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Asian Americans suffer from racial discrimination in the USA for more than a hundred years. This discrimination is reflected in various spheres of life. The current research paper will provide the description and analysis of one of the most notable discriminatory U.S. government’s handlings – the case of Wen Ho Lee. This person was condemned in espionage and mishandling of the American nuclear safety information to Chinese government for threatening the U.S. On the basis of studied information from various sources, this work will show that the accusation of the physicist can be considered as false and discriminatory because it was, instead of clear evidence, based on his ethnicity and existing racial bias against Asian Pacific Americans.

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Literature Review

Various information was studied for the preparation of the current work. Much attention was paid to the relevance of the sources and the description of the case from different perspectives. Michael Cheng, Cecilia Chang, and Roger Hu (2008) gave general overview of the case and provided numerous extracts and citations from the official hearing in their work U.S. v. Wen Ho Lee. However, they did not introduce further development of the situation. Consequently, the description of the further actions was taken from the article U.S., media settle with Wen Ho Lee prepared by Paul Farhi in 2006. This work provides general description of the case. However, they did not make an emphasis on the background of racial bias and political side of this matter. The information was taken from the book of Kent Wongand Nancy Guarneros (2015) Dreams deported: Immigrant youth and families resist deportation, from the article Discrimination in the Wen Ho Lee case introduced by Miriam Kim in 2002, and from the investigations made by Pherson Associates presented in the work Wen Ho Lee case study.


This paper was prepared on the background of the various sources concerning the case of Wen Ho Lee along with discriminatory and false decision of the American court based on bias and suspicions instead of supported facts. There is a great variety of articles concerning this case in the internet. However, only the most reliable ones were chosen for the preparation of the current work. The emphasis was made on the description of the case, its causes and consequences. Also, the additional attention was paid to showing the legislative side of the matter, i.e. previous court decisions, acts, and special standards for discovering the cases regarding selective prosecution. All this information was necessary for evidencing that the decision made by the US court was incorrect and biased.

The Case of Wen Ho Lee

Wen Ho Lee is a nuclear physicist who was employed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico (Cheng, Chang, and Hu 13). In 1999, this person fell under suspicion of betrayal of the Americans by passing military secrets to Chinese government. On the basis of the leaks of the official investigation report concerning the possibility of passing the information concerning the US nuclear technologies to Chinese government, the New York Times printed the article Breach at Los Alamos: A Special Report: China Stole Nuclear Secrets for Bombs, U.S. Aiders Say on March 6, 1999. In the article, the authors accused Wen Ho Lee in the cosy deal with Chinese government against the USA (Wong and Guarneros 45). This newspaper and numerous other newspapers printed the description of the estimated violence of Wen Ho Lee on their front page by making the emphasis on the security breach in Los Alamos that concerns the American thermonuclear warhead (Cheng, Chang, and Hu 10). Wen Ho Lee was recognized as a scientist who passed American nuclear secrets to Chinese government and, by this action, betrayed the USA (Cheng, Chang, and Hu 9). The additional attention should be paid to the fact that prior to publishing of this article, no any official allegations of treason were provided to the scientist. On March 8, 1999, Wen Ho Lee was fired from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico due to the above stated espionage allegations (Cheng, Chang, and Hu 23).

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It should be noted that after the publication of the mentioned article, the representatives of the FBI took the decision to confront Wen Ho Lee for extracting a confession concerning mishandling of nuclear weapon under the name W-88 (Cheng, Chang, and Hu 11). This person had close relationships with Chinese scientists and visited China several times. The physicist was threatened with an electric chair for bending him to cooperation with the FBI. Moreover, Wen Ho Lee was not supported by any attorney in terms of presenting him and protecting his rights. There was no any evidence that the scientist passed or even tried to pass any American national security information to China (Pherson Associates LLC 3). However, he was accused and condemned.

At one of the hearings, one of the lab heads noticed that Wen Ho Lee worked on the material that “would change the global strategic balance” if the information concerning this material will be mishandled by the third parties (including Chinese government). This testimony shocked everybody, especially judges, because it provides the understanding that no any restrictions put on Wen Ho Lee can guarantee the safety of the Americans. Hence, the presiding judge James Parker took the decision to order “solitary confinement with handcuffs attached to a metal belt and shackles at the ankle belt and exercise for only one hour a week” (Cheng, Chang, and Hu 9). The scientist received a charge on the total of fifty nine violating provisions from the Atomic Energy Act and Espionage Act due to mishandling of classified information on December 10, 1999 (Cheng, Chang, and Hu 3). Also, the physicist was charged with ten counts of unlawful obtaining of the national defense information in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 793 (c), and with ten counts of willfully retaining national defense information in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 793 (e) (Cheng, Chang, and Hu 15).

