The case of scientist Wen Ho Lee and Chinese Americans under suspicion for espionage.

How the 1999 Arrest of Wen Ho Lee Taught Chinese Americans Their Country May Never Trust Them

How the 1999 Arrest of Wen Ho Lee Taught Chinese Americans Their Country May Never Trust Them

How the past two decades will shape the future.
Sept. 11 2016 9:20 PM

Just the Wrong Amount of American

Wen Ho Lee’s 1999 arrest taught Chinese Americans that their country may never trust them.

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Wen Ho Lee, who in 1999 was accused by the U.S. Justice Department of being a Chinese spy, on Dec. 15, 2000, in his Los Alamos, New Mexico, home.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thomas Michael Alleman/Liaison/Getty Images and iStock.

On March 6, 1999, the New York Times published an explosive report by James Risen and Jeff Gerth that a spy at Los Alamos National Laboratory had given U.S. nuclear secrets to China, including the design of the most advanced American warhead, the W-88. The story reverberated in the halls of the Capitol, where Republican leaders had long been trying to pin the Clinton administration for ignoring the dawn of a new cold war. The unnamed spy was described as “Chinese-American.”

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Two days later, before any arrest or charges had been made, the Times identified the suspect as Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwan-born scientist, and reported he’d just been fired from the lab. The original story had forced the FBI into a rushed interrogation of Lee, in which an agent threatened Lee by comparing him to the Rosenbergs; Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson, desperate to prove his department was not as hapless as it seemed, directed that Lee be fired without review. Intelligence official Notra Trulock, a central figure in the original Times story, would later say that it was Richardson who had leaked Lee’s name to the press. Lee was the only suspect under investigation.

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In the months that followed, no charges were brought. Dozens of agents descended on Los Alamos, New Mexico, to prove what had become accepted fact in Congress and in the public eye: that Wen Ho Lee had betrayed the country he was a naturalized citizen of, and in the worst possible way. He’d given China the keys to the destruction of the United States. When in December Lee was finally arrested, he was charged not with nuclear espionage, for which there was no evidence, but with 59 counts of downloading restricted data to unrestricted systems. Prosecutors told the court that the knowledge Lee possessed threatened the safety of every single American, and he was placed—before trial—into 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement, shackled for his one hour of exercise. To prevent him from passing secrets, he was forbidden to speak in Mandarin during family visits.

Nine months later, in September 2000, Lee pleaded guilty to one felony count of mishandling data and was released. Thus ended, at least officially, the 18-month fiasco that exposed an American security apparatus as both too vulnerable to political influence and too unchecked in its investigative and prosecutorial abilities, all in the name of the national interest.

It can be easy to forget the enormity of the Wen Ho Lee debacle. Nearly every assumption the government made—that China had acquired a miniature-warhead design through espionage, that Los Alamos had been its source, and that it had done so using intel from a “master spy”—was refuted by the facts. After Lee’s release, the New York Times conducted an internal investigation, detailing what “we wish we had done differently” in its one-sided and sensationalist stories but retaining a defiant tone that disappointed critics who believed the paper had stoked the entire ordeal. (In 2006, Lee would receive a settlement from the government and several newspapers including the Times for the leaking of his name.) The federal judge, in releasing Lee, offered an extraordinary and emotional apology, firing a salvo at the executive branch for drumming up the case and causing “embarrassment to our entire nation and each of us who is a citizen in it.”

As purely a story of government overreach and journalistic malpractice, the Wen Ho Lee case is worth revisiting. But as China, a nation the U.S. courts and distrusts in equal measure, looms ever larger on the world stage, Chinese espionage cases have been on the rise—many of them eerily reminiscent of Lee’s. Suspects are branded as traitors, with the might of the government arrayed against them, because they are Chinese. It’s become clear that despite the embarrassment the Lee case brought to multiple branches of government, it was not the closing chapter to an ugly period of suspicion and prejudice—it was the beginning.

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Guoqing Cao and Shuyu Li, scientists at Eli Lilly, were arrested in October 2013 for passing $55 million worth of secrets to a Chinese drug company. They were jailed and then placed under house arrest; the charges were changed to wire fraud and then dropped in December 2014. The proprietary information they passed was not proprietary after all.

Sherry Chen, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service, sent publicly available info to an old classmate in China and referred that person to a colleague for further information. The colleague reported her as a potential spy, and she was arrested in October 2014. Charges were dropped in March 2015, but the National Weather Service has refused to give Chen her job back.

Xiaoxing Xi, then chair of the Temple University physics department, was arrested in May 2015 for sending plans to a device used in semiconductor research, known as a “pocket heater,” to China. The plans were not of a pocket heater; investigators without the proper scientific background had mixed them up. The charges were dropped in September of last year.

