With Being Ethnic Chinese
Theodore Hsien And Victor Hwang
| EDITOR'S NOTE: In the eight months since
Dr. Wen Ho Lee was first arrested and imprisoned, what
was presented as a case of "Chinese espionage" has fallen
apart. Instead, there is mounting evidence that the government
singled out Dr. Lee as a suspect because of his Chinese
ethnicity, making his case of paramount importance to
all Americans concerned about racial profiling. Theodore
Hsien Wang is the Policy Director of Chinese for Affirmative
Action and Victor Hwang is the Managing Attorney for the
Asian Law Caucus.
August 18, 2000, SAN FRANCISCO -- While Republicans
and Democrats have been busy showcasing new-founded racial
diversity at their conventions, a 60-year-old Chinese
American scientist sits in solitary confinement, a victim
of old fashion racial stereotypes.
Dr. Wen Ho Lee, the former Los Alamos nuclear scientist,
has been accused of downloading nuclear data to portable,
unsecured tapes and later failing to account for all of
the information. Originally accused of espionage, Lee
became the first civilian charged with mishandling classified
information and faces up to 39 life sentences if convicted.
In the eight months since Lee was arrested, what was presented
as a case of "Chinese espionage" is falling apart. Federal
prosecutors concede that they have no evidence that Lee
turned over secrets to any foreign government, and the
information he allegedly mishandled was not even labeled
"classified" at the time he downloaded them. Indeed, the
New York Times reports an FBI agent provided inaccurate
testimony making Lee appear deceptive when he had not
been, and prosecutors have also had to answer charges
that the federal government targeted Lee because of his
ethnicity. The court's decision on these charges are important
not only for Lee but for all Americans concerned about
whether the government should be able to launch criminal
investigations based on the race of a suspect. Lee's case
poses this question in unusually stark terms because many
of his government investigators confirm that racial profiling
occurred. Robert Vrooman, the chief counterintelligence
officer at Los Alamos during the investigation, has testified
that Department of Energy
(DOE) officials "chose to focus specifically on Dr. Lee
because he is 'ethnic Chinese'; Caucasians with the same
background and foreign contacts as Dr. Lee were ignored."
Similarly, the Acting Director of Counterintelligence
of DOE stated in a memo obtained by the Washington Post
that DOE investigators were "unfairly singling out Lee
and another Chinese American scientist at Los Alamos."
Witnesses quoted Nora Trulock, the senior DOE official
who directed the espionage investigations, as saying "ethnic
Chinese should not be allowed to work on classified projects."
The sworn affidavit the U.S. Attorney's Office used to
obtain the search warrant for Lee's home claimed that
Lee is more likely to commit espionage for China because
he is an "overseas ethnic Chinese." Lee has been a United
States citizen for over 25 years. In discussing Lee's
case on national television, then Deputy Director of the
FBI, Paul Moore, appeared to agree that federal agencies
may consider race as a factor when investigating espionage.
Moore justified this practice on grounds that foreign
countries tend to target ethnic Americans who have ancestry
ties. Using Lee's case as an example, Moore explained
that because China primarily attempts to recruit Chinese
Americans as spies, it is proper for the FBI to target
Chinese Americans in cases involving alleged Chinese espionage.
The problem with Moore's rationalization is that there
is no proof to support the theory that Chinese Americans
are more susceptible than other citizens to spy for China.
Indeed, Moore admits in a subsequent interview that "China's
track record with Chinese Americans is extremely poor."
When pressed to provide evidence that Chinese Americans
are more likely than others to spy for China, counterintelligence
officials cannot cite any studies, statistics or examples.
Instead, they fall back on their "extensive experience"
on Chinese espionage methods and essentially ask for the
public's trust that the use of racial profiles in espionage
investigations is justified.
On this issue, the public and the courts should not be
trustful. The practice of targeting ethnic Chinese Americans
harkens back to the dangerous rationale used to imprison
Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War
II based upon a presumption of shared loyalty through
common ethnicity or ancestry. It took over 40 years for
the government to acknowledge its mistake and apologize
to thousands of loyal American citizens. It should not
repeat the same mistake. The harmful effects of racial
or ethnic profiling falls not only on the actual victims
but is also damaging in many other ways. By focusing only
on Asian Americans, a real spy may have escaped the scrutiny
of the federal government altogether. The government's
practices are also causing many Asian Americans to leave
the national laboratories, creating a brain drain that
could damage this country's nuclear program for generations
The Clinton administration has taken a strong stand against
racial profiling and has threatened sanctions against
state and local law enforcement agencies which stop suspects
based on race. It should apply the same standard to its
own criminal investigations. The government should acknowledge
the mistakes it has made in prosecuting Lee and stop using
race as a basis for launching espionage investigations.
It wrongly targeted Lee from the start, and the case has
unraveled. The government should end this shameful prosecution
and allow Wen Ho Lee to go home.