Don’t forget him: Wen Ho Lee is 2008’s person of the year
I know, Lee made news back in 1999. But people forget, and they need to remember. That’s especially true now that Lee’s main tormentor, Bill Richardson — the former energy secretary under Clinton and now governor of New Mexico — has been named President-elect Barack Obama’s choice for secretary of commerce.
Richardson is relevant again. And so is Lee. Yet to my surprise, nearly ten years after Lee’s sordid treatment at the hands of Richardson, the media and the U.S. government, Lee’s name barely seems to register with anyone. Not with mainstream society or media. Not with Barack Obama. Not even with the Asian American community as a whole.
For Asian Americans (the majority of whom backed Obama), the Richardson nomination can be seen as the most serious transgression against Asian Americans in some time.
Richardson may be considered in political circles as the “Latinos’ Latino,” but to Asian Americans he remains the perpetrator of one of the worst racial profiling cases in America before 9-11.
Some of you recognize that. A few have gone to wenholee.org to sign an online petition against Richardson’s nomination. But it seems more people are sympathetic to the indignity suffered by American Idol’s William Hung rather than the injustice endured by Wen Ho Lee.
Who He Lee?
Just repeating the facts makes one cringe. Lee was the naturalized citizen from Taiwan who became a prominent American nuclear scientist. He was falsely suspected by the United States of being a spy for China, then subjected to nine months in solitary confinement.
If the consequences were only limited to Lee, I wouldn’t be surprised at how quickly it’s been forgotten. But as Lee’s fate worsened, so did Asian Americans’. In the pre-Sept. 11 world, nothing was considered more dangerous to the American way of life than an Asian American student/professor/high-tech worker with ties to China. The suspicion was entirely based on race, and it was official. It was a de facto APA witch-hunt set off by Richardson’s green light: the xenophobic targeting of Lee as a spy.
To be responsible for all that is no small deed. As the 20th Century came to a close with America becoming more and more diverse, Richardson found a way to use fear of Asians to whip up hysteria against Asian Americans not seen since World War II. For his role, Richardson deserves at least a yellow, if not scarlet, letter.
Instead, Richardson has neither been shunned nor dishonored. After a brief stint as chief executive of New Mexico, he is poised to become a major player in the “cabinet of change.”
Where is Richardson’s accountability? Where is his place in America’s racial hall of shame? It is the same place where you’ll find the respect for Asian Americans by the American political class. Nowhere.
Don’t misunderstand Lee’s silence
While Richardson maintains his prominence, Lee’s fall was hard and permanent. His scientific career lost, Lee now lives in quiet obscurity in Northern California. His daughter Alberta communicated that the family prefers to stay “above the fray.”
But don’t take that as your cue to be silent. It may be your sign to continue a broader fight for justice for Lee and the entire Asian American community.
Consider that in 2000, after all he went through, Lee was released without ever being charged with espionage. His lone crime? A lowly charge of mishandling computer files. For all he went through, Lee got an apology from the presiding federal judge, and even from Bill Clinton. But nothing came from Richardson.
Prior to his release, Lee filed a lawsuit in 1999 alleging that Clinton officials disclosed to the media that he was under investigation. Lee’s claim was neither about race nor discrimination, but simply about privacy. It would have crystallized Richardson’s culpability.
But in 2006, the government and five media organizations paid for Lee’s silence. Lee got an unprecedented $1.6 million settlement from the United States, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, ABC News and the Associated Press. The government gave Lee $895,000 of your tax dollars to drop the suit on the condition that the money would cover legal fees and not personal damages.
The media organizations came up with $750,000, the only money he gained personally. That’s chump change for what Lee went through. But the media willingly paid it to protect its leakers. Hmm, could that have been Richardson?
Chu’s no salve
Obama knew he would catch some heat from Asian Americans on Richardson. So to balance Richardson, there’s Shinseki to Veterans’ Affairs and Steve Chu to Richardson’s old post at the Department of Energy.
Both are qualified non-affirmative action appointees. The choice of Nobel laureate Chu may also be a sign to all APAs in the scientific community that these are different times from when Richardson ran the department. Unfortunately, the appointments do nothing to hold Richardson accountable for his past.
If Richardson’s appointment flies through the Senate unchallenged, it will be a big blow to all justice-loving Americans. But for Asian Americans in particular, it will be the stripping of any moral authority we might have gained from Lee’s martyrdom.
There’s still time to let the president-elect know that this case still matters, and that we haven’t forgotten the time when APAs were singled out and looked upon with suspicion. If Richardson isn’t held accountable and soon, here is my New Year’s prediction for the future: There will be another Wen Ho Lee.
For your New Year greeting and other thoughts, see the blog at amok.asianweek.com. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org