A Convenient Spy Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In March, 1999, The New York Times printed a front-page story headlined “China Stole Nuclear Secrets from Los Alamos, U.S. Officials Say.” The story followed earlier published accounts that China had somehow obtained secret data on U.S. nuclear warheads and marked a high point in American concern over China in the post-Cold War world. It also provided fodder for critics of the foreign and security policies of President Bill Clinton’s administration. When the alleged source of the security breach was identified as Wen Ho Lee, a Chinese American scientist working at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, the story took on ethnic and racial dimensions.

A Convenient Spy presents this story in exhaustive detail, providing a short biography of Wen Ho Lee, background information on the Cold War and U.S.-Chinese relations, and a step-by-step account of how the U.S. government discovered, prosecuted, and unsatisfactorily concluded its investigation concerning an alleged spy at Los Alamos. Journalists Dan Stober of the San Jose Mercury-News in California and Ian Hoffman of the Albuquerque Journal in New Mexico investigated what has come to be known as “the Wen Ho Lee affair” and lay out their findings in a style reminiscent of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s magisterial All the President’s Men(1974). Like the book on the Watergate scandal, A Convenient Spy builds on a collection of newspaper reports the authors wrote as the affair unfolded.

For an issue that has generated enormous controversy in newspapers and magazines and on the Internet and talk radio, A Convenient Spy provides a definitive account of the affair. The book is based on numerous interviews (excluding, one suspects, interviews with Wen Ho Lee himself), extensive research of books and newspapers, hearing transcripts, government documents, and other sources. Although a “Notes” section is provided at the end of the book, most facts and assertions are not individually cited. Instead, the section simply identifies the main sources used for each chapter. Presumably this level of generality is due, in large part, to the need to protect the anonymity of some sources, but the lack of clearly identified sources seems inconsistent with the tone of omniscience that permeates the book.

The undisputed point, which serves as the climax of the story, is that Wen Ho Lee concluded a plea bargain and pleaded guilty to one of the fifty-nine charges brought against him: using an unsecured computer to download a sensitive document. (Later, in a way that was ironic—almost surreal—CIA director John Deutch himself was found to have committed a somewhat similar offense, having edited top-secret documents on his unsecured home computer. Deutch would not be prosecuted. Stober and Hoffman, perhaps unfairly, suggest this is the case because Deutch is white.) In any event, the presiding judge dismissed the remaining charges against Lee and sentenced him to his time served—277 days. The judge then criticized the government’s handling of the case and apologized to Lee “for the unfair manner [he] was held in custody by the Executive Branch.”

The main axis of debate surrounding the Wen Ho Lee affair was whether Lee was, in fact, guilty of willfully providing secret weapons data to a foreign power or was an innocent victim of “racial profiling,” singled out for his Chinese heritage. The former position portrays the issue as one of espionage, while the latter portrays it as one of civil rights.

In contrast to these views, this book presents the issue primarily as a critique of official efforts to apprehend and prosecute Wen Ho Lee. The authors are quite critical on this point. The...

(The entire section is 1527 words.)