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Published by:
John F Kennedy School of Government (2001)
77 pages


This case tells the celebrated, and controversial, story of the investigation in the late 1990s of the US atomic scientist Wen Ho Lee, suspected by the FBI of passing nuclear secrets to China. The case focuses on the step-by-step investigative process pursued first by the Department of Energy, then by law enforcement officials in the FBI, in a case which ultimately led to little but controversy, including the charge that Lee had been targeted because of his Chinese ancestry. Implicitly, the case is meant to raise a central question: what went wrong? If the FBI did mishandle the case, as was widely charged, what led to its mishandling? How does the political environment in which an investigation goes forward affect it? What pressures fell on investigators and how might they have handled them differently (if at all)? Its focus on law enforcement officials, particularly, make this case useful for those who must handle high-pressure investigations but also for officials seeking to implement policy in an area of high visibility. The case can also be useful for those considering the role of the press as it affects law enforcement, as well as those interested in the relationship between Congress (whose investigation of possible Chinese espionage in the US helped put the spotlight on Lee) and the executive branch.

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