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Attorneys work on terms of plea bargain for jailed scientist

Wen ho lee
Though suspected of spying for China, Lee was never charged with espionage, a crime that could have led to life in prison  

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.

Pierre Thomas reports on the plea agreement that could free Wen Ho Lee (Sept. 10)

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TIME analysis: Wen Ho Lee case: More like Dreyfus than Rosenbergs
Key dates in the case of computer scientist Wen Ho Lee

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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.

'Darkest episode'

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.

RELATED STORIES: Wen Ho Lee case: More like Dreyfus than Rosenbergs
September 11, 2000
Wen Ho Lee hearing postponed until Wednesday
September 11, 2000
Emergency hearing called in Wen Ho Lee case
September 1, 2000
FBI begins search of Wen Ho Lee's home
August 31, 2000
Judge orders bail for Wen Ho Lee, but U.S prosecutors likely to appeal
August 29, 2000
Hearing underway on details of Wen Ho Lee's release
August 25, 2000
Judge urges mediation in Los Alamos scientist case, sources say
August 25, 2000
Terms of Wen Ho Lee's release to be discussed Tuesday
August 24, 2000
Judge needs more time to decide on release of Los Alamos scientist
August 18, 2000
Scientist charged in nuclear secrets case may have been job-hunting instead
July 7, 2000
Wen Ho Lee sues FBI, other agencies
December 20, 1999
Wen Ho Lee indicted, arrested in Los Alamos case
December 10, 1999

The Trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg
U.S. Department of Justice
Los Alamos National Laboratory

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