Strict conditions of imprisonment facilitated the rise of public demonstrations and condemnation by the scientific community all over the world (especially in China and the USA). The defense team of Wen Ho Lee did not give up after the court decision. The defenders made the stress on the racial profiling of the case. They said that the physicist was accused because he was Chinese, but not because he was guilty, as “there was neither no evidence that Lee has passed data to China, nor was there any proof of theft” (Pherson Associates LLC 3). They strived for the additional investigations of the case. The counsel of Wen Ho Lee has made a written request to the prosecution of the additional materials which could prove the innocence of the scientist. These materials contain various reports of the investigation commissions, videotapes, and reports concerning the fact that the FBI agents consider APIs as potential criminals, the information related to similar cases where government declined prosecution, and other details of the investigation (Cheng, Chang, and Hu 8).

It should be noted, that the American legislative system has special standards for discovery of cases regarding selective prosecution. These standards were developed after the case of Wayte vs the United States (Kim 110). According to the officially established framework, the defendants should provide special information for fitting their client under this standard. The information should contain the evidence that people were not prosecuted and the evidence of improper motivation of the made decision in similar cases. The defendants also made the stress on the fact that that similarly situated individuals have not been prosecuted under the Atomic Energy Act or §793 (c) and §793 (e) (Cheng, Chang, and Hu 15) by providing numerous specific examples. These cases also contained no evidence that the national-defense information had been passed to the third party or unauthorized individuals. The government did not allege the transfer of the information by Wen Ho Lee to anyone or leaving the relevant data unprotected. The defendants of the scientist presented compelling evidence that the American government “singled him out for prosecution because of his race, and refused to prosecute similarly situated individuals” (Cheng, Chang, and Hu 15).

The case of Wen Ho Lee met all these requirements, as the defendants provided clear evidence that the “government officials have admitted a racial basis for investigating the case…; and the government has declined to prosecute similarly situated persons” (Cheng, Chang, and Hu 14).

The Chief Counterintelligence Officer at LANL proved the innocence of Wen Ho Lee and made the stress that the scientist was targeted for investigation only because he is “ethnic Chinese” (Cheng, Chang, and Hu 8). It should be noted that Caucasian employees of the agency with similar foreign contacts were not investigated (Cheng, Chang, and Hu 8). This statement and the official reports proved that the conclusion of the Chief Intelligence Officer of the American Department of Energy concerning the fact that the Chinese government had obtained the information about W-88 from one of the employees of the LANL was incorrect (Cheng, Chang, and Hu 16). He began and issued administrative inquiry which listed the physicist as a main suspect. Only after the additional investigations, the Chief Intelligence Officer officially stated that his conclusions were incorrect and biased (Cheng, Chang, and Hu 12). The FBI agent Robery Messemer recanted his fault concerning the Wen Ho Lee because it was based on the racial bias which was reflected in the belief that APIs were more likely to spy.

After 278 days of imprisonment, Wen Ho Lee was released “on time served while pleading guilty to a felony count of mishandling classified information” (Cheng, Chang, and Hu 12). It should be noted that the physicist obtained apology from presiding judge James Parker for the “top decision makers in the Executive Branch…having embarrassed our entire nation and each of us who is a citizen of it” (Cheng, Chang, and Hu 12). Moreover, Wen Ho Lee will receive more than 895,000$ from the federal government and also 750,000$ from five media organizations in terms of settling allegations concerning his mistaken condemnation and incarceration (Farhi 1). However, the scientist did not sue anybody. The American government tried to make reparation from being wrong in verdict and incarceration or about nine months in awful conditions. At the same time, the media organizations clearly recognized that they had made an erroneous statement which lead to the dismissal and public condemnation.

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Analysis of the Collected Information and Its Discussion

The current research paper will provide the analysis of the legal issue and argue the position of the legal system on the basis of the above mentioned description of the case of Wen Ho Lee. The adjudgement made to Asian Physicist has both political and racial backgrounds. They will be shortly described for the formation of vision on the case.

It should be noted, that Asian Pacific Islanders (also known as APIs) have faced the issue of racial profiling long before the case of Wen Ho Lee. These people were viewed the perpetual foreigners and suffered from stereotypes and prejudicial attitudes regardless of the actual citizenship status (Wong and Guarneros 46). Such an attitude to Asian Americans existed from the middle 1800, when Asian immigrants arrived to the USA for meeting labor demand (Kim 111). The excess of the amount of newcomers created the threat to American society, and the government put restrictions on their entering the country for ten years according to the Chinese Exclusion Act and additionally for next ten years according to the Geary Act (Kim 111). APIs obtained the right to obtain American citizenship only in 1952 (Kim 111). Notwithstanding the official recognition as equal citizens, these people still suffer from perception of otherness, disloyalty, alien status, and being inassimilable. At the time of escalation of any political situation between the USA and Asian countries (during the World War II or after the Cold War), APIs were treated as foreigners which can betray the USA and pass the top secret security information to third parties (Kim 111).

