Supporters Help Lee Turn 61 in Freedom
Year Ago, Los Alamos Scientist Was in Jail
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, December 23, 2000; Page A02
FOSTER CITY, Calif. -- When Wen Ho Lee turned 60 in solitary confinement a year ago, he celebrated with a gift cookie from a prison guard. The Taiwanese American scientist's 61st birthday was a much more lavish affair, as he dined on roast beef and cake with 500 friends and supporters at a party Thursday night at a Silicon Valley hotel.
"I had a difficult time when I was in jail. However, it's all over," a smiling Lee told reporters in a brief statement before the party, which celebrated both birthday and homecoming. "Today, I don't remember all the difficult time of the last year, and I'm very happy now."
Lee was accompanied by his defense attorney, Mark Holscher, and his daughter, Alberta Lee. "It's just a very special time for us right now," she said tearfully. "It will be the first totally normal Christmas my family has had in years."
Lee was indicted Dec. 10, 1999, on 59 felony counts of mishandling nuclear weapons secrets during his tenure as a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Though initially suspected of spying for China, he was never charged with espionage and has sworn that he never passed secrets to any unauthorized person.
On Sept. 13, after spending nine months in jail awaiting trial, Lee walked out of federal court in New Mexico with a complicated plea bargain and an apology from the judge. He pleaded guilty to a single count of illegally copying nuclear data from the lab's classified computer system to unsecured tapes, and he was sentenced to the time he had served. The other 58 counts were dropped.
The first time 77-year-old Kent Dedrick heard about Lee was when he saw him on television last year. "I said to myself, 'That guy's telling the truth,' " recalled Dedrick, a retired physicist and ardent Lee supporter. "I was hooked. I just couldn't leave it alone."
Dedrick, who serves on the steering committee for the Wen Ho Lee Defense Fund and who wrote to Lee while he was in jail, met him for the first time at the party Thursday. "It felt so good just to shake his hand," said Dedrick, who lives in Sacramento. "I'm really happy for him."
Nine Asian American groups sponsored the party. Although there was a $30 charge for admission, Dedrick and other organizers said the event was not advertised as a fundraiser because most or all of the receipts would go to cover expenses.
Dewey Seeto, a San Francisco economist, brought his wife and four children to the party after learning about it on the Internet. "It's a chance for our kids to be aware and conscious of what's going on around them in a low-key environment," said Seeto. "It's kind of like a civics lesson and a learning experience as well."
For Emily Kuo, a high school senior, the party offered a glimpse of the man whose case she has been following for more than a year. "When I heard he was released, I wanted to cry. It was just such a great feeling," said Kuo, who brought three friends.
Lee's attorneys have sued the U.S. government, alleging that privacy statutes were violated when Lee was identified as an espionage suspect and confidential job-related information was leaked to the press last year. Lee is writing about his experience and the book is slated for publication next year.