Since the summary dismissal of physicist Wen Ho Lee from the Los Alamos National Laboratories last March, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has had to repeatedly assure the Asian Americans that he will not tolerate racial profiling in the national laboratories. The latest assurance took place just before Christmas.
On the day Lee’s friends and supporters gathered to celebrate his birthday with a fund raiser for his legal defense, Richardson visited the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories to once again pledge “zero tolerance” for discrimination against Asian Americans working in government labs. Two days later, nine Asian Americans employed at Lawrence filed claims of racial bias in their treatment at the Labs.
“Without Richardson’s statement against discrimination, there certainly would be nothing, no claims filed today. But he said he’s committed to zero tolerance. Now he needs to do something about it. So far it’s all talk,” said Kalina Wong, one of the nine filing suit. According to the San Jose Mercury News report, the harassing of Asian Americans after the arrest of Lee has angered her and Richardson’s highly publicized pledge emboldened her to file the complaint.
Given Richardson’s own Hispanic heritage, it seems particularly ironic that he should be if not at the center at least the catalyst for Asian American ire at racial profiling stemming from the Wen Ho Lee case. It seems instructive during this holiday lull to retrospectively review the developments that led to this debacle, a scandal that promises to blot the entry of the new millennium.
Almost exactly a year ago, Americans spent their holiday season watching the President Clinton’s impeachment hearings unfold on national TV. He did not topple but was severely wounded. In early January, the House Select Committee headed by Congressman Christopher Cox began to rumble about rampant Chinese spying on the leaky national labs. By then the exhausted administration was too tired to fight the allegations of wrongdoing.
In March the New York Times broke the news of suspected spy in Los Alamos Laboratories and Richardson promptly fired Lee. The media, led by New York Times, then rushed to label Lee the Chinese spy and pronounced him guilty. Lee and his family became targets of round the clock FBI surveillance. At this critical juncture, if a California major law firm had not come to Lee’s defense and if national Asian American organizations had not protest the lack of fairness and due process in this case, Lee would have been put on the express train to prison and the case would have been over.
In latter part of May, the Cox report became public. Once in the public domain, it quickly became evident that the sound and fury preceding its publication could not be supported by the actual contents of the report. The general reaction was best summarized by the assessment of the report released by Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation, “[the report] lacks scholarly rigor, and exhibits too many examples of sloppy research, factual errors and weakly justified inferences.” Even members of the conservative Republican camp agreed with this assessment, in particular members of the faction headed by former Congressman Jack Kemp.
Once the Cox report turned into a dud and no longer pose as a threat to the Clinton administration, it should have been possible for Richardson to call for a review of the Wen Ho Lee case and a halt to the proceedings. But he didn’t do so.
When Robert Vrooman’s internal memo became public, the whole world then knew that FBI failed to conduct an objective investigation but zeroed in on Lee because of his ethnic background. Vrooman is the former head of internal security at Los Alamos. This would have been another good time to review the case against Lee. Richardson didn’t.
By the time Lee appeared in a Mike Wallace interview on CBS 60 Minutes in August, this case may have already suffered from overexposure. While Richardson found it necessary to continue to reassure Asian American scientists in the labs, he could not find a way to resolve the Lee case out of the limelight. Not even when it was demonstrated that Lee could not have been the source of alleged leak on nuclear warhead design. Not even after Attorney General Janet Reno instructed the FBI to restart their investigation and cast a considerably wider net in search of spies, spies that may yet turned out to be mere figments of overactive, right wing imagination.
After another tortuous four months, just two weeks before Christmas, Lee was finally arrested and jailed on charges of mishandling information from secured computer files. He was not charged with espionage. To justify holding Lee in jail without bail and threatening him with life imprisonment, the prosecution charged Lee under certain obscured statues in the Atomic Energy Act. He became the first to be charged under those statues, a dubious distinction indeed.
The public reaction has been swift and unambiguous. Editorials from coast to coast criticized the government’s heavy-handed treatment towards Lee. Selective prosecution, harassment with intent to intimidate the defendant and prosecution overkill without due process are some of the criticism leveled at the U.S. government. National Asian American organizations gathered via conference calls to draft a public statement condemning the government action. Fourteen organizations initiated the action. Many more has sign on since the statement was disclosed one week before Christmas.
The question at hand is why the persistence on the part of Richardson. While only he knows for sure, his actions appear tied to politics. He may no longer be a viable vice presidential candidate but he may still run for governor of New Mexico in the coming election. If he were to drop charges against Lee, his opponents could attack him for bungling the duties of his office. By keeping the Lee trial pending, his opponents would be deprived of a useful issue against him.
While Lee is paying a heavy price as the sacrificial lamb in the battle between the Clinton Administration and the detractors, he is not entirely without blame. His mistake is to assume that as a citizen of the United States, he is guaranteed certain “inalienable” rights. He naively assumes that right is might and he is presumed innocent until proven guilty and does not need to engage attorneys to defend him. He did not appreciate the adversarial nature of American law and how politics can tilt justice way out of balance.
The one good thing that may yet come out of this affair, other than eventual exoneration of Lee, is that Asian Americans are rallying together and realizing they are not exempt from racial profiling. They are now visibly protesting the treatment of Lee and they are taking Richardson’s promise at face value by challenging to overturn the racial discrimination that exists in the national laboratories. So the saga continues.