October 02, 2000 12:00 PM

In the front yard of his home in White Rock, N.Mex., Dr. Wen Ho Lee crouches under an apple tree, gardening energetically. The temptation to discuss his travails of the past 20 months, involving suspicion of espionage at the U.S. government’s nuclear weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, as well as 278 days in virtual solitary confinement, must be strong, but his caution is even stronger. His lawyers have urged Lee, 60, to stay mum. At a gathering with friends on Sept. 13 he celebrated warmly, then later gazed at the sky and said wistfully, “I haven’t seen the moon in nine months.”

He is content these days to let his 26-year-old daughter Alberta do what she has done so well since the beginning of his ordeal: forcefully make the case for his innocence in what the government originally billed as a perilously far-reaching spy scandal, which now appears to be gross exaggeration. Arrested last December and facing 59 criminal charges, Lee was portrayed by prosecutors as a menace to national security, so much so that they prevailed upon U.S. District Judge James Parker to deny him bail and to subject him to such draconian measures as being shackled whenever he left his cell. But ultimately it was the credibility of the government that suffered the greatest setback as the case came undone through sheer lack of evidence. When Lee finally appeared in court on Sept. 13 to accept a plea agreement that reduced the charges to a single count and his sentence to time served, Judge Parker took the extraordinary step of apologizing to the defendant for the government’s conduct, which he said had “embarrassed our entire nation.”

It would be a stretch to say that when Lee walked out of court that day he owed his freedom to Alberta. But over the course of her father’s troubles, his once soft-spoken daughter proved a tenacious advocate, who not only helped assemble her father’s legal team, but also won him valuable support in the court of public opinion, particularly in the Asian-American community, where the prosecution was widely seen as racially motivated. “Finally, now my life can go on,” said Alberta after the plea agreement. “I can breathe.”

In fact, though her commitment to her father was total, she had until recently often struggled with her parents over their expectations for her. Both Lee and Alberta’s mother, Sylvia, 56, were raised in Taiwan and tended to have traditional views about rearing Alberta and her brother Chung, now 28 and a second-year student at the Medical College of Ohio in Toledo. From the start, Alberta-who was born in San Diego and moved with her family to New Mexico in 1978 when her father was hired as a researcher at the Los Alamos National Laboratory-had the sense of being slightly in the shadow of her older brother, both at home and in school. “I really felt inferior to [him] growing up,” she says. “He was a straight-A student and super-duper popular.”

Alberta herself worked summers at the laboratory where her father was employed doing classified work on nuclear weapons. She also remembers Lee as a doting parent who made the kids’ lunches for school and exhorted them to study, especially when it came to math and science. After high school, Alberta went off to UCLA to pursue psychobiology and computer science, as her father wished. “That was my Goody Two-shoes stage,” she says.

Then in 1994, in her junior year, she was literally jolted out of that stage by the Northridge earthquake, which threw her from her bunk bed and left her terrified. She recalls concluding that “life’s too short to do something you’re miserable in.” She then switched her major to English literature, always her first love, and not long after graduation moved to North Carolina, where she took a job as a technical writer for a software company. By then she was also serious about Jack Ribble, 28, a computer programmer she had met at UCLA, who moved with her.

But the real turning point for Alberta came in December 1998, when the Department of Energy began quizzing her father after U.S. nuclear secrets appeared to have made their way into the hands of the Chinese government. One investigator later said he had fallen under suspicion in part because of his ethnic background. Lee also had questionable contacts with Chinese scientists during a symposium in Beijing. At first, Dr. Lee told his family not to worry, that he’d done nothing wrong and there was no cause for concern. Right away, though, Alberta felt that her father needed a lawyer-a suggestion that he and the rest of the family dismissed. “I’m like my father,” says Chung. “We deny things. When my sister said she wanted to get a lawyer, my dad and I told her she’d been seeing too many movies.”

Eventually, Alberta hired Los Angeles attorney Mark Holscher, 37, a highly regarded former federal prosecutor. As it turned out, her instincts were correct about her father being in jeopardy. In March of last year, the FBI’s investigation of Lee took an ugly turn when agents told him during an interrogation that his alleged act of treason was comparable to that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union and executed in 1953. The agents threatened Lee with the possibility of the death penalty. The next day he was fired from his job. Nine months later, in December, Lee was indicted on 59 criminal counts of downloading nuclear secrets from a classified computer at Los Alamos.

With attorney Holscher handling the case pro bono, Alberta went to work enlisting the support of the Asian-American community. She traveled all over the country, giving impassioned speeches and contacting scores of organizations and journalists to get her message out. “I went to sleep every night wondering, ‘Have I done everything I could for my father today?’ she says. “And if I knew there was something left on my to-do list I would drag myself out of bed and log on and write that fax or letter.”

By August the government case against Lee was crumbling, with investigators unable to produce any evidence that he had transmitted secrets to China. And one FBI agent admitted testifying falsely to the court about what Lee had said when he borrowed a friend’s computer to download files. In accepting the plea bargain, Lee admitted to one count of merely transferring classified files to a nonsecure computer. There continues to be an intense debate over the importance of the data in question, which amounts to the equivalent of more than 400,000 pages. One scientist at Los Alamos, Stephen Younger, testified that the material could “change the global strategic balance.” But of late a number of other experts have maintained that much of the information is readily available from public sources.

To be sure, Lee is not entirely out of the woods. As part of his plea agreement, he must still submit to detailed questioning about why he downloaded so many classified documents to his computer and what happened to seven tapes that were made from that data. Lee says he destroyed the tapes, but government investigators remain dissatisfied with his explanations. If he is found to be lying, he could eventually face new charges. In any event, there is little doubt that Alberta, who moved with her now-fiancé Ribble to San Francisco earlier this year to be closer to her parents, is prepared to keep fighting, partly out of a sense of justice, but mostly from something even more formidable. Asked where Alberta got the strength to keep going, her brother Chung replies simply, “I think it was her incredible love for her dad.”

Bill Hewitt

Zelie Pollon in Los Alamos

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