by Wen Ho Lee and Helen Zia
Wen Ho Lee, an American citizen born in Taiwan, is a nuclear scientist working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. His job is to design computer codes and simulate nuclear explosions in order to improve the safety of American defense weapons. When he isn’t at work, he enjoys fishing and spending time with his wife and children. He considers himself a true American, and works hard to do his job well. He is completely shocked when he finds out that he is under investigation by the FBI for espionage; within a short period of time, he is accused by members of Congress and media around the world of being a traitor to his country. Lee knows he is innocent, but every time he tries to explain his so-called suspicious actions – his co-workers do the same things, yet none of them are being investigated – or explain a misunderstanding, he seems to dig himself deeper into trouble. Finally, he is arrested, placed in chains, and thrown into solitary confinement – all without a trial. For the next nine months, he is kept in jail in terrible circumstances, because the government (specifically, high-ranking members of the Executive Branch) insists that he’s too dangerous unless confined. His tale is of an extraordinary injustice against an innocent man, a Taiwanese scientist who became the scapegoat of the government’s fears that China was stealing secrets from the US nuclear program.
I was vaguely aware of Wen Ho Lee’s story prior to listening to this audio book. I wasn’t paying that much attention to his case when I was in 8th or 9th grade, but I remember that my Chinese-American family was interested in it. Wen Ho Lee’s situation is also addressed in the play Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang, which I saw back in 2009. But this was the first time that I’d really learned the details about his arrest, and the (lack of) a case against him. Lee maintains throughout the book his belief that race played a huge factor in why he was targeted by the government, and it’s hard to disagree. The fact that some of the things he got in trouble for were not uncommon practices amongst his colleagues, and none of them were ever charged or punished, is disturbing. There’s also the simple matter than Wen Ho Lee was Taiwanese, and they accuse him of spying for China. They’re separate countries – two countries that don’t get along particularly well, at that. The belief that Lee was targeted because of his race galvanized a lot of pan-ethnic Asian-American groups into political action, generating the largest response (if I were to guess) since the Vincent Chin murder nearly two decades before.
But even if race hadn’t been a factor, Wen Ho Lee was treated horribly. In the early stages of the investigation, he was lied to by FBI agents. They would tell him he wasn’t a suspect, or that he could help them catch the real villains if he helped them with codes, but the whole time he was their primary target. His name, and the names of his family, was leaked to the news media while he was under investigation, so that even before he’d been arrested accusations of his spying for China had been printed in major newspapers around the country. He lost his job, and such a thorough media blitz ensured that he would not get hired again. Yet, those responsible for the “leaks” were never disciplined for these gross privacy violations. When he was arrested pre-trial and forced into solitary confinement, he was kept in a freezing cell, but despite his obvious discomfort his jailors failed to mention that he could buy extra blankets or clothing. It all seemed so unnecessary!
Now, it is fair to say that Wen Ho Lee made some significant mistakes. For example, he had made copies of back-up tapes of research he’d done at Los Alamos and kept them in a safe at his home. As he explains in My Country Versus Me, his intent was not to secretly hide the tapes so that he could pass the information on to China. He was making back-ups, as many people do, and he didn’t feel safe leaving the copies on his work computer because on previous occasions he had lost significant research when the Lab upgraded or changed their systems. Was this a smart decision? Probably not, but at the time the information was not classified as “secret” so it wasn’t against the law. Early in the investigation, Lee didn’t understand some of the finer points of the questions – although his English is fine, it is his second language and isn’t perfect – and so his answers weren’t completely accurate. But the punishment he suffered while still considered innocent under the law is inexcusable and unjustified.
The audiobook is read by Fred Stella, and he does a fantastic job. He doesn’t try to fake his way through a Chinese accent, but he reads with the stiff, careful manner of someone who isn’t speaking their native tongue. His performance brings Wen Ho Lee’s story to life very effectively; I think I got more out of the book this way than I would have if I’d read it off of a page.
5 out of 5 stars
To read more about My Country Versus Me, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.
Peeking into the archives...today in:
2011: The Borden Tragedy by Rick Geary
2010: Discussion Question + Happy Halloween!
2009: Totally Off-Topic: Steepster.com
2008: Bread & Chocolate by Philippa Gregory