- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 19, 2002

"My Country Versus Me" should have been a moving book. It is not. For this failure there are three reasons: two obvious, one not quite. The first obvious reason this bears all the marks of a rush job. It's poorly organized, repetitive (How many times do we need to hear about this guy's vegetable garden?), and contains a number of irrelevant but glaring factual errors. Jack Kemp was never a senator, and the Gulf War didn't happen in 1992 that kind of thing. More seriously, the publisher has provided neither an index nor a chronology of events, vital aids when sifting through a complex tale told exclusively from one side.
The second reason is language. Mr. Lee notes that he has three languages: mathematics, Chinese and English, in that order. Helen Zia, his "with" (i.e., the real) author, certainly has the skills. But the book never comes alive. Probably, she conducted her interviews with Mr. Lee in Chinese, then tried to shift the nuances into English. There seems to be an awful lot of nuance that isn't here.
As for the third reason … this book exudes a saccharin quality ill befitting a man who, for eminently practical and rational reasons, copped a deal that must forever leave his innocence in doubt.
Perhaps not that many readers clearly remember the Lee case, so much has happened since then. It was all about nukes. Specifically, Wen Ho Lee, a naturalized American scientist of Chinese (Taiwanese) extraction who'd spent 20 years working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was accused of various crimes pertaining to espionage and mishandling of classified material. In December 1999, after months of virtual imprisonment in his own home, he was arrested and held for the next 278 days under conditions so harsh that the judge who presided over his case publicly apologized for it. On Sept. 13, 2000, Mr. Lee pleaded guilty to one count. More than 50 other charges were dropped. The judge sentenced him to time served.
So what exactly happened? Most likely, we'll never know. Still, Mr. Lee makes two points that seem irrefutable. In the matter of mishandling classified material, he was stupid. I accept this, although his various accounts throughout the book, and their gaps and inconsistencies, leave me uneasy. In any event, many others have done far worse. But only Mr. Lee was hauled into court and threatened with life imprisonment. This leads to his second assertion: That he was in fact a political prisoner. Again it's hard to refute.
Mr. Lee presents himself as the victim of a triangulation of forces. The Clinton administration, under heavy criticism for its various dealings with China, needed a way to look tough. In classic bureaucratic style, the requirement flowed downhill to the Energy and Justice Departments and to the FBI. Find us a spy. For reasons of their own, congressional Republicans were equally avid. And both sides knew that the media would dutifully report whatever they cared to leak, no matter how slanted, incomplete or untrue.
Still, political triangulation alone does not explain the intensity of Mr. Lee's ordeal. Had he not he claims been foreign-born, had he not been Chinese, had he not made trips and given papers and had contacts, had he not been the subject of a prior investigation, someone else might have been the designated scapegoat. He also concedes that his own naivete helped do him in. He cooperated with the FBI for far too long before getting a lawyer. He didn't understand how brutal it could get. Nor did he realize that his persecutors would prove unwilling or unable to distinguish between legitimate secrets and open science, or between material that might help an enemy and stuff that, although classified, was also useless.
Perhaps. Wen Ho Lee the 60-year-old ingenue scientist/political prisoner is credible, in many ways attractive. But Wen Ho Lee the latest poster boy for America's cosmic injustice blows it utterly. Hey, did I mention I'm Chinese? Yes, you've mentioned it. He alternates paeans to this country and the career it gave him with sneers, many gratuitous and irrelevant. He loves America, but Asians will never (heavy word) achieve "true" equality, and the only reason he remains in this country is that he likes his Los Alamos neighbors.
Was there an element of racism in his ordeal at the hands of the Clinton administration? Undoubtedly. Are most Americans racist? No. Conflicted, perhaps. Imperfect, certainly. But few of us wake up in the morning wondering whom we can insult and/or persecute. By the standards of this blood-soaked planet, we get along pretty well. And "playing the race card" doesn't work nearly as well as it used to.
In the end, Mr. Lee's sniping robs this book of the quality it needs most: the wisdom gained by going through something terrible, then coming back to tell the tale in a way that reaches us all.

Philip Gold is senior fellow in national security studies at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.

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