Decline and Fall of the American Empire
by George Koo
Pacific News Service

EDITOR'S NOTE: With laboratory job applications from Chinese American scientists at an all-time low, the future of U.S. weapons production hangs in the balance. Energy officials are busy trying to limit this fallout from the Wen Ho Lee controversy, but only Lee's release from jail and an apology from the White House will rebuild trust from the Chinese American scientific community, says Pacific News Service commentator George Koo, a business consultant and a member of Committee of 100, a national organization of prominent Chinese Americans.

The Wen Ho Lee case could become the historical marker associated with the beginning of the decline of U.S. hegemony over the world. Some historians attribute the decline and fall of the Roman Empire to the introduction of lead utensils for use by the privileged class. While the resulting lead-induced sterility and lunacy was self-inflicted, at least it was out of ignorance.

Ignorance is not a factor in the Wen Ho Lee case. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson could see the consequences almost immediately after his fateful decision to first fire Wen Ho Lee and then indict him. He could see that the case would have severe negative impact on the hiring of new graduates into the national laboratories.

For months Richardson went around the labs explaining that the Lee case was an isolated instance and denying that racial profiling had anything to do with it. He even instigated hearings and got the President's Civil Rights Commission to encourage employees of the labs, especially the Asian American employees, to step forward and voice their concerns.

Richardson may have gotten more than he bargained for when these employees responded to his invitation. Nine from the Lawrence Livermore Lab filed suit claiming to be victims of racial discrimination at the lab. The indictment of Lee and the aftermath revealed that the atmosphere inside the national labs has been poisoned by racism. Meanwhile, protest against the racial profiling of Lee gathers momentum, drawing national media attention.

In the latest move to neutralize the perception that Lee is targeted because of his ethnicity, Richardson created an ombudsman inside the labs to speak up on behalf of Asian American employees. An employee of the national Organization of Chinese Americans was even appointed to the advisory board of this newly created body.

Whether this is an attempt to blunt criticism from the Asian American community or a real instrument for leveling the playing field inside the labs, only time will tell.

In the meantime, the labs are already paying a steep price. According to Los Alamos director John Browne, not a single ethnic Chinese graduate student applied for the most prestigious postdoctoral fellowships offered by the lab. Normally in a finalist group of 10, four to five would be Chinese.

Postdoctoral fellowships allow the labs the opportunity to take advantage of young scientists at the height of their creativity to do a major part of the heavy lifting. The best and the brightest are often enticed with offers of permanent employment.

"With Chinese students earning an increasing percentage of U.S. graduate degrees in science and technology, the labs need their participation," Browne said. Some estimate as much as half of doctoral degrees are awarded annually to graduates of Chinese ancestry. Without ethnic Chinese postgraduates, America's ability to continue to lead in the development of future generations of weapons will be in jeopardy.

At a recent symposium of the Association of Chinese American Engineers and Scientists of New Mexico, the heads of Los Alamos, the Sandia National Lab, the Energy Department's counterintelligence, and the department's regional chief sought to regain the trust of Asian American employees by speaking of their worries about the fallout from the Lee

Robert Vrooman, former head of counterintelligence at Los Alamos also spoke, his remarks leaving no doubt that Lee was targeted for his ethnicity. Vrooman also refuted the long-held view of the FBI that it's the government of China that practices racial profiling.

According to a public policy report released in Washington this week, the 11 million Americans of Asian ancestry in the United States are still commonly regarded as "foreigners." The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals concurs with this sentiment - they refused to reverse the lower court decision and release Wen Ho Lee on bail.

The damage to the collective psyche of Asian Americans has been done, both to current employees in the laboratories and potential but no longer prospective ones. No amount of jawboning and assurances to the contrary from the top will rectify the distrust.

The Clinton Administration has only one recourse that will repair the harm and restore trust. It needs to apologize to Dr. Lee and let him go.