WASHINGTON — The national security apparatus has a way of never leaving bad enough alone. High on the list of FBI scandals was the botched investigation of Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was held in solitary for nine months on unsubstantiated espionage charges until freed in September of last year by a federal judge who said the treatment of the Taiwanese-born American had "embarrassed our entire nation."
Now the government is further embarrassing itself, if not the nation, by trying to hinder Dr. Lee from telling his story. Energy Department security is trying to hold up the publication of his book, "My Country Versus Me," on the ground that, in violation of the rules, others may have seen it before government censors had time to clear it.
This is not the first time the government has wielded as a weapon the agreement that officials routinely sign to submit anything they write for security clearance. A disaffected CIA officer, Frank Snepp, who wrote about the fall of Saigon, failed to submit his book for review and fought a losing battle all the way up to the Supreme Court, ultimately having to give up part of his earnings. Former CIA Director William Colby was fined for neglecting to submit for review a brief addition to the French edition of his memoir.
Lee submitted his manuscript in July to the Department of Energy, which operates the Los Alamos laboratory. There is some question whether he was required to do so. The Federation of American Scientists says that Energy Department employees, unlike CIA officers, must seek review only while actively having access to security secrets. On retirement, they need only sign statements acknowledging that they are still prohibited from revealing secret information.
It was still a good idea for Lee to seek review, says Jim Danneskiold of the Los Alamos public- affairs office. Otherwise Lee might have been vulnerable to prosecution in case he inadvertently revealed secret information. But, in submitting the manuscript, Lee made himself prisoner of the reviewers' timetable.
There is nothing in the regulations about how long the censors can take reviewing a book. And so one-time Los Alamos intelligence director Danny Stillman had to sue for the release of his manuscript after it had been held up for 18 months.
The contents of Lee's book were undoubtedly known to his co-author and probably also to his editor since it's scheduled for publication in October. Furthermore, in an age when manuscripts are composed on word processors, it is almost impossible to guarantee that no one has seen it while the review is dragging on.
Instead of trying to bottle up Lee's book, the government security officers might be better advised to learn from it. The publisher says it tells how, at Los Alamos, "violations of nuclear security were rampant throughout the weapons laboratory."
But our security apparatus seems more interested in avoiding further embarrassment than discerning its mistakes.
Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.