Scientist’s detention was excessive

After holding Dr. Wen Ho Lee in solitary confinement for more than nine months, the government promptly dropped their case against the Taiwanese-born scientist last week. As the extreme conditions in which the Justice Department insisted Lee be held contrasts starkly with their swift release of a man accused of spying and divulging the United States’ most precious nuclear weapons secrets, their refusal to apologize to Dr. Lee is an embarrassment and an unfortunate end to a long and grueling trial.
Perhaps most startling is the strong rebuke Federal District Court Judge James A. Parker directed toward the executive branch upon releasing Lee. Essentially butting heads with Janet Reno, he is expressing the more reasonable view that the Justice Department should have taken.
The release of Dr. Lee from jail does not exonerate him from guilt. In exchange for his release, he pleaded guilty to one of the 59 allegations. Although he does admit to downloading classified data to an unsecured computer, this is far less than the original charges that he had downloaded U.S. nuclear weapons secrets in order to either get a better job at a foreign institution or perform espionage for communist China. As a part of his release agreement, Lee must explain why he downloaded the data and what he did with the sensitive material.
In his apology before releasing Dr. Lee, Judge Parker cited many specific instances where the executive branch acted unreasonably: the Justice Department’s original unwillingness to release Dr. Lee, the extreme conditions that the scientist was held in and the government’s lawyers suddenly altered position. Throughout the entire ordeal, however, the government was and apparently remains unable or unwilling to reverse itself. Janet Reno’s stubbornness in defending the Justice Department’s actions, which even President Clinton questioned, reveals a lack of accountability within some government agencies, and perhaps an unwillingness to take responsibility for past injustices.
If nothing else, the case of Dr. Lee will provide an example of government excess in prosecuting a crime and its unwillingness to admit error despite evidence of considerable overreaction.
The government undoubtedly has a vested interest in always appearing to be the correct party, but when it clearly is in error, officials lose nothing by acknowledging federal wrongdoing and apologizing to the injured party. Janet Reno’s assertion that Dr. Lee was at fault for the entire affair and “needs to look to himself” for blame, rather than expect an apology from the government, is the kind of talk that distances the government from its people. Much of the arrogance here is similar to the stance the government took with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. Unfortunately, Janet Reno and her department learned little from that situation.