FBI May Not Be Wise to Whack Wen Ho Lee Again

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Looks like Wen Ho Lee will go on trial, after all. It's not that the plea agreement he reached with the government to end his nine-month incarceration is off; rather, FBI director Louis Freeh is set to detail his agency's case against Lee before the Senate Tuesday — the same day as the New York times published a nuanced mea culpa for the instances in which its coverage of the story "fell short of our standards." In an effort supposedly to justify the government's incarceration of the fired Los Alamos nuclear scientist — questioned even by President Clinton following Lee's release — Freeh reportedly plans to allege that Lee met a suspected spy in 1982 and had a relationship with the head of China's nuclear program after 1994, and was less than forthcoming about those relationships. He'll also argue that the computer code downloaded by Lee was indeed highly sensitive, and raise questions about the scientist's behavior after learning that he was under suspicion.

The fact that Freeh is explaining in great detail the government's suspicions after Lee's case was concluded by a plea agreement that convicted him only of one felony count of mishandling classified information suggests that the FBI believes its evidence will fare better in the Senate than it would have done in a courtroom. Of course, civil-rights advocates will howl at the appearance of double jeopardy, and question the fairness of giving the prosecution a second chance in a setting whose evidentiary standards are not those of a courtroom. And even before that to the media, once again — CNN led Tuesday with a summary of the evidence Freeh will present. But given the furor following Lee's release, the FBI will no doubt defend itself on the grounds that it feels compelled to explain its behavior — in other words, it's not vindictively painting the scientist as shifty about his dealings with the agents and nuclear scientists of a rival nation after failing to convict him in court; it's simply justifying its behavior in the case as even the President urged it to do.

But even setting aside concerns over Lee's civil rights for a moment, it's worth questioning how Director Freeh's testimony will actually help the FBI. After all, if the senators and the wider public actually do buy into a portrait of Wen Ho Lee as a devious consort of a foreign power hungry for U.S. nuclear secrets, they're as likely to believe that by getting away only with time served on a single felony count he made the feds look silly.