One Man's Spy Is Another's Absent-Minded Egghead

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To convict a spy, you need to prove that a crime was actually committed, and then prove that it was committed by the accused. That’s why former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee is unlikely to be charged with espionage, despite achieving national notoriety in the spring following reports that China had stolen U.S. nuclear secrets. If he is charged it will be on the not-exactly-treacherous charge of gross negligence in handling classified information — all too common among Lee’s colleagues and other government officials –- although Lee’s lawyers are meeting with Justice Department officials Tuesday to make the case that he shouldn’t be charged at all.

Lee had been all but convicted in the media, with Energy Secretary Bill Richardson ordering him fired from Los Alamos and the Cox Report alleging grave breaches of U.S. nuclear security. But once the dust had settled, it hadn’t been clearly established that China had actually stolen comprehensive design information, and the only substantive charge against Lee was that he had breached security procedures by downloading sensitive information from a secure computer system onto an unsecured one –- an action his lawyers argue should be understood as an absent-minded oversight by a man whose job involved downloading large bodies of data, and who worked on a computer system recently divided into a secured and an unsecured sector. Such breaches of procedure might ordinarily lead to a stern warning or even dismissal, but the Cox Report’s allegations that the Clinton administration has been negligent with the nation’s nuclear security may yet see Lee facing a jury. After all, politics demands that heads must roll, and Lee’s is the only head identified with this scandal so far.