Other similar cases are on the way to trial. The espionage suspicions these days often center on corporate secrets, rather than government ones, but the course of the cases is familiar: sudden arrests and long investigations during which any minor slip-up—even forgetting a date during an interrogation, as happened to Sherry Chen—becomes a lie that proves the crime. In the months or years that it takes to exonerate a suspect, lives are ruined. George Koo, a business consultant and member of the influential Chinese American advocacy group the Committee of 100, described this to me as the government’s “first-move advantage,” one that distorts the justice process. Given the power, resources, and secrecy involved in espionage prosecutions, the burden of proof nearly always ends up with the defense.

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Other recent suspects of Chinese ethnicity, it should be said, have been found guilty. The theft of industrial and trade secrets has been referred to as the single largest loss of American wealth, guesstimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars a year. The FBI has long held that China is unique in its intelligence-gathering methods, that instead of relying on trained operatives, it accumulates as much information as it can, in bits and pieces, from anywhere—public sources, overseas students, scientists visiting China, and, yes, by appealing to the sympathies of Chinese Americans. A version of this theory can be found in A Convenient Spy, the fair and deeply reported 2002 book on the Lee case by Dan Stober and Ian Hoffman. Former FBI chief of Chinese counterintelligence Paul Moore describes the Chinese approach as “grains of sand,” in which the recruitment pitch is made to as many targets as possible and begins simply, “Are you a friend of China?” Moore has argued that since China’s strategy targets more ethnic Chinese by number than non-Chinese, racial profiling in U.S. counterintelligence is unavoidable.

It’s unclear whether profiling plays an official or simply tacit role in the FBI’s counterintelligence strategy. On a 2004 Frontline feature about Chinese spying, former FBI agent Edward Appel said that using “a different lens” for anyone with Chinese ancestry “isn’t a double standard when you stop and think about it. … It’s basic counterintelligence methodology and security methodology.” What defenders of a “different lens” miss, however, is that even if China recruits more ethnic Chinese spies (but not exclusively), profiling is not just wrong morally; it’s foolish. The presumption of guilt leads to sloppy investigations: Technical specifications are not examined closely; benign explanations are bypassed; other suspects are ignored. It leads to cases like Wen Ho Lee’s.

When the Department of Energy opened its operation to hunt for the supposed W-88 spy in the mid-’90s, investigator Dan Bruno penned a memo that said, “An initial consideration will be to identify those US citizens, of Chinese heritage, who worked directly or peripherally with the design development”—race as a factor to whittle the field. A (rejected) FISA surveillance application by the FBI explicitly listed “ethnic Chinese” among its reasons for tapping Lee’s phone. Lee had visited China in the ’80s (for the first time in his life), filling one of the DOE’s criteria, but so had many other non-Chinese scientists from the national labs who were never investigated. Notra Trulock, the DOE intelligence officer, provided star testimony for the House’s doomsday Cox Report, declassified two months after Lee was named, which suggested that every person of Chinese ancestry was a potential sleeper agent for the United States’ greatest rival. For years, the Cox Report would become shorthand in the government for the threat of China, even after its most alarmist findings were thoroughly debunked.

That’s not to say Lee never behaved suspiciously. He’d been investigated once in the early 1980s for cold-calling a Taiwan-born scientist who was under surveillance (eventually assisting the FBI in an intelligence operation around that scientist), and then again in the late ’90s for having failed to report an earlier, brief encounter with a Chinese nuclear-weapons official. Then there was the downloading of data for which he ultimately pleaded guilty—but these codes, nuclear-weapons experts said, were so tailored to American testing and engineering that they could not possibly have been intended for or useful to China. In their book, Stober and Hoffman reasonably surmise that the inconsistencies and deceptions revealed in the investigation of Lee likely came from a deep sense of inadequacy, not intrigue. Lee was an unspectacular scientist (as far as nuclear scientists go), worried about his job security and eager to prove his worth. Former Los Alamos counterintelligence chief Robert Vrooman found Lee to be naïve and thus vulnerable, but not a spy. Countering the FBI’s ethnicity-focused approach, he wrote: “It was our experience that Chinese intelligence officials contacted everyone from the laboratories with a nuclear weapons background who visited China for information, regardless of their ethnicity.”

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But this is the power of racial profiling, to elevate suspicious behavior to prosecutable crime. That Lee’s case had some ambiguity makes it a more valuable example, not less. After all, who, given enough scrutiny, is not suspicious? Put simply: It was a bad case, with a suspect who didn’t fit the charge in any way but one—and yet that one dimension was convincing enough that a GOP Congress, the FBI, and the Departments of Energy and Justice, with an assist from the media, all stopped squabbling long enough to agree that Lee should be put away as a traitor.

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The Lee case was also the biggest test of a newly mature Chinese American movement. And at first, the community’s response was tentative and fragmented. Modern Chinese America is young; immigration was banned or heavily restricted between the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The emergent movement found a national voice in 1982, after Chinese American Vincent Chin was beaten to death by two Detroit autoworkers who blamed the industry’s decline on Japan.

