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US government badly mishandled Wen Ho Lee probe
( 2001-08-14 14:47 ) (7 )

The US government badly bungled its investigation of Chinese-American nuclear weapons scientist We Ho Lee, who was accused of mishandling top-secret government information, according to an official report released Monday.

But federal prosecutor Randy Bellows, who probed the handling of the case by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), also concluded that charges against Lee had not been driven by racial bias.

Although the investigation was plagued by "many serious problems. Racism was not among them," concluded Bellows, whose report was ordered by former attorney general Janet Reno and completed more than a year ago.

Only small and heavily edited portions of the document were made public Monday in response to a court order by the Justice Department.

"Had either the FBI or DOE done what it should have done, the FBI could have been investigating in the year 1996 what it is now investigating in the year 2000," wrote Bellows, adding that the probe was "woefully inadequate."

Lee, who helped design nuclear weapons at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, was charged in 1999 with failure to follow government rules on handling highly-classified information.

The FBI and Energy Department security officials had looked into Lee's contacts with Chinese colleague but never filed espionage charges against him.

In the end, the Taiwanese-born scientist spent nine months in jail before he was released last September as part of a plea bargain agreement.

As part of the deal, the FBI was forced to drop all but one of the 59 charges brought against the scholar.

The case sparked a particularly strong outcry in the Asian-American community, whose members have argued Lee had been singled out because of his skin color.

"The abysmal handling of the initial phases of this case caused serious harm and delay in resolving fundamental questions about a grave compromise of our nuclear secrets," said Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In his probe, Bellows concluded that the investigation may have taken a wrong track. Top nuclear weapons experts at the Energy Department concluded as early as 1995 that a wide group of department employees had access to data about the W-88, the report said.

But the experts misrepresented these findings to the FBI, leading its agents to conclude that Los Alamos was the only source of such information and Lee was the most likely suspect, according to the document.

"The consequences for the investigation caused by the inaccurate representations were profound," Bellows wrote.



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