Wen Ho Free! (And More Egg on Feds' Faces)

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To the consternation of government spycatchers, Wen Ho Lee is going home. Reversing a decision he made eight months ago to keep the suspected former Los Alamos scientist in prison without bail, Albuquerque Federal District Court judge James A. Parker set a $1 million bail and ordered a hearing next week to set some strict terms for the nuclear scientist's freedom.

For the FBI, the Justice Department, the Department of Energy and, of course, the beaten man known as Bill Richardson, Parker's reversal is just another Los Alamos embarrassment in a seemingly endless string of them. The government's case against Lee "no longer has the requisite clarity and persuasive character" to justify his incarceration, declared Parker, and indeed a disastrous hearing last week may have left the judge little choice.

First, John Richter, a veteran weapons designer at Los Alamos, told Parker that the data Lee had downloaded would not harm U.S. security, even if it fell into the hands of a foreign power, adding that 99 percent of the information was available in open scientific literature. Which hardly made Lee, who will likely be under something resembling house arrest, seem like a threat to pass along those eight missing tapes to the Chinese and create a situation in which "hundreds of millions of people could be killed," as U.S. attorney George Stamboulidis put it last week.

Then an action that Parker called "deeply troubling" last December — that Lee had told a colleague he was borrowing a computer recording device to download his résumé when in fact he planned to copy top-secret files, as was alleged by FBI special agent Robert A. Messemer, the government's lead investigator — turned out not to be a deception at all. The colleague, Kuok-Mee Ling, told a grand jury that Lee only said he wanted to use the recorder to download some files. Last week, Messemer had to apologize to the court, pleading an "honest mistake."

Parker didn't even wait to see the transcripts.

So Lee, a walking indictment of the U.S.'s loose grip not only on its nuclear secrets but on its enforcement procedures, will go from shackles and solitary confinement at a county jail in Santa Fe to his own home in White Rock, near his old workplace. The conditions of that stay have yet to be set, but some things seem certain: one phone line, no computers.

The case against Lee isn't dead yet. Government witnesses have testified about Lee's "pattern of deceptive behavior," and there is still the very troubling matter of those missing tapes. But the cracks in this case have been wide enough to allow critics to call it racist and Lee a scapegoat, and to provoke nostalgia for the old days, when foreign enemies were foreign enemies and accused spies got nailed to the wall.

Where have you gone, Aldrich Ames?