The U.S. government – the Department of Energy, the State Department, the Justice Department, and the White House – has again shown how ham-handed and stereotyped it is when it comes to Asian-American nuclear scientists and fears of espionage related to China. The government appears to be profiling scientists and engineers with Chinese backgrounds.
The latest case, reported in the Washington Post Jan. 6, involves a Taiwan-born, naturalized American citizen, whom the government coerced into accepting a plea bargain to avoid life in prison on charges he gave China secrets on how to produce bomb-grade plutonium from conventional civilian nuclear reactors. The charges are bogus and, to be blunt, shameful. They are also part of a long-running pattern of targeting Asian engineers and scientists because of supposed ties to China.
The Post reported that Szuhiung “Allan” Ho copped a plea to violating a 1946 Atomic Energy Act provision aimed at keeping nuclear weapons technology out of the hands of foreign countries. Ho, 66, agreed to a guilty plea in exchange for a maximum 10-year prison sentence, rather than the life sentence the U.S. government said it would pursue. The likelihood is that Ho won’t serve significant prison time, although he is currently locked up.
China hardly needs help from Americans for Beijing’s large, sophisticate nuclear weapons program.
A Justice Department news release claims, “Allen Ho, at the direction of a Chinese state-owned nuclear power company allegedly approached and enlisted U.S. based nuclear experts to provide integral assistance in developing and producing special nuclear material [Ed: plutonium] in China. Ho did so without registering with the Department of Justice as an agent of a foreign nation or authorization from the U.S. Department of Energy.”
The DOJ press release is filled with hyperbole, obfuscation, and misdirection. It signals that they don’t have a case.
Ho, a highly-regarded nuclear engineer with a consulting business involving conventional civilian nuclear power, worked in China, helping that country improve the safety and efficiency of its nuclear power plants. Nothing he did as part of his business jeopardized U.S. nuclear secrets or contributed to China’s weapons program.
Ho had a consulting contract with China General Nuclear Power Group, the state-owned civilian nuclear plant developer. He told the Department of Energy of his proposed work in China, got an equivocal response about the work, and went ahead with his contract when DOE was unable to give him responsible advice.
Victor Gilinski, former Atomic Energy Commission staffer, Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner, and expert on all things nuclear, told the Post, “To make this a case about getting plutonium for bombs is a wild overstretch, and a pretty astonishing display of Department of Energy and State Department hypocrisy. We urge everybody to build reactors, and we sell reactors. All uranium-fueled reactors make plutonium — even commercial reactors. So if Ho is engaged in a conspiracy to produce bomb-usable plutonium in China, his co-conspirators are DOE and State — and the White House.”
I’m reminded of the 1990s Clinton administration embarrassment in pursuit of Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese-American whom DOE claimed in 1995 had given China important weapons-related technology. The Clinton administration (prompted by then-Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, former New Mexico governor) spent years investigating Lee while delaying filing charges. Richardson leaked Lee’s name to the New York Times and DOE fired him from Los Alamos in March 1999.
I contacted a source very high in the DOE political structure at the time, asking why Lee hadn’t yet been charged. The answer, I was told, was that DOE and the FBI were trying to uncover a trail of espionage from Los Alamos to Beijing. Ultimately, in December 1999, unable to unearth a spy ring, the U.S. government charged Lee with 59 counts of violating classified information rules, not spying. Some of the charges carried a potential life sentence. The government jailed Lee in January 2000.
In September 2000, U.S. District Court Judge James Parker blessed a plea deal negotiated by then-U.S. Attorney for New Mexico Norman Bay. Lee pled guilty to one minor count of mishandling classified information and was released for time served.
Parker blasted the government for its treatment of Lee, excoriating “top decision-makers in the executive branch,” pointing to the White House, U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, Energy Secretary Richardson and the FBI. “They have embarrassed this entire nation and each of us who is a citizen of it,” Parker said. The executive branch, he said, “has enormous power, the abuse of which can be devastating to our citizens.”
One hopes that reasoning will soon apply to Allen Ho.
Bay was the key figure and a hero in resolving the appalling Wen Ho Lee prosecution. Judge Parker praised Bay as an “outstanding member of the bar,” saying he held Bay in “highest regard.” Bay is now chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.