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Attorneys work on terms of plea bargain for jailed scientist
ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (CNN) -- Federal prosecutors and attorneys for Wen Ho Lee met Tuesday to work out details of a plea agreement that would free the former Los Alamos nuclear scientist after more than nine months in solitary confinement.
The Taiwan-born U.S. citizen was expected to be released Monday afternoon after pleading guilty to one of 59 felony counts of mishandling nuclear secrets. In exchange, he would help the FBI find out what happened to seven computer tapes onto which he downloaded sensitive materials. Lee said he destroyed the tape but federal officials are skeptical.
The hearing was delayed until Wednesday after the two sides were unable to agree to the final details of the plea bargain.
CNN National Correspondent Tony Clark reports that speculation in Albuquerque is that the deal may have been held up by one of two things:
--The government may want Lee to drop a civil lawsuit alleging that he was targeted for prosecution because he is ethnic Chinese.
--Prosecutors and Lee's attorneys may not agree on what facts Lee will admit and other conditions of the plea.
Federal authorities had originally launched an investigation into Lee for allegedly providing nuclear secrets to China, but he was never charged with espionage. Instead, authorities charged him with downloading classified information to an unsecured computer and duplicating tapes of sensitive nuclear weapons information.
Lee's attorneys had argued that the government exaggerated the importance of the materials Lee allegedly mishandled.
The prosecution's case was also damaged when one of the FBI agents investigating Lee admitted that he incorrectly testified at a bail hearing last December that Lee had told another scientist he wanted to use that scientist's computer to print a resume when in fact Lee told the other scientist he wished to download files. The testimony had been a key to U.S. District Judge James Parker's original decision to deny bail.
On CNN's Burden of Proof Tuesday, criminal defense attorney Ronald Kuby said that when his clients testify incorrectly, they are usually sent to prison for perjury.
Kuby, who has defended subway gunman Bernard Getz and World Trade Center bomber Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, said he was surprised by the government's sudden decision to release Lee.
"It's incredible to me that two weeks ago that the government can say that this man has to be held not only without bail, but in solitary confinement, because in his mind he possesses the crown jewels of American nuclear policy. He is so dangerous that if he is allowed to talk to anyone, even his wife, hundreds of billions of people could die in a nuclear holocaust," Kuby said.
Former Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Harris said the Lee case "appears to be one of the darkest episodes in the Department of Justice's handling of criminal prosecutions." He said Congress should investigate.
He said one of the holdups might be that prosecutors do not think Lee will tell them everything they want to know and Lee's attorneys don't trust the government.
"The defense attorneys have a well founded fear, especially considering how the government has handled this up until now, that Wen Ho Lee is going to go home, they're going to debrief him, then the government is going to run into court and say 'We don't think he's been truthful, he's violated the plea agreement' and throw him back in jail," Harris said.
Both Kuby and Harris said Lee's case was handled different from other high-profile security breaches, including one involving former CIA Director John Deutsche.
"It's clearly a double standard here because it's clear that the mishandling of information has occurred at the CIA at the highest levels, and it hasn't gotten the sort of reaction that this has," Harris said.
TIME.com: Wen Ho Lee case: More like Dreyfus than Rosenbergs
The Trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg
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