The Associated Press
WASHINGTON - Amid lingering resentment among Asian-Americans over the Wen Ho Lee case, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced safeguards yesterday to guard against racial profiling within the department or among its private contractors.
Richardson said he would "not tolerate even hints" of racial profiling and ordered his inspector general to investigate whether any such activity has occurred.
"We have made progress addressing concerns of racial profiling, but more needs to be done," Richardson said.
Richardson said in an interview that he remains convinced that Lee, Taiwan-born former Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory scientist, was not singled out in an espionage investigation because of his Asian background.
Still, said Richardson, there are "enough instances throughout the complex" to raise suspicion that such discrimination may have occurred in other circumstances.
"I want to eliminate once and for all any future suspicions," he said, although not elaborating on specific cases. "I will not tolerate even hints of racial profiling."
In addition to the inspector general's probe, Richardson ordered revision of outside contracts to include guarantees against racial profiling; and he ruled that a contractor can be forced to pay for failing to deal with profiling.
Richardson acted against a backdrop of resentment among Asian-Americans about handling of the Lee case, an issue that could have political overtones just weeks before the presidential election.
"This case, perhaps more than any other cause we've seen, has really galvanized the (Asian-American) community, more than campaign finance reform, more than welfare reform," said Victor Hwang, an attorney for the San Francisco-based Asian Law Caucus.
Hwang, whose group has joined a lawsuit Lee filed against the government charging privacy infringement, said he views the additional actions by Richardson "as a way to deflect an external investigation."
Asian-Americans have joined into a growing political force especially in such key states as California. Many Asian-American activists have been outspoken critics of the Clinton administration's treatment of Lee, from singling him out early on as virtually the only target in a lengthy espionage investigation to confining him for nine months without opportunity for bail.
Last month Lee, 60, who was fired from his job at the Los Alamos nuclear weapons lab in March 1999, was freed from jail after the government dropped all but one of 59 security violation charges. He was never charged with espionage, and no evidence surfaced that he provided secrets to anyone.
The Lee case "has been resolved. We think the matter is closed," Hwang said. The broader issue remains of others who may have been or still are being singled out because of race, Hwang said in a telephone interview.
For three years prior to Lee's firing at Los Alamos, he was the primary focus of an FBI investigation into the alleged loss in the 1980s of plans for one of the country's most sophisticated nuclear warheads.
Intelligence experts since have said if China obtained the information, it could have come from many sources.
Richardson and Attorney General Janet Reno have denied Lee was singled out because of his race or national origin. The former counterintelligence chief at Los Alamos, Robert Vrooman, has insisted that Lee was.
"Every time Lee's motive was discussed, it came down to his ethnicity," Vrooman reiterated at a Senate hearing last week.