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Jewish World Review Sept. 20, 2000 / 19 Elul, 5760

Philip Terzian

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They've got a secret -- IT MUST HAVE BEEN comforting to Wen Ho Lee to know that President Clinton has been "deeply troubled" by his treatment. Dr. Lee, of course, is the Los Alamos weapons scientist who was arrested and imprisoned for nearly a year -- shackled, held in solitary confinement, and threatened with execution -- on the (presumably mistaken) assumption he is a spy.

After pleading guilty to one technical count out of 59 -- illegally retaining national defense information -- Lee was released from confinement this week. The magistrate who freed him, U.S. District Judge James Parker, declared that the "top decision-makers in the executive branch" of the federal government had decided to go after Lee, and had persuaded him to keep Lee behind bars, without bail. But when it was revealed that the case actually involved the transfer of classified files from the Los Alamos lab to Lee's home, that there was no evidence that secrets had been turned over to anyone, much less China, and that allegations Lee had lied to the FBI were untrue, the case collapsed. And those who brought it, in the words of Judge Parker, "embarrassed this entire nation and each of us who is a citizen of it."

The top decision-makers Judge Parker had in mind were officials in the White House, the Justice Department and the FBI. But the top decision-maker at the Justice Department was having none of it: Janet Reno told reporters she did not believe that Wen Ho Lee was a victim of injustice, and she had no intention of apologizing to anyone. To be sure, that was before the President had weighed in on the subject. Discussing the extent to which he had been "troubled" by the case, Bill Clinton managed to sound as if he were talking about some government other than the one he heads.

So what happens now is anyone's guess. As we know from the report issued by Rep. Christopher Cox's investigative committee in 1999, the People's Republic of China has acquired all manner of secret nuclear weapons technology. But nobody knows how they got it. The information could have come from Los Alamos, or it might have been acquired in other weapons research labs, or some government agency. It is theoretically possible that Wen Ho Lee really is the culprit, or any one of dozens of Lee's colleagues, or none of them. But the reason that Lee came under suspicion is not because there were signs he had been consorting with Beijing (he is, after all, a native of Taiwan) but because he had carried classified data to his home.

This is of some interest, because at the same time Wen Ho Lee was downloading nuclear secrets, the then-Director of Central Intelligence, John Deutch, was maintaining large volumes of secret information on his home computer, which is connected to the Internet. Nobody is accusing Deutch of espionage, but someone could have hacked into his home computer and acquired information about covert operations, top-secret codes, agents under cover, and budgetary data on American spy satellites.

Those who are correctly concerned about the mistreatment of Wen Ho Lee ask an obvious question: Why was John Deutch free while Wen Ho Lee was languishing in prison? The answer, according to Janet Reno, is that Deutch did not intend to harm the national security; his was an error of judgment, not an act of malice. And of course, she is right. Deutch did not intend to pass secrets to the enemy; he violated security protocols (for which he had his clearance revoked last spring) and he may yet be charged with a misdemeanor. Moreover, Deutch was entitled to see the data he worked on at home; Lee stored material unconnected to his work.

None of this, of course, answers the central question: How did the Chinese get that weapons information? But it does illuminate the chronic problem of secrecy. Congrss has been in a fury since Wen Ho Lee was arrested, and is demanding newer, more stringent, security precautions. It is difficult to see how that will be accomplished. The extent to which information is classified in the federal government is beyond parody -- newspaper clippings can be stamped "top secret" -- and if weapons labs are run more like police states, their attraction to scientists will inevitably diminish.

Then again, there is more than one way to acquire privileged knowledge. The assumption behind the prosecution of Wen Ho Lee is that the Chinese have been conducting traditional intelligence operations, recruiting agents, stealing data, compromising people with secrets to reveal. But China is not just an adversary in the nuclear arms race; it is, so far as the Clinton administration is concerned, a "strategic partner" as well. Ties between Beijing and Washington have flourished in recent years, and as we know, the People's Liberation Army took an active interest in the President's re-election in 1996. Spend enough time in one another's company, deepening the bonds of strategic partnership, and who needs Wen Ho Lee?

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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08/21/00: The beat goes awry
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© 2000, Philip Terzian