Alberta Lee, 8/1/05, San Francisco
Recorded by Reese Erlich
.29 I’m Alberta Lee. I’m speaking on behalf of my family and father Wen Ho Lee.
I first realized the severity of the investigation on reading the NY Times, March 1999. I realized the article was describing my parents. It was quite a shock.
He met with the FBI on 10 occasions without an attorney, each one lasting 4-5 hours. My dad thought he was helping the FBI. He didn’t know he was the target of the investigation.
It was combination of the fairly adversarial interrogation by the FBI as well as the front page article that brought him to his senses.
My family was in shock that this could happen in America. We really always believed that you come to the US, you work hard, keep your head down and don’t rock the boat. /// We were never really awakened to discrimination in America until this case happened to my father. /// We lived the model minority type of existence. We ignored politics and floated through life. This situation was a huge wake up call for my family and many Asian Americans.
I was leading the model minority life. I was working at a multinational hi tech company. Trying to climb the corporate ladder. Not really thinking about larger impact on the world. I’ve realized now there’s so much work to be done, so much hurt in the world. Work for social justice and against racism.
Went back to law school to give back to people.
Looking back there were times I didn’t want to believe it was about my race. There are times I could raise certain questions.
I didn’t give much thought to race, culture, society, discrimination before my father’s case.
In March of 99 leading newspapers printed that my father was the main suspect for passing nuclear weapons secrets. National investigations confirmed China had stolen weapons plans from US. Election year. Pressure to link Pres. Clinton to China.
Also campaign finance scandal. All these articles allege that my father had been a spy.
They charged him with downloading and mishandling classified information. They charged him with 59 counts under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. This is an act which had not been used before.
came out of McCarthy era.
There was never any charges formally of spying.
He pled guilty of one count of mishandling classified information after spending 278 days in solitary confinement. He did pled guilty to one felony count.
My father pled guilty to one count, and all other 58 counts were dropped, because he wanted to end his time in jail. We could have gone to trial, but it would have taken much longer.
Judge James Parker was amazing in court. We weren’t expecting anything. He read from a statement for 15-20 minutes.
He felt misled by several branches of the government, including the Dept of Energy and Clinton Administration to hold my father without bail. He didn’t understand why if he held the nuclear crown jewels, /// why suddenly in 2000 my father could be free to go home. It’s basically because of the flimsiness of the evidence.
The first month in which he was detained, he was held in a single cell with a blue light that shined 24 hours a day, /// which is against Amnesty International regulations.
He was given food and water but not allowed to go outside on weekends. He was prevented from receiving mail and visitors at first.
The hardest thing, I think, was that he was shackled and chained. His ankles and wrists were shackled and chained whenever he was moved around in the jail. For the family, for me, the hardest part was visiting him in jail and seeing him treated like an animal.
Food very hard for him. He sticks to a non meat diet. Restricted from a lot of things until pressure from defense attorneys.
They thought they could break him. They thought he would confess to something he did not do. /// He stood that ground. He never wanted to compromise his situation.
He never took the info home. Had downloaded info from one network to another. Always in the office, behind the firewall at the Lab. Copies of backup work because of past problems with the system.
The material wasn’t classified. “Protect as restricted data” is considered unclassified. All the work my father had was protect as restricted. Only later did government took the files and re-classified them as classified. It was a set up.
Tension between US and China. Election year. Make Al Gore look like he was linked to China transfers. Make it look like Clinton Adm soft on China.
My father was a simple, normal man plucked from obscurity. I’m sure the FBI never thought he would stand his ground.
There was definitely a culture of scrutinizing Chinese scientists, no matter if they were from Taiwan or mainland China. The fact that a number of Asian Americans filed a class action law suit after my father’s case, people can draw an inference there is a climate of scrutinizing foreign nationals at the National Labs.
The media has a duty to report information to the public. Duty to report responsibly. I observed a pack mentality. Media reporters would share the same information, same sound bites and not dig beneath the surface. It wasn’t until the government’s case began to fall apart until the media was interested in my family. The media tried to create a more balanced picture. We were fighting an uphill battle against mainstream media who believe the government sources.
My father is a private figure. If reporters in the future are given information about a private person, journalists should be particularly careful about naming that person. If it’s a public official, it’s fair game.
RE: What impact did the case have on your family?
It brought us closer. Brother at medical school. I was at a high tech company. This case brought us much closer. It blurred some of our more normal roles.
For me, I was always the little girl. I was also the one who urged my father to get an attorney. He refused, largely because he thought they were too expensive. /// He’s very frugal. In retrospect, my family, sees that I should be taken more seriously. I wasn’t just crying wolf.
I am the youngest kid and the daughter. I get away with more than my brother. We’re an Asian family. There are certain rules expected, wrapping presents, being a good hostess. Not being expected to do yard work. There are some good things about being an Asian girl.
Some families told kids not to talk with us. Hurtful.
In both situations (Chin & Lee) Chinese Americans were being looked at in a particular manner.
I think in both Vincent Chin and my father’s case, Chinese Americans realized that they need to be much more vigilant, much more politically aware and involved. They need to be cognizant of stereotyping that occurs among the masses in America.. Chinese Americans are perceived to be a certain way. In both situations, /// Chinese Americans organized ad ho overnight in informal manners to rally to support the person being victimized.
Support from C-A, scientific community and religious groups. Support from C-A was crucial. But once the scientific groups, American Scientific Society, Committee for Concerned Society came on board, that was when the tide began to change. It was not just about race, but about scientific matters and our nation’s defense. I really wish race hadn’t been such a large issue. But it also awakened me how pervasive race is throughout our culture and how difficult it is to /// fix.
It’s a problem that will be around for awhile.
We filed over a hundred violations of the 1972 privacy act. /// The civil suit was filed because numerous branches of the US government leaked information about my family /// which no one is supposed to know, your assets./// The crux of the suit hinges on whether the anonymous sources providing info to newspapers came from DOE, et al. We hope newspapers will be forced to reveal.
On a personal level, how’s your dad doing?
Most of the time, he’s OK. He’s dealt with this in his own way. He’s printed a math textbook /// as well as a couple of publications in international journals.
He spends a lot of time fishing and gardening. He grew up on a farm.
He remains unsettled with his position in the US. It’s difficult. I don’t want to come across as angry or resentful. But I am angry and resentful. /// My father has his own way of dealing.
30.20 It’s still a continuing process to heal from the pain.
He lives in northern California.
31.00 END TAPE