Academies Protest Wen Ho Lee's Treatment

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

While federal judges feuded over whether jailed nuclear physicist Wen Ho Lee should be released to home detention before his trial in November, the country's scientific establishment attacked Attorney General Janet Reno over the way Lee is being treated.

On 31 August the presidents of the nation's preeminent science academies released an open letter that blasts Reno. Lee has been "a victim of unjust treatment," say the presidents, since he was jailed in December following a yearlong investigation into possible spying at Los Alamos. The letter--signed by Bruce Alberts of the National Academy of Sciences, William Wulf of the National Academy of Engineering, and Kenneth Shine of the Institute of Medicine--also complained that Reno had failed to respond to two earlier letters inquiring about his treatment, including alleged restrictions on contact with his family and the use of shackles while in solitary confinement. A one-page letter that they received in May from a Department of Justice (DOJ) official "was not a satisfactory response," they said. Noting the academies' efforts on behalf of political prisoners in other countries, Wulf told Science that even some repressive foreign regimes "had done a far better job" of answering routine letters protesting the treatment of jailed scientists.

But Wulf says the trio might not have publicly raked Reno over the coals had they known about another letter that DOJ sent to a workers' advocacy group at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Two weeks before the academies released their letter, the DOJ sent the Society of Professional Scientists and Engineers (SPSE) a three-page discussion of Lee's treatment, including assurances that he was shackled only when being moved and was allowed visits from his family.

DOJ will have another chance to respond to the academies. Wulf and his colleagues also want to know how the government plans to punish an FBI agent who apparently gave misleading testimony at a May court hearing that led a judge to jail Lee pending his trial.

Posted in Scientific Community