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Wen Ho Lee To Be Set Free

11 September 2000 7:00 pm
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What began as an explosive case of alleged nuclear espionage is expected to end quietly soon when physicist Wen Ho Lee walks free from an Albuquerque, New Mexico, courtroom after 9 months in jail. The ignominious collapse of the government's case and Lee's release have embarrassed federal prosecutors. However, the news was a relief to Asian-American researchers and others who say Lee's status as a suspect had heightened racial tensions at the national labs.

Lee acknowledged in a draft plea agreement over the weekend that he had mishandled classified government data while working at the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. But that single felony is a far cry from the 59-count indictment brought last December, when government officials warned darkly that Lee had given secrets about the design of sophisticated nuclear weapons systems to China. Asian Americans complained that Lee was singled out due to his ethnicity. The use of shackles during his jail term and limitations on his family visits outraged both Asian Americans and many scientific organizations (Science, 8 September, p. 1669).

Many Asian-American scientists expressed relief at the deal. "We finally have come to something sensible," says Bryan Kashiwa, a Los Alamos fluid dynamics researcher, about the plea agreement, which is to be finalized 13 September in Albuquerque's Federal District Court. "It's the best deal he could get, and it is a relief he is out of jail," added Cheuk-Yin Wong, a veteran physicist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Meanwhile, Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) said last week that he would like to see the government drop another high-profile investigation at the Los Alamos lab, this one involving the loss and recovery of two computer disks holding classified weapons information (Science, 23 June, p. 2109). In a fiery statement during a debate over DOE's funding bill, Domenici called on the FBI to end an investigation that has focused on several prominent nuclear scientists. "If you can't prove there is spying or espionage," he said, "you ought to get off their backs." The FBI isn't saying if it will take Domenici's advice.

With reporting by David Malakoff.

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