prison for nine months. During these nine months, the judge — they had to build a secure facility in the courthouse. All of this stuff because it was top secret information so that microwaves couldn’t penetrate the courthouse. He had to be held in a lead chambered room.

AMY GOODMAN: This is a man who now is free.

HELEN ZIA: The man now is free.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened at the time? Why did the judge — the judge ultimately flipped on him, completely.

HELEN ZIA: The judge who was listening to all of this, trying to understand what were these crown jewels. All of this had to be under top secret clearance. Even today, you know, people — the public doesn’t have access, the media doesn’t have access to what actually happened. But after hearing nine months of testimony of threats of black helicopters from China flying from China into Los Alamos to grab him and take him back or that his 'hello' could be a secret coded message, and there were incidents of clear F.B.I. misrepresentations of what had happened, that the judge finally released Wen Ho Lee with an apology where the judge spoke from the bench from yellow handwritten notes apologizing to Wen Ho Lee for a half hour saying what happened to you, Wen Ho Lee has embarrassed our nation. This shouldn’t happen in our democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: He accused the Clinton government of lying, the judge?

HELEN ZIA: He didn’t come quite and say that, but basically said there was with really no basis for holding Wen Ho Lee, treating him like this and he released him. They had a plea bargain so Wen Ho Lee, in order to get out of jail, in order to not have this go into a dragged out —- into many million dollar defense pleaded guilty to one count of mishandling of classified information. Now -—

AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds.

HELEN ZIA: In the same time that he was being accused, John Deutsch, the head of the C.I.A., also had mishandled classified information of the entire U.S. Defense C.I.A. apparatus. He was pardoned by — he was charged with a misdemeanor and pardoned Bill Clinton and never put in jail. And Sandi Berger, who we just saw being accused of mishandled of classified information, the report that we saw this morning, on Shelby mishandling classified information, nothing happened, but with Wen Ho Lee, it was.

AMY GOODMAN: The book is incredible one, My Country Versus Me: The Firsthand Account by the Los Alamos scientist who was Falsely Accused of Being a Spy, Wen Ho Lee wrote the book with journalist, Helen Zia. I want to thank you for being with us.

HELEN ZIA: Sure, thank you.

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