What Happened?

Click here for the transcript of this reading (see video below):

Synopsis of the Wen Ho Lee case

Dr. Wen Ho Lee was a nuclear physicist employed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. On December 10, 1999, he was charged on 59 counts of mishandling classified information, 39 of which carried a life sentence. Imprisoned for 278 days in solitary confinement, he was eventually released on time served while pleading guilty to a felony count of mishandling classified information. At the plea sentencing hearing, the presiding judge issued an apology to Dr. Lee for the "top decision makers in the Executive Branch...having embarrassed our entire nation and each of us who is a citizen of it."

The play reading (see link above) is a reenactment of some of the memorable scenes from the case. The play starts off on March 6, 1999 when the New York Times prints a front-page story about a security breach at Los Alamos involving one of the United States’ most advanced thermonuclear warhead, the W-88. The FBI, concerned that their prime suspect will learn about their investigation and flee the country, decide to confront Dr. Lee and try to extract a confession from him. He is taken to a room without an attorney for himself present and threatened with the electric chair unless he cooperates with their investigation.

Two days after the March 6 article, he is personally fired by then Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson. His employment at Los Alamos is terminated, and his name is leaked to the press. He becomes publicly known as the scientist who betrayed his country and passed along nuclear secrets to China. Eventually, he is arrested and indicted on 59 counts of violating provisions from the Atomic Energy Act and Espionage Act. At one of his bail hearings, senior lab directors testify that the material he supposedly has in his possession are the "crown jewels" of the nuclear weapons arsenal and "would change the global strategic balance" if fallen into the wrong hands.

The presiding judge, Judge James Parker -- presented with such captivating testimony -- decides that no amount of restrictions before the trial could be imposed on Dr. Lee could guarantee the safety of the nation. He orders solitary confinement with handcuffs attached to a metal belt and shackles at the ankle belt and exercise for only one hour a week. The harsh conditions imposed would eventually spark public demonstrations and widespread outrage within the Chinese American and scientific community, despite a lot of initial reluctance and doubt about helping Dr. Lee in the beginning.

Eventually, the case would fall apart, thanks in part to a dedicated defense team, affadavits filed on behalf of Dr. Lee, and favorable testimony given during subsequent hearings. The reading of the apology from Judge Parker is taken from the actual remarks read at the courtroom hearing during the plea sentencing.

Suggested readings:

A Convenient Spy, Ian Hoffman and Dan Stober
My Country Versus Me, Helen Zia and Wen Ho Lee