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Readings: Laughing With Wen Ho Lee 

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Photo by Anne Fishbein

The man who was clapped into irons by Janet Reno’s Justice Department and denounced by The New York Times as the most dangerous threat to our national security since Ethel and Julius Rosenberg offered a nugget of advice to a crowd of about 150 gathered last week at a Westside Barnes & Noble: “If the FBI ever comes and knocks at your door, the best thing to do is tell them, ‘Go away.’

“Well, you are laughing,” Wen Ho Lee, the 62-year-old Taiwan-born computer programmer, said dryly while the audience cackled, as if he had uttered the obvious, X-Files dogma of citizen-to-Bureau contact. “But I invited them into my house. I brought them the best tea from Taiwan. I brought them cookies. I talked to them about 20 times before I found out it was too late. So, don’t laugh.”

From December 1999 until September 2000, Lee was held in solitary confinement on suspicion of espionage. Accused of downloading the “crown jewels” of the nation’s nuclear arsenal — the blueprint for the top-secret W-88 thermonuclear warhead — and handing them over to China, the Los Alamos nuclear scientist spent 278 days in “pretrial detention.” With Lee under 24-hour surveillance, his every gesture and word was monitored. Reno said he was such a masterful spy that even a “hello” from his lips might send new nuclear secrets to the Chinese. In the end, the charges, including 39 counts that each carried a life sentence, were dropped. Lee pleaded guilty to one count of using an “unsecure” government computer to store national-defense information. For that, he got 278 days — time served.

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Lee has written a book about his ordeal, My Country Versus Me, and the book signing at the Westside Pavilion would have been an ideal occasion for him to preach. Certainly, his co-author, Helen Zia, had a few barbed words before Lee took the stage. “The story of Wen Ho Lee is about excessive government prosecutorial power and why racial profiling does not work to protect national security,” she said. “While the government was pursuing Wen Ho Lee, September 11 was being planned.” And to underscore the danger of racial prejudice, Zia announced, “The brother and sister-in-law of the postal worker killed by Buford Furrow are here.”

Lee, dressed in a smartly tailored, three-button, charcoal-colored suit, then approached the podium. “How do you feel about America?” one person asked. Lee, a slight man with formal posture and a thoughtful glare, replied, “We are very lucky. We have the best system in the whole world. I like it. The only thing I want to point out: Whoever is in charge of handling those systems should want to make sure he doesn’t make a mistake, so the damage done to me is not redone.” That was Lee’s rebuke of “excessive government prosecutorial power” and “racial profiling.”

“What do you say to Janet Reno?” someone else asked. His tone was placid, his reply polite. “She thinks that the 19 files I downloaded are very precious — they called them the ‘crown jewels’ — but in fact they were garbage. So, I don’t know what she means.”

Wen Ho Lee is no doubt sensitive to the trip-wire patriotism that right now makes the retelling of his treatment both necessary and verboten. Which might explain his reluctance to denounce his government or point fingers at the Bush administration’s racial profiling of Arab-Americans and its use of preventive detention and military tribunals. But, by nature, he says, he was never concerned with affairs of state. Prior to his FBI encounter, he did not read the newspaper; he did not watch television news. He wrapped himself in Gustav Mahler — a sanctuary to which he says he would like to return. Lee warned, however, that his lofty indifference was shattered by a walloping civics lesson. “I would say today, particularly to minority people, you have to get more involved in politics. Don’t fall into the same disaster I had.”

End of lesson — almost. “As you might know,” Lee concluded, “I’m still in Los Alamos, New Mexico. I’m planning to move to California.”

The audience laughed and applauded loudly. The man hasn’t lost his sense of humor.

—Greg Goldin

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