When Chinese American physicist Wen Ho Lee was fired from his job at a U.S. nuclear Laboratories for mishandling classified material, it was the beginning of a controversial two year ordeal. U.S. officials have said they believe he supplied China with U.S. secrets, an allegation he has denied. Mr. Lee has now written about his experience in a new book entitled "My Country Versus Me".
On December 10, 1999, Dr. Wen Ho Lee came home from a fishing trip and was arrested by the FBI on charges of having passed U.S. nuclear secrets to a foreign government. At the time Mr. Lee worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratories, where U.S. nuclear weapons are designed. He was placed in solitary confinement for nine months. He spent 23 hours a day in his cell.
I didn't have hot water, I didn't have a radio, a TV, a newspaper, I didn't have anything to read," he says. "There was no window, so I didn't even know whether it was day or night, because there was no clock or watch in my jail room."
The U.S. government brought a 59 count indictment against Mr. Lee, claiming he stole critical information on the U.S. nuclear defense system and passed them to China. The case was a media sensation: Mr. Lee's face and the words, "suspected spy", were repeated in magazines, newspapers and on television.
In the end, 58 of the 59 charges were dropped, and the U.S. prosecutor agreed to free Mr. Lee if he pleaded guilty to the charge of "improperly downloading classified material", which he did.
In what has been unanimously labeled by legal professionals as a highly unusual event, the judge presiding over the case apologized to him when the case was closed. Journalist Helen Zia reads from transcript of that apology at the book launch. "I am sad that I was induced in December to order your detention since, by the terms of the plea agreement that frees you today without conditions, it becomes clear that the executive branch now concedes, or should concede, that it was not necessary to confine you last December, or at any time before your trial," she reads. "I might say that I am also sad and troubled because I do not know the real reasons why the executive branch has done all of this."
Ms. Zia co-wrote "My Country Versus Me" with Mr. Lee. In addition to recounting his experiences while under suspicion and in government custody, the book addresses the negative impact the case had on Asian Americans in general.
Mr. Lee says he has been unable to find work since he lost his Los Alamos job in early 1999. He says his reputation was badly damaged by the negative press the case brought upon him. But remarkably, he is not bitter, and has no intention of leaving the United States. "I feel the United States has the best system in the whole world. I personally like it, and I think you and I are very lucky to live in this country," he says.
Mr. Lee has brought suit against the U.S. government, charging that it illegally leaked sensitive information to the press while investigating him. That case is still unresolved.