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Plea agreement could free Wen Ho Lee, sources say

Wen ho lee
Though suspected of spying for China, Lee was never charged with espionage, a crime that could have led to life in prison  

In this story:

No evidence of espionage

Why a 59-count indictment?

Judge had doubts about case

RELATED STORIES, SITES icon



DENVER, Colorado (CNN) -- Wen Ho Lee, the fired Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist, has agreed to plead guilty on Monday to one felony count of mishandling classified information and could walk away a free man, two government sources said on Sunday.

If the deal is approved by the judge overseeing the case, Lee, 60, would walk out of jail without conditions, as early as Monday afternoon because of time already served. The Taiwanese-born U.S. citizen had been facing a November trial in which he could have been sentenced to life in prison if convicted on 59 counts of mishandling classified information while working at the lab in New Mexico.

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Two sources told CNN Lee will cooperate with the Justice Department -- including agreeing to provide information about seven missing computer tapes containing nuclear weapons design. Three other tapes with information Lee allegedly downloaded have been recovered.

No evidence of espionage

The sources also said there is no evidence of espionage. Lee never has been charged with espionage, but throughout the case, federal prosecutors had claimed that he posed a threat to U.S. national security.

Sources close to Lee are hailing the deal as a major victory -- pointing out that prosecutors never proved Lee intended to harm U.S. national security.

Lee's supporters also say the government had created the impression he was a spy -- despite the fact they had no information he had provided the secrets to anyone.

Government sources counter by noting the lack of any espionage charges. The sources said finding out what happened to the missing tapes has always been paramount and that the deal gives investigators a chance to do so.

Under the deal, the FBI will have complete access to Lee, who will be subject to lie detector tests.

Why a 59-count indictment?

But some may question why prosecutors hit Lee with a 59-count indictment, claimed he was a risk to national security, and held him in what amounted to solitary confinement for nine months.

One source told CNN as long as tapes holding classified information were unaccounted for -- the government had to throw the book at Lee for maximum leverage.

Lee was indicted on December 10 with the 59 counts of illegally copying what federal prosecutors called "the crown jewels" of U.S. nuclear weapons design. He pleaded not guilty to all counts.

He was fired last year before the indictment. His trial had been set for November 6.

Federal authorities had originally launched an investigation into Lee for allegedly providing nuclear secrets to China. The indictment said he downloaded classified information to an unsecured computer and duplicated tapes of sensitive nuclear weapons information.

Lee's attorneys had argued that the government exaggerated the importance of the materials Lee allegedly mishandled. They further charged that prosecutors singled out Lee, while ignoring similar incidents at Department of Energy facilities.

Some of Lee's supporters claimed that his ethnic background was also a factor in the case.

Judge had doubts about case

Last month, U.S. District Judge James Parker, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, had urged both sides to consider a plea agreement, and he approved a defense request to release Lee on $1 million bail. Federal prosecutors appealed the ruling, and Lee remained in jail.

Parker had said "it is no longer indisputable ... that the missing tapes contain crown jewel information about the nation's nuclear weapons program."

Parker also said he was concerned that an FBI agent admitted that some testimony he originally gave was incorrect.

Parker had ordered Lee's release on the $1 million bail and set out a 12-point list of "highly restrictive" conditions for Lee. Those conditions included limiting him to his house and back yard and subjecting his wife to searches by the FBI when she went out or came home.

Just minutes before Lee was scheduled to be set free on September 1, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver issued an order stopping him from going home.

CNN Justice Correspondent Pierre Thomas, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.



RELATED STORIES:
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 indicted, arrested in Los Alamos case
December 10, 1999

RELATED SITES:
WenHoLee.org
U.S. Department of Justice
Los Alamos National Laboratory


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