But the Wen Ho Lee case was a different challenge. When the Times published its March 6 story, a collective seizure went through the Chinese American community, which worried it would have to choose between defending one man’s right to due process and giving him up to protect the rest of the community from fallout discrimination. “I called a meeting of 15 Asian American rights organizations in San Jose,” said Ling-chi Wang, a founder of the San Francisco–based Chinese for Affirmative Action, “and presented a two-page plan” for how to collectively approach the Lee case. No one bit.

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At the outset, the Committee of 100 had taken an approach of comity. It invited Bill Richardson to speak at its convention in April 1999, where he reassured them that “Americans are Americans.” By the spring of 2000, when it was clear Lee was being railroaded, Wang advocated for a boycott of government laboratories by Chinese American scientists. Many scientists responded with anger at Wang for making their lives harder than they’d already been since Lee became the face of Chinese treachery. A prominent member of the Committee of 100 initially called the effort “counterproductive.” (The boycott would eventually be a success.)

“My first sense was this was not good for us, whether he was guilty or not,” Albert Wang, founder of the Bay Area’s Citizens for Better Community, told me. “We were nothing back then.” He remembered that the national headquarters of the largest advocacy group, the Organization for Chinese Americans (now known as Asian Pacific American Advocates) initially refused to offer support. What if Lee was guilty? It was too big a risk.

This is the divided consciousness that afflicts those singled out for their race. I was 21 and not all that politically minded when the Times report came out. My first thought was along the lines of “That rat!”—and it seemed the best way I could prove my patriotism and honor my kind, even privately, was to hope the spy was brought to justice, definitively and swiftly.

A childhood friend of mine, Roger Hu, then at MIT, did get involved with the movement after Lee was arrested. He helped run a website for Lee’s legal defense fund. When MIT’s Chinese Students Association declined to support the cause, he walked down Massachusetts Avenue to ask Harvard’s. Speaking out was brave and necessary. I feel some shame and regret now that I did not say anything then, that I believed it was more proper and prudent not to. Even when Lee was released, I was ambivalent, skeptical of the man even as I understood that all Chinese Americans would suffer for the injustice that had been done to him. Roger invited me to a party celebrating Lee’s release, in December 2000, where I shook Lee’s hand and didn’t know exactly what to feel. Now I do.

What makes a movement? Albert Wang told me it is a “numbers game”—in terms of the U.S. population, where Asians are the fastest-growing racial demographic, but also in our government, which historically has not been high on the list of careers considered by Asian immigrants and their children. There are currently 10 U.S. representatives of Asian descent, less than half of what would give Asians representation proportional to their population. (At the time of Wen Ho Lee’s arrest, there were only three.) But it’s not just numbers; it’s also about voice. Many felt it was better to remain silent during the Wen Ho Lee case not only because of ambivalence about his guilt, but because we didn’t see or didn’t want to see the through lines of racism that touched us all. There’s little excuse now.

Pollsters remain puzzled why Asians, the wealthiest racial demographic, still vote to the left, and social scientists breezily wonder out loud if it won’t be long before whiteness invites Asians to join the club. I’m doubtful. As long as Asians continue to be reminded they ultimately do not have say over their own Americanness, they will have more in common with the other minority groups vulnerable to the caprice of public fear and political fearmongering. Muslims and Arabs are terrorists; Latinos are undocumented job-thieves; blacks are violent criminals. And Chinese—those circumspect, duplicitous, sneaky Chinese—are spies.

There is a reckoning coming for people of color, as the steady march toward a majority-minority country butts up against retrenched white nationalism, currently feeding on the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s campaign. For Chinese Americans, the contours of how that reckoning might take place are visible thanks to Wen Ho Lee. Referring to trade deficits, Trump has said, “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country.” His website includes zero-tolerance language about “China’s ongoing theft of intellectual property.” It’s not hard to imagine Trump, or whoever comes after him, drastically affecting Sino-American relations; and thus the lives of Chinese Americans.

Wariness is now the word. The next generation of Chinese American voices will have to remember that despite their patriotism, their relative privilege, their country doesn’t trust them. This is the enduring lesson of Wen Ho Lee, the Patient Zero of the unnerving present and uncertain future of being Chinese in America. He was there at the wrong time, had made just the wrong amount of missteps, and was just the wrong amount of American. After Lee’s release, activists pushed for him to receive a presidential pardon, but it never came. He published a textbook and a memoir and, unable to find another job, retired in New Mexico. Lee doesn’t appear to have given an interview in over a decade, and I wasn’t able to reach him, so it’s not clear what he thinks these days, about his brief reign as spy of the century or about the conduct of justice in his adopted country. But I do take heart in one detail that has remained true since he regained his freedom: He’s still here.