Ethnicity and Security: The Wen Ho Lee Case

Science & Justice Working Group Meeting with Jeffrey Bussolini (CUNY)

The treatment and legal case of Taiwanese-American physicist Wen Ho Lee is a remarkably instructive account of the troublesome intersecting dynamics of ethnicity and security in US national security institutions on the eve of the September 11th transformations. Perhaps most shocking is that some of the same techniques that became notorious after 9/11 (sensory deprivation, techniques of humiliation through shackling and temperature control) were previewed in Lee's treatment. In this respect, and in the mechanics of the case itself which are still poorly understood, the Lee case serves as an invaluable instance of what Foucault would call "the history of the present" in which the techniques of the post-9/11 security state were not simply created out of whole cloth, but were the amplifications of practices that had already been developed within US security and justice systems. Another prominent aspect of the Lee case is that it highlights the role of immigrants within the US national security infrastructure (which has been crucial at least since World War II), and the way in which treatment of individuals of given ethnic groups (or perceived ethnic groups) can change suddenly and dramatically in terms of shifts in government and media portrayal of threats to the nation. This project draws upon extensive ethnographic research in Los Alamos, and in related sites like Livermore, Oak Ridge, and Washington DC (Department of Energy). It includes extensive interviews including with Wen Ho Lee, attorneys involved in the case, civil rights activists (from Asian-American and scientific organizations), journalists covering the case, and members of the staff at Los Alamos and other institutions.

Jeffrey Bussolini, is Associate Professor at CUNY and Director of the Center for the Ethnographic and Historical Study of Los Alamos and National Security. He has conducted ethnographic and historical study of Los Alamos and the nuclear-weapons infrastructure since 1991. During that time he has done participant observation as a security-cleared laboratory employee in Classification and Nuclear Technology, has conducted archival work on the history of Los Alamos and related institutions, and has interviewed hundreds of informants ranging from Manhattan Project participants like J. Carson Mark, Stanislaw Ulam (a friend of his grandparents), and Berlyn Brixner, to town residents (shopkeepers, teachers), to current laboratory staff members. He is interested in Los Alamos as a site through which to understand aspects of US national security, and as one among a set of locations for multi-sited ethnography. In addition, he is also interested in animal-human relations and in using and extending the methods of the social sciences to address them.

October 9, 2012 | 4:00pm – 6:00pm | Engineering 2, Room 599

Jeffrey Bussolini, "Ethnicity and Security: The Wen Ho Lee Case"
SJWG Rapporteur Report
9 October 2012
Rapporteur: Martha Kenney, History of Consciousness
Jeffrey Bussolini, spoke to the group about Wen Ho Lee, the Taiwanese-American physicist who
worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory who was charged with espionage in 1999 and held in
solitary confinement without bail for 278 days. Drawing on his ethnographic work at Los
Alamos and in activist communities, as well as a study of the media representations of the Wen
Ho Lee case, Bussolini argued that the circumstances of Lee’s presumed guilt and imprisonment
can be read as a pre-history of September 11th and the War on Terror. Not only because of the
focus on ethnicity in the context of national security but that Lee was subjected to what would
become the Guantanamo Bay torture practices (orange jumpsuit, feet always shackled, sensory
deprivation, cold temperatures, thin sheets, loud noise to keep him from sleeping). Drawing on
Michel Foucault’s concept of the dispositive, Bussolini argued that “the techniques of the
post-9/11 security state were not simply created out of whole cloth, but were the amplifications
of practices that had already been developed within US security and justice systems.”

A key aspect Bussolini’s talk was narrating the shift from the beginning of the case when it was
impossible to maintain Lee’s innocence to the end, when Lee was cleared of all but one of the 59
charges against him. He described how Asian American activists played a key role in
transforming the public discourse by speaking truth to power. The Committee of 100, an
organization of the one hundred most influential Chinese Americans, played a pivotal role by
challenging the allegations by the FBI and the damning articles in The New York Times. But
because of the fear of being associated with communism, their campaign was restricted and
stopped short of declaring guilt or innocence. More radical political organizing, such as in the
group Justice for Wen Ho Lee, was more adept at drawing attention to the racism and injustice in
the media coverage and government conduct. Cecilia Chang, who is Chinese-American and
worked at Sandia National Laboratory, was able to rally both scientists and Asian-Americans
around Wen Ho Lee and the problem of being treated as an outsider and a threat in one’s own

Bussolini’s talk offered an important mix of philosophical and ethnographic analysis. It was at
once a Focauldian “history of the present” that provided insight into the post-9/11 dispositive,
while at the same time accounting for the political agency of activists in changing the public
discourse. Although the Wen Ho Lee case has ended, questions about national (in)security
remain. During the question and answer period Bussolini recounted a story from his fieldwork
where a Latino scientist and a Korean-American scientist were having a picnic near Los Alamos
and were approached by government agents who accused them of being Iraqi and Chinese spies.
Overall Bussolini’s talk gave a detailed picture of the troubling role that ethnicity in social and
legal justice concerns for scientists with security clearance working for the U.S. government,
which bears on the larger issue of which bodies are subjected to practices of homeland security
and what practices we find and make acceptable in the constitution of national security.

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