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Nuclear scientist Lee goes home after plea bargain

Speaking after his release, Lee said, "I'm going fishing"  

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (CNN) -- Fired Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee was set free Wednesday and walked out of an Albuquerque federal court room 279 days after he was jailed for mishandling nuclear secrets.

Lee, 60, pleaded guilty to one felony count of downloading nuclear weapons design secrets to a non-secure computer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He read a statement in court in which he admitted using an unsecure computer to download a document relating to national defense onto a tape. He said he knew his possession of the tape outside the top-secret area where he worked was unauthorized.

As part of the deal, he also signed a statement under oath that he never intended to harm the United States and never passed the secrets he copied to any third party.

CNN's Pierre Thomas says Wen Ho Lee faces a year of further interrogation over still-missing files

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TIME analysis: Wen Ho Lee case: More like Dreyfus than Rosenbergs
Key dates in the case of computer scientist Wen Ho Lee

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In exchange, federal prosecutors agreed to drop the remaining 58 counts, including almost 40 counts of "acting with intent to harm the United States," which could have landed Lee in prison for life.

U.S. District Judge James Parker then sentenced Lee to 278 days, one day less than he spent in solitary confinement. Parker sharply criticized the federal government's handling of the case and said Lee was held under demeaning conditions.

"I sincerely apologize to you, Dr. Lee, for the unfair manner in which you were held in custody by the executive branch," Parker said.

Applause erupted in the courtroom as the sentence was read.

Lee was reunited with his family in private after the sentence and smiled broadly as he left the courtroom.

"I am very happy to go home with my wife and my children today and I want to thank all the people who supported me," Lee said outside the courthouse. "Over the next few days, I plan to do some fishing."

Lee's son Chung Lee said he was thrilled by his father's release but still saddened by seeing his father shackled over the past year.

"Exactly a year ago, he was a spy and even two weeks ago they said it was dangerous for him to be released, and now he's a free man," he said.

Prosecutors pleased with outcome

After the hearing, prosecutors said the rigorous agreement would protect national security and help the government find out what happened to seven tapes that Lee used to download classified information.

"For the first time, Dr. Lee has agreed to tell us what he did with the tapes and to cooperate fully with us, something he has refused to do for approximately the last 18 months," U.S. Attorney Norman Bay said.

Bay said it was more important to find out what happens to the tapes than to win a long prison sentence for Lee.

He added that if Lee lies to investigators or fails to cooperate, the government can try him on the remaining charges.

When asked if the government owes Lee an apology for holding him in solitary confinement, lead prosecutor George Stamboulidis said, "Absolutely not."

"When you steal our nuclear secrets, we're not going to let you communicate with anyone and no American should expect that we would," he said.

Lee was fired last year by Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he worked in the top-secret X Division designing the nation's nuclear arsenal, amid government allegations China was spying on the lab's weapons designs. He was never charged with espionage but prosecutors had argued for months that he was a serious national security threat.

The investigation began as an offshoot of a fizzled Chinese espionage case, with government attorneys making dire accusations that Lee downloaded the "crown jewels" of U.S. nuclear science and might be poised to hand them over to another country.

The case began disintegrating last month at a renewed bail hearing. FBI agent Robert Messemer, whose testimony was key in initially denying Lee bail in December, said he repeatedly erred in that testimony. Defense experts also disputed the government's claim that the mishandled data contained vital defense secrets.

Calls for investigation

Some law professors have called for an investigation of the government's conduct in the case. One was already begun, then suspended for the expected trial, by a Senate subcommittee chaired by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, who says he will now resume it.

Lee's supporters and a number of Asian American groups have said Lee was targeted for prosecution because he is ethnic Chinese. Lee has filed a civil suit against the government that was delayed until after the criminal trial.

The government has denied that race is a factor.

CNN National Correspondent Tony Clark, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Plea agreement reached in Wen Ho Lee case; hearing resumes
September 13, 2000
Attorneys work on terms of plea bargain for jailed scientist
September 12, 2000 Wen Ho Lee case: More like Dreyfus than Rosenbergs
September 11, 2000
Wen Ho Lee hearing postponed until Wednesday
September 11, 2000
Emergency hearing called in Wen Ho Lee case
September 1, 2000
FBI begins search of Wen Ho Lee's home
August 31, 2000
Judge orders bail for Wen Ho Lee, but U.S prosecutors likely to appeal
August 29, 2000
Hearing underway on details of Wen Ho Lee's release
August 25, 2000
Judge urges mediation in Los Alamos scientist case, sources say
August 25, 2000
Terms of Wen Ho Lee's release to be discussed Tuesday
August 24, 2000
Judge needs more time to decide on release of Los Alamos scientist
August 18, 2000
Scientist charged in nuclear secrets case may have been job-hunting instead
July 7, 2000
Wen Ho Lee sues FBI, other agencies
December 20, 1999
Wen Ho Lee indicted, arrested in Los Alamos case
December 10, 1999

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