Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1527
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.
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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 CIA, FBI, Department of Energy, and other entities are portrayed as somewhat inept, marginally unethical bureaucracies pursuing their own agendas at the expense of truth and even national interest.
More than this, the authors assert that the Wen Ho Lee affair illustrates a problem with America’s national mood. In the final paragraph, they assert that the case “suggested Americans had lost sight of the true national interest. Nuclear weapons are the nation’s ultimate defence, a supposed tool of last resort for safeguarding democracy. But H-bombs are never the supreme national interest. . . . Presumably, the national interest lies in the guarantees of freedom that the nation so cavalierly discarded in the futile search for a spy.”
Some of Lee’s supporters have interpreted the book as confirming their contention that Lee was unfairly accused by overzealous prosecutors in a latter-day McCarthyite style. Indeed, this point is forcefully and emotionally made in the title and narrative of Lee’s own book, My Country Versus Me: The First-Hand Account by the Los Alamos Scientist Who Was Falsely Accused of Being a Spy (2002), which was released at about the same time as A Convenient Spy. The general point was picked up in the press and a loose consensus developed that the prosecution of Wen Ho Lee was bungled.
Still, Stober and Hoffman hardly provide vindication for Lee’s claims of innocence. Indeed, the authors raise serious concerns about Lee’s statements, actions, and motives. Most importantly, Lee admitted to committing what the authors describe as “an egregious security offense” (illegally making his own personal tapes of the secret computer codes used to design America’s nuclear weapons) which “placed so many of the nation’s basic tools of weapons design at such great risk.” He “broke the fundamental trust that underlies the weapons world and, in the end . . . seriously eroded America’s confidence in the weapons labs and the ability of his colleagues to protect secrets.” His explanation for his actions—that he simply wanted to have back-up copies in case the lab’s computer crashed—were unconvincing. He had lied on a number of occasions about meetings with Chinese officials and other matters. He had failed polygraph examinations. Earlier he had offered to help a suspected spy against the United States. Why had he deleted files after he was identified as a suspect? What had he done with the tapes, which never were found? (He claimed he had thrown them in the garbage.) Why did he experience so many putative memory lapses about critical events?
In short, the book concludes that the spy case was indeed woefully bungled by the U.S. government, that it exposed serious flaws in the way Los Alamos—and, by extension, the whole U.S. nuclear program—was run, and that it revealed a latent antiforeigner sentiment that permeates matters of national security among officials and the general public. However, the book specifically does not conclude that “Lee did not do it.” After reading the book, readers still do not know the answer to a fundamental question: whether the Chinese government’s development of U.S.-style nuclear warheads was facilitated by spies within the United States, by unintentional security lapses on the part of the United States, or simply through diligent Chinese research.
The book is engaging and absorbing, written in a style more like a novel than a treatise on the politics of nuclear espionage. The personalities of the characters are well developed, with considerable attention paid to the appearance, emotions, and presumed motives of the various players. Much of this material appears to be included more for color and entertainment than as part of the effort to elucidate the mystery of Wen Ho Lee’s actions. Lee is depicted as a man who was seen by his coworkers as “friendly and capable; to his friends, he was a kind man and a good father.” Readers are told that he shared fruit from his trees with his neighbors; that an FBI agent “jokingly referred to [Lee’s wife] as ‘Madame Sue-eee,’ as if he were a farmer calling a pig to dinner;” that Lee did not eat red meat or sugar; that FBI agent Carol Covert “was in her mid-forties, an attractive woman with reddish-brown hair.”
Yet the narrative’s implicit claims of omniscience, coupled with the vagueness in identifying sources, calls into question how much of the narrative is speculative. When, as the authors relate, Lee looked into Carol Covert’s eyes, did she really “remind him a little of his daughter and her college friends”? How do the authors know that Lee “wondered . . . how much they [knew]”? How do the authors know that “Lee believed his job was safe.” (The authors indicate they obtained information on this exchange largely through the FBI’s interrogation transcripts, which could not include unspoken thoughts.)
All that said, this book offers one of the best, most comprehensive accounts of the Wen Ho Lee affair—a story that has been misrepresented by partisans of various political stripes in public and private discourse. More importantly, the story is important to the understanding of how the United States does, and how it should, balance national security interests with individual rights. This is especially important now, as America redefines its security interests in the post-Cold War world, and particularly after the terrorism of September 11, 2001.
Sources for Further Study
American Scientist, 90 (July/August, 2002): 371.
Business Week, February 4, 2002, p. 17.
Choice 40 (September, 2002): 186.
Current History 101 (September, 2002): 295.
The New York Times Book Review 107 (February 17, 2002): 9.
Publishers Weekly 248 (November 12, 2001): 46.
The Wall Street Journal, January 16, 2002, p. A14.