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The bias against API became even sharper when relationships between the USA and Asian counties strained. After the end of the Cold War, the new political conflict arose in the world – the conflict between two mighty military countries which developed nuclear weapon – the USA and China, based on reorientation of military strategies of both countries and disputes concerning Taiwan (Wong and Guarneros 47). Much attention should be paid to scandals between these two countries during the Clinton’s presidency. In 1996, the Chinese government tried to increase its political influence in the USA through political donations from Chinese representatives in the USA through the illegal contributions to the Democratic Party. In various newspapers (like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal), prominent politicians stated the following ideas concerning this matter: “penetration of the White House by Asian Interests” and “foreigners buying White House” (Wong and Guarneros 48). Also, it should be noted that in 1992, the Chinese nuclear tests showed a sudden improvement in miniaturization of Chinese nuclear warheads, that were similar to the American nuclear weapon named W-88 (Pherson Associates LLC 3). This fact formed the background of the assumption that Chinese scientists may use in their experiments the technologies obtained from American nuclear laboratories.

Notwithstanding the fact that there was no any apparent evidence concerning this matter, these suspicions have a negative influence on the image of China and APIs at the social and governmental levels. The US officials initiated special investigation concerning the possible transfer of the American missile technology to China (Wong and Guarneros 49). According to the Cox Report concerning this matter, the Chinese government intended to create its own nuclear weapon with the use of information from the US nuclear laboratories related to the most prominent researches (including the warhead W-88, on which Wen Ho Lee worked). Since that time, the agents of the FBI were searching for a spy in order to prove the idea that Chinese government uses American researches for escalation the political conflicts and obtaining more power in the world. This idea found reflection in further condemnation of Wen Ho Lee and became the subject to the public gaze by numerous newspapers, notwithstanding the fact that there was no any clear evidence of this espionage. Moreover, Wen Ho Lee was not a Chinese at all. He was from Taiwan (Kim 111).

However, the most awful thing in this case is that the judges (people who serve to obey the law and to protect all American citizens from incorrect condemnation irrespective of their race) were influenced by the universal American hysteria concerning the possible threat from China. In any current case, the representatives of the court should thoroughly weight their decisions and take into consideration reliable and grounded information concerning the case before making the sentence that can change the whole life of the defendant. In the discussed case, the court blenched to have no particular evidence of mishandling of the nuclear weapons by the API scientist. Moreover, the judges were influenced by the inflamed potions and enormous fear of American citizens that China could threaten security of their country because Wen Ho Lee passed nuclear secrets of the United States to China. Instead of being lawful and having common sense, the judges were directed by emotions, fear, and biased attitude to APIs while pronouncing the verdict. In the particular situation, the legislative system of the USA did not protect the rights of the American citizen. It just served as the weapon of the social hysteria. This statement is based on the following: the American judicial system “was led astray by the Executive Branch” (Kim 111). This fact of the influence of one branch on another brings into the question the whole US system of the independence and protection of citizens’ rights. This was reflected not only in the false verdict, but also in strict conditions of the incarceration of Wen Ho Lee. The American discriminatory government’s handling of the Wen Ho Lee case shows that any person could be condemned because of personal ethnicity but not on the background of a proved violence of laws.

It should be noted that this case has some positive consequences. The society, the press, the FBI, and the judicial system clearly understood that the guilt of any person should be confirmed before an individual can fell upon public condemnation and imprisonment. Only strong facts (but not racial profiling, bias, estimations, suggestions, or social hysteria) can serve as the evidence of someone’s guilt. This understanding is extremely necessary for insurance that rights of any American citizen would be protected irrespective of his/her ethnicity.


This work provides general description and examination of the legal issue against nuclear physicist Wen Ho Lee who was suspected in espionage and handling the US nuclear secrets to the Chinese government. These suspicions were based on the biased attitude to the scientist that was widespread by newspapers all over the country instead of being based on the existence of clear evidence of his guilt). Wen Ho Lee lost his job and later was sentenced to life imprisonment in strict conditions. The defense strived for reconsideration of the court decision on the basis of the correspondence of this case to the officially established framework in terms of discovering the cases of selective prosecution. It provided the evidence that people were not prosecuted in similar cases and the evidence of improper motivation of the made decision. After nine months of imprisonment, Wen Ho Lee was affranchised. He obtained about 1,600,000$ as moral compensation from the American government and mass media. This case shows that the American court adjudicated under the influence of several factors: the existing racial bias to Asian Americans and the social hysteria concerning the possibility of the increased nuclear threat from the side of Chinese government. However, judges did not take into consideration the fact that there was no any evidence that Wen Ho Lee betrayed the USA and mishandled nuclear secrets to China. They sentenced a person to life imprisonment only on the basis of unsupported suspicions. Hence, this case is considered to be unfair and discriminatory.

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