A Convenient Spy
By Ian Hoffman and Dan Stober
Simon & Schuster (2002), $26
In December 1999 Wen Ho Lee, an alleged Chinese spy who purportedly stole what a Los Alamos design director called the "crown jewels" of U.S. nuclear secrets, was arrested and jailed. Eight months later the U.S. District Court in New Mexico dropped 59 of the 60 felony counts levied against Lee, and the judge apologized for the U.S. government's use of misleading evidence against him.
Until Lee was released, the public heard confusing reports about his actions, many of which relied heavily on speculation, misunderstanding, and ignorance. Two books have arisen from that confusion, both attempting to tell the real story.
My Country Versus Me, co-authored by Bay Area journalist Helen Zia, is Lee's detailed public response to the spy allegations. A Convenient Spy, penned by San Jose Mercury News journalist Dan Stober and Albuquerque Journal reporter Ian Hoffman, tells the backstory of the "politics of espionage." Both books chronicle the botched FBI investigation and the disingenuous politicking that led to the skewering of the Chinese-American nuclear scientist -- but in predictably different ways.
My Country Versus Me paints a portrait of a naive, stubborn man browbeaten by the FBI, the Department of Energy, and the U.S. Justice Department. Using simple language and a conversational tone, Zia pieces together Lee's experience, from his peaceful life in Los Alamos prior to the arrest through the hard-nosed FBI interrogations to his solitary confinement in a Santa Fe jail. A sympathetic portrait of Lee emerges as he explains the reasons he downloaded sensitive nuclear information to computer disks (the only bit of wrongdoing the government could find). Lee claims he was simply backing up the codes he'd worked on and that the data was either unclassified or basic information that the government hadn't gotten around to declassifying yet. The book also captures Lee's political awakening from trusting immigrant to indignant activist; in nearly every chapter, Zia and Lee remind the reader of the racial profiling involved in the case -- something the government continues to deny.
After so many two-dimensional media portrayals of the suspected spy, the book's greatest value is that it humanizes Lee, presenting the 62-year-old as a loving if perfectionist family man who loves to fish. But in doing so the book also wrongly exonerates him. Lee undoubtedly faced unproven accusations and unjust detention, yet he refuses to admit any wrongdoing or even stupidity for creating the disks -- even though he knows he shouldn't have done so. Perhaps to be expected, this autobiography of sorts succeeds in conveying the government's gross abuse of power, while painting a bigger, but not necessarily more honest, picture of Lee.
Stober and Hoffman's A Convenient Spy tackles the subject from a journalistic angle. Couching the story in much-needed political and historical context, the book is an articulate and tirelessly reported look at the rhetoric- and politics-driven motives of the government officials who mounted an all-out attack on Lee using flimsy evidence. As the political backstory of the case develops, Stober and Hoffman assert that Lee became the prime suspect because of ambitious Department of Energy Intelligence Director Notra Trulock, who wanted to boost his career with "one good spy case." As a Chinese-American, Lee was an ethnically convenient scapegoat, as government memos reveal.
For all their thoroughness, Stober and Hoffman lack one crucial piece of the puzzle: Lee's side of the story. Through most of A Convenient Spy, the authors use the inconsistencies in his behavior and his seemingly inexplicable reasons for downloading sensitive data to portray Lee as a dark, inscrutable character, relying on tired stereotypes for dramatic effect.
Neither book tells the whole truth of the purported espionage case, and it may be that one point of view can never do so. But taken together, they offer a clearer understanding of what the authors of both tomes have dubbed an "American embarrassment."