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Playing the Race Card to Protect Chinese Spies

The Wen Ho Lee case taught China that crying racism would trump incriminating facts.

Former Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee wal
Wen Ho Lee (Photo credit should read MIKE FIALA/AFP via Getty Images)

Is it racist to think that a Chinese person is more likely to spy for China than someone with no Chinese ancestry who was born in America?

That was the premise of much of the left-wing opposition to the Justice Department’s so-called China Initiative, its investigation of Chinese technology theft that was launched in 2018 and canceled by the Biden administration in 2022 over claims of ethnic profiling. It is the premise of many news articles written about Chinese scientists leaving the United States in increasing numbers, supposedly because they feel targeted by authorities. Yet if you asked the average man on the street, he would say that taking someone’s country of birth into account in an espionage investigation is just common sense.


Where did the Chinese get the idea that playing the race card would be an effective way to fend off reasonable investigations of suspicious conduct? From the precedent set by the case of Wen Ho Lee in 1999.

When I mentioned Wen Ho Lee at a panel in Washington, D.C., recently, none of the people in the room, mostly twenty-somethings, had any idea who he was. His case was a massive news story during the late Clinton era, one that taught the Chinese a lesson about American vulnerabilities that they are profiting from to this day.

The story of Wen Ho Lee, as it has gone down in history books, runs something like this: An absent-minded computer programmer at Los Alamos cut a few corners on security procedures and for this he was scapegoated as a Chinese spy by the Justice Department, which picked him because he was Taiwanese-born and ethnically vulnerable. The title of Lee’s ghostwritten memoir sums it up: My Country Versus Me: The First-Hand Account by the Los Alamos Scientist Who Was Falsely Accused of Being a Spy.

According to an August 2000 episode of 60 Minutes, the security lapses Lee committed were very ordinary, the kind of thing many other Los Alamos scientists did when they were in a hurry. The crime of mishandling restricted data, to which Lee pled guilty in exchange for the other charges being dropped, he says he did because he wanted to create backup copies of his work and so transferred the files from a secure to an unsecure network before putting them onto portable tapes.

But it was not just his own work that Wen Ho Lee downloaded. The program called “Big Mac” simulates a nuclear explosion in order to show the effects of design changes on the operations of a bomb. Running a test took hours or days on a Cray supercomputer. Out of 223,000 lines of code, Lee had contributed less than a thousand. He downloaded the whole thing, and more, including weapons designs and sketches.


As soon as Lee became aware that he was under investigation by the FBI, he began deleting the incriminating files from his computer and refused ever to tell authorities where the backup tapes were; he claimed he destroyed them. Far from being a shortcut taken in a hurry, analysts say creating his tape library would have taken Lee at least 40 hours.

Lee’s behavior drew the FBI’s attention because investigators had unrelated reasons to believe there was a spy at Los Alamos. China conducted a nuclear test in 1992 that indicated sudden advances in their miniaturization technology. Their breakthrough bore a striking resemblance to America’s W88 warhead, the kind used on Trident missiles, which meant that either the Chinese had converged on the same design overnight or someone gave it to them. “It’s like they were driving a Model T and went around the corner and suddenly had a Corvette,” one scientist said.

Investigators started with the small circle of people who would have had access to those designs and looked for red flags. Wen Ho Lee had three, in addition to his inexplicable tape library: the call, the meeting, and the hug.

In 1982, Lee called up a Taiwanese-born engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who had been forced to resign from his job after being caught at the airport on his way to China carrying classified secrets. Lee had never met the man, but he called him and offered to help him find out who had tipped off the authorities. This phone call was picked up on the FBI’s phone tap of the engineer and then forgotten about for 15 years until Lee himself came under investigation. Lee says he called his countryman merely out of sympathy. One FBI agent who investigated Lee said, “I’m Italian, but I don’t call John Gotti and say, come on, John, I hear the FBI’s after you, can I help you?”

In 1988, on one of his many visits to China, Wen Ho Lee met in his hotel room with Dr. Hu Side, the head of China’s nuclear weapons program. Lee claims nothing improper occurred at this meeting, only that Hu asked him to disclose classified information and he refused. But when Lee was debriefed after his trip and provided a list of all the Chinese scientists he had met, he left off Hu.

In 1994, a Chinese delegation including Hu Side visited Los Alamos. Wen Ho Lee crashed a private meeting to which he had not been invited in order to greet the visitors, and Hu gave Lee a hug. When the Americans asked their translator what the two men were chatting about in Mandarin, the translator replied, “They’re thanking him because the computer software and calculations on hydrodynamics that he provided them have helped China a great deal.”

To those three red flags we might add a fourth: Sylvia Lee, his wife. Officially, Sylvia Lee had an administrative job at Los Alamos; unofficially, she was the lab’s social ambassador to visiting Chinese delegations. Her unofficial duties soon outgrew her official ones, and her bosses were annoyed to find her racking up thousands of dollars in long-distance and international calls on the office phone bill.

