Sept. 13, 2000 -- Apologizing for “unfair” treatment by government officials, a federal judge today freed a grateful Wen Ho Lee from nine months of imprisonment as the fired Los Alamos scientist pleaded guilty to one count of mishandling classified data.
U.S. District Judge James Parker in Albuquerque, N.M., scolded the “top decision-makers” in the Departments of Justice and Energy as he sentenced Lee to 278 days — one day less than time served.
“I sincerely apologize to you, Dr. Lee, for the unfair mannerin which you were held in custody by the executive branch,” Parkertold him. “The executive branch has enormouspower, the abuse of which can be devastating to citizens. … They have embarrassed our entire nation and each of us who is a citizen of it.”
Lee left the courtroom shortly after his sentencing to reunite with hisfamily in private. He did not show any bitterness after being held in solitary confinement for nine months.
“I am very happy to go home with my wife and my children today and I want to say thank you to all the people who supported me,” Lee told reporters outside the courthouse. “For the next few days, I am going fishing.”
The former Los Alamos scientist pleaded guilty to having unauthorized possession of, access to, and control over documents and writings relating to the national defense. He was initially charged with 59 counts of mishandling nuclear secrets and could have faced life in prison if convicted.
After months of investigation, the government ultimately had to settle for a plea deal when it became clear their case against Lee lacked merit. The government’s case began to crumble last month at a bail hearing where experts testified that most of the information that Lee improperly handled was already known. In addition, an FBI witness admitted that he had given inaccurate testimony that incorrectly made Lee appear deceptive.
In court, Lee read a statement admitting he used an unsecured computer to download information relating to national defense onto tapes. He said he knew his possession of the tapes outside of the top-secret area where he worked was unauthorized.
Lee’s lawyers have said in court the tapes were destroyed, but the government has refused to accept that explanation. Prosecutors have been primarily concerned about the fate of seven tapes containing sensitive data still missing from the Los Alamos lab in New Mexico.
Lee to Be Debriefed
After Lee’s release, U.S. Attorney Norman Bay called the deal a “fair result” that protects national security. Under the terms of the agreement, he said, Lee will tell the government what he did with the tapes.
The former scientist must submit to debriefings and lie-detector tests, Bay said. If prosecutors believe Lee has lied to them during their interviews, they can move to prosecute him for perjury, obstruction of justice and false statements, Bay said.
“If a court finds Lee lied, every count in the indictment springs back into life,” he said. “In the event that were to happen, government prosecution of Dr. Lee would be swift and sure.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney George Stamboulidis, brought in fromNew York to handle the case, said the plea agreement providesprotections for the government that a conviction at trial wouldn’thave.
If Lee had been tried on the one count to which he pleaded, hecould have spent eight years in prison without disclosing thehandling of the tapes.
“There are powerful incentives built into this cooperationagreement for him to be truthful,” Stamboulidis said.
Lee did not deserve a government apology, he added, saying Lee had downloaded “a personal library” of nuclear defense secrets.
“When you steal our nuclear secrets, we are not going to let you communicate with anyone. Which Americans among us would want us to turn our backs onthat?” he asked.
A possible deal had been in the works for two months. The government has said Lee’s willingness to explain what happened to the tapes was the turning point in the talks.
On Sunday, government officials announced a possible plea deal. But at the beginning of Monday’s hearing, Lee was unexpectedly returned to jail when both sides said they had reached a snag in plea negotiations.
Today, the revived deal was approved by both sides, ending what has been an embarrassing case for the government.
Neighbors Show Support
Lee beamed as he entered the courtroom today and signaled his son, Chung, with an “OK” sign. Lee’s wife, Sylvia, also smiled as she arrived.
A handful of his neighbors from Los Alamos came to court in “Free Wen HoLee Now” T-shirts. The backs of the shirts said: “Los AlamosScientist — Is He Guilty Before Proven Guilty?”
After the judge set Lee free, Cecelia Chang, a member of the steering committee for the Wen Ho Lee Defense Fund, was sobbing with happiness.
The judge, she said, “just basically told us that the executivebranch is to blame. He had the courage to say that and to apologizeto Dr. Lee.”
“That is the apology we have waited for from the government,”Chang said. “I would love to see the country follow his example.”
Nance Crow Sullivan, another Lee supporter, ran out of thecourthouse door and screamed: “Justice has been served!” Shereturned to the courthouse with an American flag.
The Justice Department has faced growing criticism for its handling of the case.
Lee had earlier said he believed he was being targeted because of his ethnicity. Born in Taiwan, he is a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Starting late last week, law enforcement sources made it known that the Justice Department was more interested in information about the seven missing Los Alamos tapes than in continuing to imprison Lee.
“This case was never about putting a 60-year-old man in jail, but about locating the tapes that are of paramount concern to national security,” a law enforcement official told ABCNEWS.
Government prosecutors have called the seven missing tapes “the nation’s nuclear crown jewels,” a characterization several independent scientists have disputed.
ABCNEWS’ Beverley Lumpkin, ABCNEWS.com’s Geraldine Sealey, ABCNEWS Radio and The Associated Press contributed to this report.