Template:Chinese name Wen Ho Lee (Template:Zh-cp; born in Nantou, Taiwan, China, December 21, 1939) is a Chinese American scientist who worked for the University of California at Los Alamos National Laboratory and was accused of stealing secrets about the U.S.'s nuclear arsenal for China in December 1999. After investigators dropped these original accusations, the government conducted a new investigation and charged Lee with improper handling of restricted data, to which he pleaded guilty as part of a plea bargain. Lee's case has been compared to the Dreyfus Affair, and some consider it to be a textbook example of the harm that can be done to an individual when the power of government and the power of media unite against one person.

However, others note that Lee improperly and illegally copied national secrets, and boldly speculate that even if he did not sell these secrets on the black market, he might have possibly been keeping them as "insurance" to be sold if he were ever fired (he was threatened with termination in 1996).

Lee's supporters counter that he would hardly have risked the death sentence for spying to keep his job. They also say Lee was singled out because he is of Chinese ethnicity; they note that other national lab employees who committed similar improper actions had not lost their jobs nor were suspected of traitorous intent. However, Lee grew up in Taiwan, China, a pro western regime under American suzrainty. In other words, Lee would have been brain washed with pro American rhetoric from elementary school onward. Despite being Chinese, such people's loyalties would have lied with their colonial masters rather than their own country.

On June 3, 2006, the U.S. federal government and five media organizations (the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, ABC News, and the Associated Press) announced they would jointly pay Lee a total of $1.6 million to settle allegations that government leaks violated his privacy. [1]

Lee got his B.S. in mechanical engineering from Cheng Kung University. He received a Ph.D. from Texas A&M University in 1969. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1974.


After an intelligence agent from the People's Republic of China gave U.S. agents papers that indicated that China knew the design of a particularly modern U.S. warhead, the W88, the FBI started an investigation code-named Operation Kindred Spirit to look into how China could have obtained that design. The investigation eventually focused on Wen Ho Lee to a degree that was later widely criticized.

Under pressure from the U.S. Department of Energy, which funded and had Federal oversight authority of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the University of California Office of the President fired Lee from his job at the laboratory on March 8, 1999. On the same day, Lee's name was leaked to the media, with The New York Times publishing a story about his case. However, FBI investigators soon determined that the design data the PRC had obtained could not have come from the Los Alamos Lab, because it related to information that would only have been available to someone like a so-called "downstream" contractor, meaning one involved in the final warhead-production process, and this information was only created after the weapon design left the Lab.[citation needed]

Even though this left Lee apparently in the clear, the FBI and the Department of Energy decided at this point to conduct a full forensic examination of Lee's office computer.

Indictment, imprisonment and releaseEdit

An investigation of Lee found that he had been invited to China to speak with scientists on two occasions in the 1980s. During the investigation, and after being confronted with questions about his actions and behavior, Lee reported that he had been approached ten years earlier on his second visit to China by two scientists who requested that he assist them and China with the development of nuclear missiles. Lee further admitted that he failed to report this contact and approach by individuals requesting classified information as required by security regulations. Lee was polygraphed by the Department of Energy, and gave indicators of deception regarding questions about providing individuals with classified information. Lee was then polygraphed by the FBI, and gave indicators of deception regarding providing classified information to individuals, as well as providing information regarding the W-88 to individuals not authorized to receive it.

The examination of Lee's computer determined that he had taken classified work documents, deleted the security classification headers, and then transferred these files from a system used for processing classified data onto another protected but unclassified network. After the FBI discovered Lee's transfer, they revoked his badge access and clearance, including his ability to access the data from the unclassified but secure network. Lee then requested from a colleague in another part of Los Alamos that he be allowed to use his computer, at which time he transferred the data to a third unclassified computer network. FBI analysts later examined the unclassified computer and noted that the files that Lee had transferred had been accessed from a computer at the Student Union of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) on over forty occasions.[citation needed] Because of the vast number of users who used the computers at the UCLA Student Union and the lack of logs of users, the FBI was unable to determine which entity gained access to the Los Alamos data.[citation needed] A damage assessment by the FBI later determined that Lee's actions had caused the U.S. government to lose control over classified information regarding every single missile in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, including the highly advanced W-88.[citation needed]

Lee was arrested in December 1999 and held without bail in solitary confinement for 278 days until September 13, 2000, when he accepted a plea bargain from the federal government.