Sylvia was a problem employee in other ways. Once, when given an assignment she thought was beneath her, she deliberately deleted the relevant files, including classified designs that belonged to a third-party contractor. Her bosses confronted her, and she admitted that she had deleted the files to teach them a lesson about valuing her work. “Then she played that game of ‘I don’t understand,’ and I was ready to fire her on the spot,” her supervisor recalled. He kept her on at the request of the H.R. department, and also because two CIA agents visited him and implied that they wanted Sylvia to stay where she was.

(Wen Ho Lee played “that game of ‘I don’t understand’” when under interrogation, too. You can observe it in his 60 Minutes interview, and no doubt he also used it with the FBI: Respond to a tough question with a generic answer and hope your evasiveness is chalked up to language trouble.)

The visit by the CIA agents is a reminder that nuclear espionage takes place in a world of mirrors where hidden actors are always at work. Sylvia’s bosses had no idea she was passing information to the FBI and the CIA. When Wen Ho Lee’s case came up for trial in the summer of 2000, the judge originally assigned the case suddenly recused himself without explanation. It was later revealed that a woman connected to the defense accused the judge of making a sexual advance. He denied it but bowed out to keep the allegation from being made public. The judge who replaced him was so sympathetic to Wen Ho Lee that during sentencing he apologized to Lee from the bench. Was this judge switch the result of a deliberate scheme? In the world of espionage, such things do happen.

Why is the Wen Ho Lee case remembered as an example of racist scapegoating? Clearly the FBI had many reasons to be suspicious of Lee apart from his ethnicity, even if, as is often the case with espionage investigations—including the Lawrence Livermore engineer caught red-handed at the airport—they did not have enough to get a conviction in court.

One reason is that Wen Ho Lee had a very good P.R. team. He became a cause celebre among Chinese-Americans, who showered him with donations, and Lee was able to hire high-powered lawyers and first-rate Los Angeles publicists. They knew exactly what kinds of emotional appeals would work on the American public: scientist vs. bureaucrat, one man vs. the system, and, above all, innocent racial minority vs. white bigots. According to the excellent book A Convenient Spy,by journalists Dan Stober and Ian Hoffman, the entourage around Lee and his daughter Alberta grew so big and so controlling that his older supporters wondered, “Had Wen Ho and Alberta gone Hollywood?”

It was these consultants who set up the sympathetic press interviews and brought in prominent Chinese-American lesbian activist Helen Zia to help co-write Lee’s memoir. The book itself is not very convincing. For example, Lee says the reason he tried to sneak into his office at 3:30 a.m. on Christmas Eve after his security clearance had been revoked was not to destroy evidence but because “I wanted to continue working on the scientific paper I was preparing” and “somehow I thought that the swipe card might work again at off hours.” Still, the book reassured Lee’s defenders that he would continue proclaiming his innocence.

The second reason Lee was able to paint himself as a martyr is that many powerful people in the Clinton administration did not want to turn over any rocks having to do with Chinese espionage. It is often forgotten now, but Clinton’s second term was rocked by China scandals. Huge sums from foreign donors were funneled to Democratic campaigns by way of Chinese money men such as Charlie Yah-Lin Trie and John Huang. In exchange, bigwigs including People’s Liberation Army officers were given access to the White House, and Huang was given a position at the Commerce Department where he could encourage and monitor the export of sensitive items to Asia. Huang also received security clearance, intelligence briefings, and access to classified documents at Commerce.

A scandal this big should have resulted in an independent counsel and banner prosecutions, but it did not. In September 1999, FBI whistleblowers revealed that the Justice Department’s campaign finance task force had thwarted their investigation—refusing, for example, to pursue a warrant to search Charlie Trie’s office even after incriminating documents including photocopies of checks from foreign donors to Clinton’s legal defense fund were found shredded in his trash. A Wall Street Journal editorial summarized the whistleblowers’ testimony: “What emerges from these FBI accounts is a portrait of not merely a botched investigation but of an active coverup.”

The Wen Ho Lee case broke in the middle of the Chinagate scandal. (Incidentally, another Chinese-American who worked at the Commerce Department and was close friends with John Huang was Hoyt Zia, the brother of Lee’s co-author, Helen Zia.) Accusing Republicans of anti-Asian xenophobia was one way that Democrats downplayed the Chinagate revelations. When the Wen Ho Lee investigation failed to come up with a smoking gun that showed him passing secrets to China, the same people took up his cause as further evidence that only paranoid racists were suspicious of naturalized Asian-Americans.

It is impossible to know for sure, more than 20 years later, whether Wen Ho Lee was a spy. But one thing is certain. Wen Ho Lee is invoked today as an example of why racial profiling of Chinese scientists should be avoided at all costs to avoid targeting blameless people, when that is not, in fact, the lesson of his case at all.