Wen Ho Lee (1939- ), an American physicist who worked on nuclear weapons at Los Alamos, was accused in 1999 of being a spy for China. Even though the government had no proof, they kept him in solitary confinement for 278 days. The New York Times assumed his guilt and printed his name before he was even charged.
The government in trying to prove his guilt :
- Carried out 1,000 interviews worldwide.
- Tried to trick him into giving secrets to a (fake) Chinese military official.
- Searched the county dump from end to end.
- Searched his house and those of his family.
- Searched all the computers he used.
- Questioned him over 20 times.
- Gave him a lie detector test. When he passed, the FBI told him he failed to shake him into signing a confession. He refused.
Lee spent over a million dollars to defend himself in court against the government.
Thirteen other scientists knew the same secrets, visited the same institute in China and met the same scientists as Lee. Yet the government did not suspect them. They were white, Lee was Taiwanese American. The FBI denied racial profiling.
During this time the government issued the Cox Report. In part it suggested that everyone in America who was Chinese or Chinese American was a possible spy for China.
Sharing a common ethnicity is not a top reason people become spies. Ideology, blackmail, money and even sex are more common. No one who spied on America for Japan during the Second World War was ethnically Japanese. Just as Robert Hanssen was not ethnically Russian.
Lee was born in Taiwan, not communist China. He came to America in 1964 at age 24 to get his PhD. He has lived in America ever since, becoming a citizen in 1974. He met his wife at the Rose Bowl, got married and had two children. After 20 years at Los Alamos he had hit a glass ceiling and was thinking of working overseas, but China was not on his list of countries.
The government went over his life with such a fine-tooth comb they did find something wrong: he downloaded a file to make a backup. There is no reason to believe it ever fell into the wrong hands. None of what he downloaded was top secret at the time.
John Deutch, a former CIA director, had done the same sort of thing. His only punishment was to lose his security clearance for a time. Deutch is a Russian Jewish American born in Belgium with friends in high places.
What led to all this: In 1995 a Chinese official approached the CIA and showed that China knew enough to make a knock-off of the W88, then the most advanced American nuclear warhead (pictured). Lee had worked on the design of the W88 by creating computer simulations of it.
Lee later took the government and five news organizations to court for making his name public before charging him. In 2006 they settled out of court for $1.6 million before it got to the Supreme Court.
Source: Frank Wu: “Yellow” (2003).