WASHINGTON -- Former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, who has been jailed for nine months under allegations that he stole a vast trove of nuclear-weapons secrets, has agreed to a plea arrangement under which he will go free after pleading guilty to one felony and will cooperate with government investigators, lawyers from both sides said Sunday.
In what appeared to be a stunning surrender by federal prosecutors, Lee will be immediately released from jail Monday afternoon and allowed to go home unhindered if the proposed plea agreement is accepted by U.S. District Court Judge James A. Parker in Albuquerque, N.M. Parker's assent is expected.
"We are thrilled at the prospect that Dr. Lee might be freed unconditionally and be reunited with his family," said Lee's lawyer, Mark Holscher, of the Los Angeles firm O'Melveny & Myers.
The deal, which calls for Lee to plead guilty to unlawful retention of national-defense information and which was negotiated in secret sessions encouraged by Parker over the past several weeks, thus brings to an astonishing close a highly troubling case that has roiled the national-security and scientific communities, as well as Asian-American and civil-rights organizations.
The FBI initially investigated the Taiwan-born Lee as a potential Chinese spy, and reports that Lee had given Beijing plans to America's most sophisticated nuclear warhead sparked more than a dozen congressional hearings last year. The FBI later admitted that it found no evidence linking Lee to espionage.
But Lee, now 60, was indicted in December for allegedly stealing what prosecutors called the "crown jewels" of America's nuclear-weapons secrets, supposedly with the intent to harm the United States and to aid a foreign power.
A successful prosecution appeared increasingly unlikely, however, after a series of recent setbacks in court.
Chief among them: the FBI's top investigator in the case, Robert Messemer, admitted last month that he had repeatedly provided inaccurate testimony against Lee in previous hearings. Other evidence, including whether the missing data was really the "crown jewels," also came into question.
Under the proposed agreement, prosecutors will dismiss all but one of the 59 charges against Lee with prejudice, meaning they can't be filed again. His sentence will be reduced to time served in a single cell in the Santa Fe County detention center in New Mexico, where he has been held since his arrest Dec. 10, 1999.
"No probation, no fine, no custody, no nothing," said a lawyer familiar with the agreement. "He's going to walk out from under life sentences as a free man."
Lee will plead guilty to count No. 57 in the original indictment. He will admit to downloading nuclear-weapons secrets from a classified computer system onto an "open" computer network in the "T Division" at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and then copying the classified data onto a high-intensity portable tape in knowing violation of U.S. law.
According to the original indictment, Lee downloaded and copied massive computer files, equal to 400,000 printed pages, containing decades of data from the design, development and testing of America's nuclear weapons. Lee pleaded not guilty, but in his only interview, indicated that he had copied the material for his work.
FBI agents testified that Lee spent up to 70 hours copying the files, sometimes working after midnight or on weekends.
Under the deal, Lee will not admit that he acted with intent to harm the United States or to aid a foreign power.
Lee will agree to provide sworn debriefings to government investigators, to undergo lie-detector tests if necessary, and to answer questions for up to six months about his actions.
Most important, Lee will be obligated for the first time to explain exactly what he did with seven high-density computer tapes, containing nuclear-weapons data, that he created in 1993, 1994 and 1997.
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