For Asian-Americans, Lee case a stark signal

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

A hearing yesterday at press time was to consider the terms of his release. District Judge James Parker had ordered that Lee be confined to his home, that his wife be subject to search when she comes and goes, and that the (tapped) phone be used only for emergencies.

Lee is charged with mishandling the nation's "crown jewels" of nuclear-weapons secrets while working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. While his actions are alleged to pose a threat to national security, Lee has not been charged with espionage.

He was, however, kept in solitary confinement for eight months and was shackled as he moved in the prison yard - conditions Asian-Americans found offensive.

For most Asian-Americans, the case is without contemporary parallel. "This is reminiscent of internment of the Japanese [during World War II] or hearings during the McCarthy era, when a whole groups loyalty to the nation is seemingly being questioned," says Stewart Kwoh, president of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles.

Political action to increase?

Some analysts see a silver lining in the case. "It's going to increase activism and awareness of civil rights," says Mr. Wang, who is based in San Francisco.

Whether that takes the form of greater political involvement remains to be seen. Asian-Americans are just now beginning to find their political footing among the nation's minorities.

Statistically more affluent and better educated than African-Americans and Latinos, Asian-Americans have gained social stature more through economic power than political influence.

But that is changing. A new organization called the 80-20 Initiative, for instance, has recently formed to try to sway 80 percent of Asian-American voters to back a single presidential candidate this year in a bid to maximize the group's leverage.

Asian-Americans tilt Democratic, but less so than African-Americans and Latinos. Also, Asian-Americans' party allegiance is generally thin, and many consider themselves independent politically, a feature some hope to parlay into greater influence with the two major parties.

Gaining political clout has been a difficult path for Asian-Americans, who are viewed by many whites as "model" minorities because of their exemplary academic and economic achievements - and are sometimes resented by other minorities for that very label.

Asian-Americans felt the brunt of public doubts about their loyalty during the recent campaign-finance scandal involving Asian donors.

But the Los Alamos case, says David Lee of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee, has generated a broader and more visceral reaction. He likens it in intensity to the 1982 case of Chinese-American Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death by unemployed auto workers in Detroit, angry over the flood of Japanese autos into the country. The mistaken identity showed many Asian-Americans how little they are understood, and anger built further when those convicted of the murders received sentences that did not include any jail time. For many Asian-Americans, Chin's case was the community's Rodney King episode.

And today, for many Asian-Americans, the Wen Ho Lee affair cuts even deeper. "This case," says Lester Lee, a Silicon Valley businessman and a former Regent of the University of California, "has been an awakening for the community."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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