A Question Of Profiling

When it began nearly two years ago, the U.S. government's inquiry into Edward T. Fei's security status seemed routine if slightly puzzling. Fei has long been one of the Energy Department's top experts on nuclear proliferation--a senior if relatively anonymous official who traveled the globe monitoring weapons programs in countries like Iraq and North Korea. So when a security officer grilled him about a seemingly innocuous e-mail, Fei figured his inquisitor was simply looking for some extra work and quickly forgot about it.

Fei couldn't have been more wrong. Like Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos scientist facing life imprisonment for allegedly downloading nuclear secrets onto his home computer, Fei has been targeted by the government's security apparatus. Both men are Chinese-American and their cases--while quite different--raise similar charges of bias against Asian-Americans. "There has been a systematic, calculated pattern of singling out Chinese-Americans for investigation of security breaches," charges Brian Sun, one of Lee's lawyers.

The e-mail in question is one Fei wrote in June 1998, discussing U.S. tactics in negotiations to reduce Russia's stockpiles of plutonium. "To paraphrase the Rolling Stones," Fei wrote, "Time is on our side." He sent the e-mail to 32 people, most of them Energy Department colleagues, although the recipients also included an arms expert in Japan and a journalist. Nearly 18 months later, the e-mail was cited as the principal reason for revoking his security clearance. According to security officials, Fei broke the rules by using information taken from a classified State Department cable.

Since the inquiry began, Fei has been polygraphed twice about whether he was a spy--but despite passing both times, his security clearance was suspended last November. That left him unable to perform most of the duties of his $102,000-a-year job, even though he remains on the payroll. "I've been playing a lot of tennis and taking swing dance lessons," Fei told NEWSWEEK with a laugh. The investigation is "sort of ludicrous," he added. "There's a McCarthyite dimension to this."

Fei has his supporters in the government. During a recent closed-door hearing a parade of current and former Clinton administration officials and congressional aides came to his defense. "The whole thing was patently silly," said Matthew Bunn, a former White House nuclear-weapons expert who teaches at Harvard. "I knew the exact same information from completely unclassified sources--and from talking to Energy Department officials over the phone." Department officials declined comment on the Fei case but a spokesman said, "We do not use any ethnic or racial profiling in our security-clearance screening." An administrative law judge is expected to rule on Fei's appeal later this month.

Lee's attorneys, meantime, will go before an appeals court this week to argue for his release on bail pending trial. They charge that security violations by Energy Department employees of European descent have gone unpunished. In one case, NEWSWEEK has learned, a worker at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California passed a highly classified intelligence assessment to British officials in 1989. No charges were filed and the employee kept his security clearance--a decision that led one department official to resign in protest.

Stung by criticism of security lapses, the administration has raised its counterintelligence budget from $2.6 million four years ago to $39.2 million today. The Energy Department in particular is scrambling to rebuild confidence on Capitol Hill. But a scandal over ethnic prejudice could do even more harm to its credibility.