Into The Sunshine

Every Saturday morning Sylvia Lee and her children would pass through the metal detector and take their seats by the glass partition in the bleak room where maximum-security prisoners meet visitors. A door would open and Wen Ho Lee, diminutive and soft-spoken at 60, would shuffle in flanked by two FBI agents. Lee's legs were shackled, his hands manacled and the handcuffs chained to his waist. "It was just so horrible," his daughter, Alberta, says now. "They were treating him like an animal." The Lee family time began--an hour of stilted togetherness with the FBI taking notes on every word. Seeing her father in chains, and knowing he was being held in complete isolation, frequently reduced Alberta to tears. Reading was one of his only escapes, and every week she brought him something new. His favorite was the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: "One Hundred Years of Solitude."

Wen Ho Lee's term of solitude ended last week in the collapse of the most highly publicized espionage case since the arrest of Aldrich Ames--a negotiated guilty plea on one count of mishandling classified information. The plea bargain stripped any remaining credibility from the hopelessly botched federal investigation of alleged Chinese spying at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and it humiliated the FBI. It also infuriated U.S. district Judge James A. Parker, who said he had been "misled" into treating Wen Ho Lee as a dangerous spy. Calling Lee's imprisonment "draconian" and "unfair," Parker excoriated "top decision makers" at the Department of Justice and the Energy Department who, according to Parker, had "embarrassed our nation." Lee and his lawyers claimed he had been targeted for investigation because he is Chinese, and critics charged that the FBI and the Energy Department had engaged in a new form of racial profiling. The Clinton administration, it seemed, had a bad case of cold-war paranoia.

The recriminations have only just begun. Stung by the judge's criticism and by a rebuke from Bill Clinton, Attorney General Janet Reno is likely to order an internal inquiry into what went wrong--a probe that could prove distinctly uncomfortable to Reno herself, FBI Director Louis Freeh and other senior officials. But even as they acknowledged a badly flawed case, senior law-enforcement officials insisted they were right to go after Lee in the first place. They say his actions raise troubling questions that are still unanswered.

As late as last Monday, NEWSWEEK has learned, Reno and other top Justice officials nearly torpedoed the deal after Lee admitted for the first time that he made copies of the computer tapes containing nuclear secrets he downloaded from Los Alamos's classified computers. Lee insisted he had destroyed all the copies along with seven original tapes the FBI never recovered and that he never compromised U.S. security. But his new admission triggered a series of tense discussions among top national-security officials. "People were really angry and upset," said one source. For a time Reno and other top officials were strongly leaning toward taking the troubled case to trial anyway.

In the end, Justice officials modified the deal with Lee. They gave themselves greater latitude to bring new charges against the scientist if they catch him lying during the intense debriefings he must now undergo. "When the full story comes out," said one unrepentant law-enforcement official, "people are going to see that he's not the poor little innocent he's being made out to be."

Maybe so, but suspicions are not what federal prosecutions are supposed to be about. What drove the Lee case was legitimate national-security concerns--warped by politics. The case began in 1995 when a U.S. agent in Asia was approached by a Chinese "walk-in" defector with a sensational intelligence coup--a 74-page document that purported to be the blueprint for modernizing China's nuclear-weapons program. Although it was seven years old, the document included numerous pieces of information, and some key phrases, that suggested a massive security leak at Los Alamos. It also included a design virtually identical to the W88, a state-of-the-art thermonuclear warhead built for U.S. missile subs. While skeptics suggested the document may have been a plant by Chinese intelligence, some U.S. experts were convinced that much of the information had indeed been stolen from Los Alamos. One of them was Energy Department counterintelligence chief Notra Trulock, who took over the W88 probe, code-named Kindred Spirit. By May 1996 his team of spy-hunters, working with the FBI, had identified 12 suspects--with Wen Ho Lee at the top of the list.

Born in Taiwan and educated at Texas A&M, where he got his doctorate in mechanical engineering, Lee joined the staff at Los Alamos in 1978. He worked in the X Division, which designs U.S. bombs and warheads, as a midlevel scientist specializing in the computer simulation of shock waves generated by nuclear blasts. Crucially, he was on the team that designed the trigger for the W88 warhead. Still, there was no hard evidence that Lee had engaged in any form of espionage. By late 1998 the FBI's Albuquerque, N.M., field office became convinced that Lee was probably not their target and noted that hundreds of other people, including outside contractors, needed to be examined.

By then the political climate had changed. Trulock had testified in secret before a congressional committee investigating technology transfers to China headed by GOP Rep. Chris Cox. Republicans had already pummeled the Clinton White House over Asian campaign contributions, and top administration officials feared a new China scandal. In December 1998, NEWSWEEK has learned, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson called FBI Director Freeh and urged him to accelerate the Lee investigation.

In March 1999 The New York Times ran a front-page story pointing to an unnamed "computer scientist" at Los Alamos as a key figure in a probe of Chinese espionage. The next day the FBI interrogated Lee and tried to extract a confession. Waving the newspaper story, agents warned Lee he faced the loss of his job and pension and that he was "failing" lie-detector tests--a statement that was at least somewhat misleading. "I tell the truth," Lee insisted. "Do you know who the Rosenbergs are?" an agent asked. "You know what happened to them? They electrocuted them, Wen Ho." No lawyer was present.

Ironically, neither the FBI nor the Energy Department was aware at that point that Wen Ho Lee had been secretly downloading massive amounts of X Division weapons data for years. To do it, Lee asked to use the computer of a colleague outside the X Division. Then he typed CL=U (classified equals unclassified) on the restricted files, allowing access from the other computer. Starting in 1993 Lee downloaded 806 megabytes of classified information--about 400,000 pages.

But damning as the evidence looked to national-security officials in Washington, the case against Lee turned out to be filled with holes, and prosecutors began to take hits left and right. At a bail hearing in August, FBI agent Robert Messemer admitted that he had earlier given false testimony, portraying Lee as more devious than the scientist actually was when he asked to use his colleague's computer. Messemer called his testimony "an honest mistake." Other government scientists stated that many of the nuclear secrets Lee downloaded were publicly available--and many had a relatively low classification: "protect as restricted data," or PARD.

In late August a meeting was convened at the Justice Department command center to review where matters stood. "The case was falling apart," said one official. Chief prosecutor George Stamboulidis was convinced he could still win at trial. But national-security officials feared that Judge Parker would allow defense lawyers to introduce some of the secret documents that Lee had downloaded. "We would have had to parade these documents in front of the jury and the world," said Stamboulidis. Even FBI Director Freeh--who had aggressively pushed the case to begin with--was now arguing that the government should take a plea.

Senior law-enforcement officials say the biggest mistake may have been the harsh conditions under which Lee was held--the solitary cell, the leg irons, the 24-hour watch. Top Justice officials now say they had some concerns about this from the beginning but didn't convey them strongly enough to the original prosecution team. "If there was a failure, the higher-ups at Justice weren't really forceful enough in speaking up," said one official. "That's a legitimate criticism." When Stamboulidis came in to take over the case in June, he eased the treatment of Lee and ordered the leg irons taken off. But by then it was too late. The image of Lee, a gentle scientist being mistreated by the government, had made its way into the public mind. As a symbol of overzealous prosecution, it could well stay there for some time to come.