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For Asian-Americans, Lee case a stark signal

Furor over bail for the Los Alamos scientist foreshadows trial controversies.

By Paul Van SlambrouckStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 30, 2000


The ultimate impact of Wen Ho Lee's alleged violations of the nation's nuclear-weapons secrets may be unclear, but the gravity of the case for Asian-Americans is unmistakable.

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From its position of relative privilege among the nation's minorities, the Asian-American community has been jarred by what it sees as the government's unfair, racially motivated treatment of Dr. Lee.

Whether or not the scientist is found guilty of tampering with high-level secrets, elements of his case - including solitary confinement and shackled walks - have stirred Asian-American outrage in much the way that the Rodney King beatings galvanized African-Americans almost a decade ago.

The depth of the reaction, say experts, stems from what Lee represents. "A lot of Asians, Chinese-Americans in particular, see a little bit of themselves in Wen Ho Lee," says Theodore Wang, policy director of Chinese for Affirmative Action. "For many, he is the story of the successful immigrant."

That success story has taken an ugly turn, with Lee facing federal charges he illegally downloaded sensitive materials at Los Alamos National Laboratory. And for many Asian-Americans, the government's prosecution of the case has made them feel more vulnerable, too.

"The case speaks to a generation of people who believe in meritocracy, of being in the system and excelling," says David Lee of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee. But, he adds, many Asian-Americans believe Lee has become the scapegoat of Washington political battles over which party best protects national security. Their conclusion: "Politics trumps merit."

Builders of New Economy

With the New Economy powered by a growing number of skilled Asian technology workers and scientists, the Lee case resonated rapidly - and even faster at the grass-roots level than among the established Asian-American activist organizations.

It was a loose coalition of individuals that promoted the Wen Ho Lee Defense Fund, which has now collected $400,000. And it was individual contributors who proved instrumental in paying for the full-page ad in The New York Times that appeared on the opening day of the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles earlier this month.

The heart of Asian-American concern with the Lee case is embodied in the ad. It cites statements from the chief of Los Alamos counterintelligence, as well as the affidavit that led to a search warrant of Lee's home, as evidence Lee's ethnic heritage was material to the investigation.

"Charged with being ethnic Chinese, how can he prove his innocence?" the ad asks.

The government vehemently denies engaging in racial profiling in this case, but the denial lacks credibility with the Asian-American community.

"We're a long way from the trial. But regardless of how the case is decided, the actions of the government have been inappropriate in a number of ways," says Paul Ong, a professor of urban policy at the University of California in Los Angeles. "Clearly, there is a racial element to what has happened."

Concerns weren't exactly soothed during recent bail hearings by revelations that some previous statements by the prosecution were not truthful. FBI agent Robert Messemer, for instance, said it wasn't true that Lee had lied to a colleague about using the colleague's computer for downloading some of the material in question, as was earlier asserted.

Last week, a federal judge in Albuquerque, N.M., agreed to release Lee on $1 million bail.