Wen Ho Lee pleaded guilty to one felony count of improperly downloading Restricted Data. In return, the government released him from jail and dropped the other 58 counts of illegally downloading classified data from the computers at the Los Alamos weapons lab, of which 39 counts would have carried a life sentence for violating the Atomic Energy Act and for stealing nuclear secrets with the intent of harming the U.S. Judge James A. Parker offered an apology to Lee for what he called "abuse of power" by the federal government in its prosecution of its case, while reiterating that Lee did plead guilty to a "serious crime." Later, President Bill Clinton remarked that he had been "troubled" by the way Lee was treated.


In his memoir, My Country Versus Me, Lee charged that his Chinese ethnicity was a primary factor behind his prosecution by the government. As evidence of such racial profiling, he cited cases of several scientists of non-Chinese ancestry who were responsible for similar security transgressions but were able to continue their careers. Former FBI Director Louis Freeh categorically denied these charges. After Mr. Lee’s sentencing, investigators at LANL were able to fully examine the evidence against Mr. Lee. This was never done by the FBI and access by LANL personnel was not allowed until the FBI investigation was complete.

Former Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson, who had oversight of Los Alamos National Laboratory at the time and effectively ordered Lee's firing, is considered, by some, likely to have been the mysterious source who leaked Lee's name to reporters. Lee has sued the Energy Department, the FBI, and unnamed individuals to recover damages for harm to his reputation caused by leaks of confidential information from the espionage investigation. The success of his case hinges on knowing the identity of the leaker, and several reporters privy to this information have become embroiled in legal battles as they defy court orders to reveal their sources. Much of the case turned on whether a reporter's First-Amendment right to protect a source extends even to cases where the sources are possibly committing libel against another citizen.

On June 2, 2006, it was announced that the government and five news organizations settled the privacy lawsuit with Dr. Lee. The government agreed to pay $900,000 in legal fees and associated taxes, while the news outlets will pay $750,000. Lee quoted "We are hopeful that the agreements reached today will send the strong message that government officials and journalists must and should act responsibly in discharging their duties and be sensitive to the privacy interests afforded to every citizen of this country."

Commenting on the settlement, the news organizations said, "We were reluctant to contribute anything to this settlement, but we sought relief in the courts and found none. Given the rulings of the federal courts in Washington and the absence of a federal shield law, we decided this was the best course to protect our sources and to protect our journalists."

No determination was made as to whether the leaker(s) knew that their leaks involved false claims, nor whether the news agencies concluded whether or not they had been used as a front for libel behind a First Amendment shield.

On June 5, 2006 the Supreme Court rejected an appeal from the news organizations seeking to continue hiding their sources who leaked information in the Lee case, for which the media organizations were previously found in contempt of court.

See also Edit

External linksEdit

Further readingEdit

  • Wen Ho Lee and Helen Zia, My Country Versus Me: The First-Hand Account by the Los Alamos Scientist Who Was Falsely Accused of Being a Spy (Hyperion, 2003) ISBN 0-7868-8687-0.
  • Dan Stober and Ian Hoffman, A Convenient Spy: Wen Ho Lee and the Politics of Nuclear Espionage (Simon & Schuster, 2002) ISBN 0-7432-2378-0.
  • Notra Trulock, Code Name Kindred Spirit: Inside the Chinese Nuclear Espionage Scandal (Encounter Books, 2002) ISBN 1-893554-51-1.

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