ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee pleaded guilty yesterday to a single charge of mishandling nuclear secrets and left court a free man with an apology from a federal judge, who angrily accused Clinton administration officials of abusing their power and misleading him into thinking that Lee posed a threat to national security.
Lee, 60, was embraced in the courtroom by an emotional throng of family members and supporters. But before that scene, U.S. District Judge James A. Parker stunned a suddenly hushed courtroom as he singled out Attorney General Janet Reno, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and senior officials in the Clinton White House for what he called a questionable indictment, for misleading him on Lee's supposedly deceptive behavior and then for ignoring his urgings that the government ease the "demeaning and terribly punitive" conditions under which Lee was being held.
It was a moment of enormous weight, since it is exceptional for a federal judge to give such an excoriating tongue-lashing to such high-level federal officials.
Parker, a Reagan appointee who is known for his measured manner and unusual patience, said he felt so deeply troubled by the government's consistent pattern of abusive actions that he expressed to Lee, a man who minutes before had admitted to a felony, his dismay that the U.S. government had unleashed the full force of its powers in such an arrogant manner.
"I sincerely apologize to you, Dr. Lee, for the unfair" treatment you suffered, Parker said, adding with "great sadness" that he believed he had made the wrong decision in denying Lee bail in December because the government had misled him.
He chastised the "top decision-makers" of the executive branch "who have caused me embarrassment by the way this case was handled," he said. "They have not embarrassed me alone. They have embarrassed our entire nation and each of its citizens."
He added, "I must say, I don't see why the executive branch of the government has done these things."
The hearing left many of Lee's supporters, and even some journalists, in tears, but Lee was unabashed in his glee.
After a tearful, private reunion with his family in a conference room, where he and family members sobbed, exchanged high-fives and shared their first unsupervised moments of warmth since Lee was indicted and then arrested Dec. 10, he stood in a broiling desert sun in front of the courthouse and thanked his supporters.
"For the next few days I'm going fishing," said Lee, a slight, soft-spoken man. He would not address the judge's remarks.
Chung Lee, his son, expressed mixed emotions over seeing his father finally walk free. "It was thrilling, but at the same time I became very sad thinking about the last year, with my Dad shackled."
Under the plea agreement, Lee agreed to tell prosecutors why he downloaded the trove of nuclear secrets, exactly what he did with the information and whether anyone else had seen it. He also conceded that the government was justified in investigating his downloading.
Prosecutors insisted afterward that this cooperation was what they had sought all along.
"Justice is the winner today," said George Stamboulidis, the lead prosecutor.
Asked about the reasons for Lee's terms of confinement, Stamboulidis said: "When you steal our nuclear secrets, we're not going to let you communicate with anyone."
Attorney General Reno said in a statement that prosecutors saw the plea agreement as "the best chance" to find out where the tapes were, where they had been and who else had had access to them.
"Of equal importance," Reno said, "the trial court's recent ruling regarding classified evidence suggested that a trial of Dr. Lee might have required the government to divulge nuclear secrets at trial. The plea agreement avoids that harm to our national security."
Lee was never charged with espionage, but he had been investigated for at least five years on suspicion that he leaked secrets of a sophisticated nuclear warhead, the W-88, to China. He was fired from his job at the Los Alamos National Laboratory on those suspicions and security violations in March 1999, and his name - as well as the government's accusations - were leaked to news organizations.
The government soon abandoned the concerns about spying because of a lack of evidence, but agents later searched Lee's home and found evidence that he had improperly downloaded a library of nuclear weapons secrets to an unsecure computer and then to 10 computer tapes.
Seven of those tapes were missing, and Lee said through his lawyers that they had been destroyed.
Those missing tapes became the focus of the 59-count indictment accusing him of mishandling classified information to benefit a foreign power and the government's claims that Lee had to be jailed, held in solitary confinement, shackled for his brief moments of exercise time and given only one hour a week with his family, all with an agent immediately beside him.
Parker criticized the government for rejecting Lee's efforts to reach an agreement in December, and he cited a letter from one of the defense lawyers seeking to head off an indictment by offering a similar level of cooperation that Lee agreed to yesterday.
The lawyer, Mark Holscher, wrote in a letter Dec. 10: "I write to accept Mr. Kelly's request that we provide him with additional credible and verifiable information which will prove that Dr. Lee is innocent," including an agreement for Lee to take a government lie detector test on his assertions that he destroyed the tapes.
That letter could have been the basis of an agreement, the judge suggested, which would have made the bitterly contested and highly divisive prosecution unnecessary.
Numerous Asian-American and civil rights groups took up Lee's cause, insisting that Lee, a naturalized citizen born in Taiwan, had been unfairly singled out for prosecution because of his Chinese ancestry. These concerns were buttressed by the claims of some intelligence officials that, since Chinese spies target Asian-Americans in their recruitment efforts, it was appropriate to place Asian-Americans under special scrutiny.