More at Stake Than Spying

The storm of allegations regarding Chinese espionage at US national weapons laboratories has led to needed tightening of security at those facilities. That's the positive outcome from the spy scandal that agitated Washington for much of the past year.

But the Chinese espionage affair has also had some disturbing aspects. Most of these are tied to the government's criminal case against Wen Ho Lee, formerly a physicist with the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Mr. Lee became a magnet for suspicion as the spy charges reached their zenith in Congress earlier this year.

The Chinese-American scientist apparently had been under surveillance, on and off, for years. In the 1980s he had been suspected of giving classified information to Taiwan, where he was born, but had been cleared of those charges. This decade, somewhat ironically, he became the FBI's prime suspect in the alleged transfer of nuclear-bomb secrets to the People's Republic of China, Taiwan's adversary.

Early in December, at long last, Lee was formally charged - not with espionage, but with mishandling classified documents. It's a lesser charge, but could still carry a lengthy prison term. Lee has been denied bail.

The FBI probe of the possible tranfer of nuclear secrets to China is continuing, and of late has broadened beyond Lee and Los Alamos.

Meanwhile, other developments:

*The release of secret congressional testimony by Attorney General Janet Reno has clarified why she kept the FBI from tapping Lee's phone in the course of its investigation. Ms. Reno was roundly criticized for that. It's now clear she felt the bureau was prematurely centering its attention on Lee before eliminating other suspects with equal access to classified material and just as much incentive, presumably, to pass it to other countries. This throws new light on Reno's actions, and raises new questions about the intense focus on Lee.

*This month the accused struck back with a lawsuit against the FBI and the Justice and Energy Departments for invasion of privacy and false accusation. The suit, reportedly, will emphasize that investigators pursued him even after doubts had arisen that he was, in fact, engaged in espionage. Lee doesn't deny that he downloaded classified material to an unclassified computer, but says it was a common practice.

*Suspicion is growing among Asian-Americans activists that Lee is in custody primarily because of his ethnicity. They argue that the FBI's pursuit of him was dictated by racial "profiling" - by the assumption that people of Chinese background were the most likely to be exploited by Communist Chinese agents.

*A detailed report by Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation throws doubt on the accuracy of the congressional report, put together by Rep. Christopher Cox (R) of California, that largely fueled the storm over Chinese espionage and generated furious calls to net the perpetrators. The Stanford team, including credible experts on nuclear weaponry, charges that the Cox report is "inflammatory" and makes some ill-supported allegations.

In summary, the country owes two things to itself: (1) Make sure its system for designing and producing nuclear weaponry is as secure as possible. (2) Just as important, make sure its system of justice, operating in the Wen Ho Lee case, is driven by fairness and a quest for the truth, not by the need to pillory someone in the wake of a politically uncomfortable furor over alleged espionage.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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