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Rush to judgment on Lee

FOR nine months, Wen Ho Lee was kept alone in a jail cell for 23 hours a day. His feet and hands were shackled. FBI agents closely watched once-a-week visits from his wife and children.

Was this former government nuclear scientist a spy? Did he, as federal prosecutors claimed, steal the "crown jewels" of American atomic secrets to "secure an advantage to a foreign nation"?

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No, it turns out. And now, federals official have plenty to answer for. (See story on page 1.)

In fact, to prevent such an abuse of power again, an independent inquiry is in order - especially to see if Mr. Lee was singled out because of his Chinese ancestry.

All but one of 59 charges against Lee are being dropped in a plea bargain. He will cooperate in explaining how he destroyed the seven tapes of classified data he downloaded to a nonsecure computer - something he always admitted - to help him in his work at Los Alamos National Laboratory. For this criminal negligence, he's to be given a sentence of 275 days - or the time spent on mainly false charges and in dire conditions.

So why did Attorney General Janet Reno settle for a plea bargain?

Perhaps Justice Department officials were worried about a demand by US District Judge James Parker to provide classified documents related to racial profiling in the case.

Perhaps they were embarrassed by an admission from the lead FBI investigator that he gave inaccurate testimony against Lee and by court revelations that almost all the missing data is publicly available.

Perhaps they were worried after the presidents of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine all stated that Lee "appears to be a victim of unjust treatment" and that his case "reflects poorly on the US justice system."

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Prosecutors now claim they were tough on Lee to gain his cooperation in learning about the missing tapes. But does that concern for national security justify incorrect accusations and other missteps?

Too many questions remain to let this case slide into history. The impact on Asian-Americans and government science is too great. Any bungling by the FBI, Justice Department, and Energy Department must be aired.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society