- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2000

The strange case of Wen Ho Lee appears to have come to an abrupt end this week. Lee is the former nuclear weapons scientist once suspected of espionage on behalf of China and later charged with 59 felony counts involving his unauthorized removal of what were said to be the nation's most sensitive nuclear information from Los Alamos National Laboratories. This week Lee pleaded guilty to a single felony count. The plea bargain came less than two months before going to trial and after nine months of "being held in pretrial custody in demeaning and unnecessarily punitive conditions," according to the U.S. District Judge James Parker. He had harsh words about the government.

Lee had always vigorously denied that he ever committed espionage on behalf of China or any other country. And he was never charged with espionage. Last December, however, the Justice Department secured a 59-count indictment. Thirty-nine of those counts, each of which carried a potential life sentence, charged that Lee acted with the intent to aid a foreign nation or to harm the United States. In the plea bargain this week, Lee admitted to no such intent, and the federal government dropped all charges except one.

The only charge to which Lee pleaded guilty involved illegally downloading in 1993, 1994 and 1997 an estimated 400,000 pages of nuclear weapons secrets from a secure computer onto an "open" computer and subsequently duplicating those secrets onto 10 computer tapes. That felony count would have carried a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and a mandatory three-year probation period if Lee were convicted by a jury. Under the plea bargain, his jail time will be limited to the time already served. According to the arrangement, Lee will be required to cooperate fully to convince the FBI that he has been telling the truth about destroying the tapes (only three have been recovered). Interestingly, Judge Parker said in his statement that Lee had made this offer of full cooperation in December before he was indicted, but the government did not accept it then.

The government's case showed unmistakable signs of collapsing in recent weeks. At a mid-August bail hearing, the FBI's chief investigator in the Lee case admitted that he had repeatedly provided false testimony. The agent had testified that Lee had lied and tried to conceal his actions. Nor could the FBI supply the evidence confirming its assertion that Lee had applied to nuclear institutes overseas. Other Los Alamos nuclear weapons scientists disputed prosecutors' charges that what Lee had downloaded and duplicated represented "the crown jewels" of the nation's nuclear secrets.

Acknowledging that Lee "faced some risk of conviction by a jury if [he] were to have proceeded to trial," Judge Parker nonetheless excoriated "the top decision-makers in the executive branch." He specifically blamed the White House, the Justice Department, the FBI and the Energy Department. He charged that the government had repeatedly "misled" him by exaggerating the amount of evidence it had in arguing in December why Lee must remain in pretrial detention. "I sincerely apologize to you, Dr. Lee," Judge Parker said in court on Wednesday, "for the unfair manner you were held in custody by the executive branch."

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