21 Years After the Arrest of Dr. Wen Ho Lee, Asian American Scientists Still Find Themselves under Scrutiny

By Vivin Qiang

Today marks the day over two decades ago when Asian American scientist Dr. Wen Ho Lee became the target of racial scapegoating and profiling by his own country, and faced injustice as a result of a failure on all levels of government. On December 10, 1999, Dr. Lee was arrested and accused of providing nuclear secrets to the government of China. Despite lacking any evidence of economic espionage, Dr. Lee was jailed in solitary confinement for nine months without bail. Dr. Lee was only allowed to see his family for one hour every week, and was constantly shackled hand and foot, a different treatment from other prisoners at the Santa Fe jail.

After a five-year investigation that involved polygraphs, interrogations, and even incarceration, the FBI did not find any evidence that Dr. Lee was a spy for the government of China. After 278 days of solitary confinement without bail, Dr. Lee was finally freed after the government’s case crumbled, lacking any merit and settled on a plea bargain for just one count of mishandling restricted data.

In the aftermath, the government was heavily criticized for their handling of the case. To obtain the warrant to search Dr. Lee’s home, the FBI claimed that “Dr. Lee was more likely to have committed espionage for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) because he was “overseas ethnic Chinese.”” One FBI witness even admitted that he gave inaccurate testimony to make Dr. Lee appear more deceptive.

As a testament to the grave injustice done to Dr. Lee, U.S. District Judge James A. Parker apologized to Dr. Lee and harshly condemned the government’s prosecutorial tactics:

“I believe you were terribly wronged by being held in custody pretrial in the Santa Fe County Detention Center under demeaning, unncessarily punitive conditions… Dr. Lee, I tell you with great sadness that I feel I was led astray last December by the executive branch of our government through its Department of Justice, by its Federal Bureau of Investigation and by its United States attorney for the district of New Mexico, who held the office at that time. I am sad for you and your family because of the way in which you were kept in custody while you were presumed under the law to be innocent of the charges the executive branch brought against you.”

Although Dr. Lee was eventually released with the government finding no evidence of espionage, the scars of his nine months of solitary confinement, the widespread racial scapegoating from his own country, and the treatment by the United States government stayed with not only him but his family as well.

Dr. Wen Ho Lee’s case sparked conversations about racial profiling by federal law enforcement agencies. In 1999, Robert S. Vrooman, the former head of counterintelligence at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where Dr. Lee was formerly employed, said in an interview that Dr. Lee was unfairly singled out for Federal investigation because of his ethnicity. Vrooman said that ethnicity “was a key factor…There were 83 people who went to China” from the New Mexico weapons laboratory in the 1980’s, and that many Caucasians who had contact with the same people that Dr. Lee did were not investigated. Even the FBI’s former China espionage analyst admitted the presence of racial bias and profiling on Dr. Lee’s case stating that they “concentrate on ethnic Chinese.”

Federal investigators who worked on Dr. Lee’s case were also criticized by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee in a report on the China espionage investigation, stating that investigators had failed to review other possible suspects early on and focused instead on Dr. Lee, without providing compelling evidence to indicate that he should be the prime suspect of the investigation. Dr. Lee fought hard to maintain his innocence and won, but what he has gone through left detrimental impacts on his career, his personal life and the lives of his family.

Now 21 years later, Asian American and Asian immigrant scientists, researchers, and scholars, particularly those of Chinese descent, are facing a resurgence of targeting based on their ethnicity by the government. As tensions have increased between the U.S. and China on trade in recent years, coupled with legitimate national security concerns about the Chinese government, Asian American scientists and researchers are once again being caught up in a broad sweep of investigations launched by the government.

In 2018, the Department of Justice (DOJ) launched the “China Initiative” for the purported purpose of combating Chinese economic espionage. Under the “China Initiative”, the federal government has essentially stated that all Asian American and immigrant scientists and researchers with any relationships to people in China are suspects. The FBI and the NIH have made communications to US universities indicating that people with connections to China could be spies. “Connections” include having a family member in China or visiting China for professional obligations or personal reasons. As a result, scientists and researchers who have historically been encouraged to participate in international research collaboration with other countries, including China, are now being discouraged to engage in the same research activities as other Americans. Federal prosecutors across the country are charging Asian Americans and Asian immigrants with federal crimes based on administrative errors or minor offenses such as failure to disclose in university forms and other activities that are not normally treated as crimes under the pretext of combating economic espionage. The DOJ’s own press releases indicate that the government is investigating Asian scientists based on their ethnicity rather than investigating crimes that lead to perpetrators of economic espionage.

As government agencies face increasing pressure to prosecute people under the “China Initiative”, many Asian Americans, despite never having engaged in espionage, are being targeted based on their ethnicity under the pretext of economic espionage, as in the case of Dr. Feng “Franklin” Tao. Dr. Tao’s prosecution along with that of other notable scientists such as Dr. Xiaoxing Xi, who was wrongly accused of espionage due to the FBI’s limited understanding of technology, and Sherry Chen, who faced a false statement charge after the FBI’s failure to find any evidence of espionage, reveal that racial bias exists in the investigation, charging, and prosecution of Asian Americans and immigrants.

Just like what happened to Dr. Lee over 20 years ago, the Asian American community is still treated as “perpetual foreigners” — reflected by our country’s long history of suspicion against Asian Americans that resulted in the Japanese incarceration, as well as the racial and religious profiling of Arab Middle Eastern Muslim and South Asian communities after 9/11. Government agencies are still choosing to rely on gross generalizations and racial profiling tactics over facts and evidence on their search for suspects, leaving Asian Americans and immigrants in constant fear that their careers and lives can be upended at any moment.

In response to the increased concern and heightened fear from community members, Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC launched the Anti-Racial Profiling Project that offers educational resources and legal referrals for those impacted by the government’s targeting and profiling of Asian American and Asian immigrant scientists, researchers, and scholars.

Vivin Qiang is the Program Coordinator of the Anti-Racial Profiling Project at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.

Advancing Justice | AAJC

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