WASHINGTON -- A federal judge in New Mexico on Thursday ordered the release of indicted nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee on $1-million bail next week, a sign that the judge no longer accepts government claims that Lee's release poses a grave threat to national security.
The 60-year-old Lee, who was fired from his position at the top-secret nuclear weapon design division of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, is to be set free after a hearing Tuesday before U.S. District Judge James A. Parker in Albuquerque, N.M.
After spending the last eight months in jail -- where he has been barred from receiving visitors and telephone calls in his tiny cell -- Lee is to be allowed to return to his home in White Rock, N.M. He will remain under strict house arrest as he prepares for the start of his trial in November.
The federal government alleges that Lee misappropriated decades' worth of highly classified U.S. nuclear secrets with the intent of aiding an unidentified foreign government.
Government investigators initially believed that Lee, a native of Taiwan, was planning to provide the government of China with data detailing the design of America's most sophisticated nuclear weapons. Lee's defenders say he was unfairly singled out because of his ethnicity.
Parker, in granting bail, did not specifically address the merits of the charges against Lee. But he reached his decision even before reviewing all of the material supplied during a three-day pretrial hearing last week.
"Enough of the transcript of the most recent hearing has been prepared and reviewed by me to permit the announcement of a ruling at this time," Parker said.
"I conclude that there now is a combination of conditions that will reasonably assure the appearance of Dr. Lee as required and the safety of the community and the nation."
It was not immediately clear whether prosecutors would continue to fight Lee's release. "We'll review the court's order and respond in court," said Justice Department spokeswoman Gina Talamona in Washington.
At the hearing next Tuesday, the judge will discuss a series of tight restrictions that he intends to impose on Lee's release and house arrest, much of which was outlined in a draft order the judge released Thursday.
The draft makes clear that, while Lee will be let out of jail, his activity and conversations will be closely watched.
For instance, Parker's draft said that Lee's next-door neighbors, Don and Jean Marshall, will serve as "third-party custodians," and will be permitted to enter the Lee home at any time to check on his behavior.
His wife, Sylvia Lee, will be the only person permitted to reside at the home with him. His children "may visit" during daytime hours with federal law enforcement agents present and after arranging their appearances with the Pre-Trial Services agency.
Before Lee is released, law enforcement officials are to search his home. All telephone calls from the home will be monitored and, the judge's draft said, authorities "may immediately electronically block any communications that appear to involve the missing information that Dr. Lee downloaded onto tapes or other sensitive scientific information."
He will be allowed to call only the Pre-Trial Services agency, his lawyers, "or to report an emergency."
His mail will be inspected by law enforcement and Lee himself must report twice a day to the pretrial agency -- once in the morning and once at night.
"Computers, cellular telephones and all other electronic means of communication," the judge said in his draft, "must be removed from the residence."
The decision to grant bail came after an extraordinary hearing in Albuquerque last week.
The government was hoping to keep Lee segregated inside the Santa Fe County Detention Center pending trial on nearly five dozen criminal charges. He is accused of downloading weapons testing, development and design data onto an unsecure lab computer network and portable computer tapes.
The government has described its case against Lee as detailing one of the worst episodes of classified data theft in U.S. history and warned that fallout from Lee's actions could ultimately alter the "global strategic balance."
But Lee's defense attorneys poked holes in the government's characterization of their client.
At one point in the three-day hearing, an FBI agent conceded from the witness stand that he "inadvertently" misled the judge several times about Lee during a December hearing in which Lee was ordered held without bail.
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