The Perp Walk
All the time and money spent for such a massive investigation, and all the public gets is the perp walk. Perp is short for perpetrator, i.e., the one who did it.
Usually, the only time the media gets a good look at the perp is right after an arrest on the walk to the squad car. Or from the squad car to the arraignment site. You get more if youre on Cops. But those are small fry. The big ones get a photo opportunity. It happens anytime law enforcement bags a game fish.
They want to see the shot of themselves reeling in the big one. But they cant just stand next to their 100- pound marlin and smile. What would the judge say?
So we have the perp walk. And it almost always revealing in what it says about the perps guilt or innocence.
The perps who are usually seen on the news covering their faces, with their heads in their T-shirts or using their coat as a shield from the TV lights and flash cameras? Those are the guilty ones.
And then there are those who just look straight at the media like theyre trying to understand why theyve been forced into some existential drama.
Theyre the ones that are usually getting screwed.
Enter Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwan-born Asian American and former nuclear physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. For more than three years, he has been under suspicion of passing top secrets to China. His every move the last nine months has been carefully observed 24-7 by the FBI. They even got to watch him on 60 Minutes declare his innocence. Hes used to the attention; hes had as many as 200 FBI agents watching him do everything from pull weeds to buy groceries.
No wonder then that when a federal grand jury finally indicted Lee last week on 59 counts of illegal handling of classified data and gave the green light to make an arrest at his home, Lee didnt try to cover up. Why should he? He just took his public face time and stared straight into the cameras.
It was a relieved, matter-of-fact look. Maybe thats because the charade of his freedom was over and his new battle in the courts was about to begin.
Lee was in a kind of strange limbo until then. He was the main focus of a major investigation in search of a spy. But the FBI didnt have the goods to do a thing with Lee.
How do we know? Law enforcement and government officials-on the condition of anonymity -- revealed to the Associated Press information from classified documents indicating that as early as Jan. 22 of this year the FBI office in Albuquerque wrote to Washington headquarters. The documents said that it appears that Lee was not responsible for providing China secret information about the W-88, the most advanced U.S. submarine warhead.
Another memo dated days later on Jan. 29 continues to insist that Lee had not disclosed any W-88 secrets.
So why continue the surveillance of an innocent man?
Good question. The FBI believed that in February, after it said Lee failed a lie detector test, he began to delete hundreds of computer files that contained classified data he had transferred.
Suspicious? Or routine? Wouldnt you want to get rid of classified information in a non-classified computer? Still, it just doesnt add up to spying.
In fact, the internal documents of last January has actually forced a top FBI official to alter Senate testimony given this past June.
The testimony was that the evidence against Lee made a compelling case to focus on Los Alamos as a source of Chinese espionage.
Assistant FBI Director Neil J.Gallagher made the comments. But in November he was forced to take them all back. Gallagher wrote meekly to the Senate: I believed then that those statements were accurate. I have subsequent to that testimony asked for and become aware of additional facts.
Details are important in investigations. Gallagher overlooked a key one. At least one of the key internal documents was in the briefing book he used to prepare his testimony.
The documents should come in handy for the Wen Ho Lee defense team. They surface at a time when the FBI has shown its not at all infallible. Tell a jury about FBI incompetence after Waco and the false accusation of Richard Jewell as the Olympic Park bomber, and suddenly Wen Ho Lee has another credible line of defense.
So far the best argument they have is that scientists routinely mishandle sensitive material at government weapons labs. And no ones watching all of them 24 hours a day.
The FBI, in fact, has known based on an interview in 1998 with Lees boss that about 250 individuals on average each year had access to W-88 information. That would include contractors and scientists at other labs, who have never been examined.
The FBIs now saying theres an expanded investigation underway, and that Lee may not have acted alone. Theyre also saying that theres some new Chinese way of spying, which involves a lot of little guys, no one mastermind. Its a let a 1,000 spies bloom approach.
So why harass Lee?
Well, the FBIs got to show something for all their Wen Ho watching. It may not add up to a spy case. But mishandling secrets can get someone life in prison. Sure, its not James Bond material. But at least the FBI gets its perp walk, no matter how flawed.