Last December 7, testifying at a US House of Representatives Judiciary Committee hearing, FBI Director Christopher Wray made the following statement:
Do we [the Federal Bureau of Investigation] make mistakes? You bet we make mistakes, and when we make mistakes, there are independent processes that will drive and dive deep into the facts surrounding those mistakes. And when that independent fact-finding is complete, we will hold our folks accountable, if appropriate.
There is no doubt that Wray should be recognized for his courage and frankness in upholding the integrity of the FBI and its 35,000 employees, who make sacrifices and risk their lives in protecting US national security and enforcing the law day in and day out.
However, he made a grave mistake at a February 13 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing when he targeting all students, scholars and scientists of Chinese origin as threats to US national security.
The words of the director of the FBI have consequences. Besides his duty to pursue and punish the guilty, he is also responsible for protecting the innocent through the US justice system. His remarks at the Senate hearing help neither purpose.
Wray’s predecessor also used publicity campaigns as a broad-brush approach to law enforcement. A series of innocent Chinese-American scientists in academia, federal government and private industry were caught in the dragnet and wrongfully accused of the most serious crime of betraying the United States. Although their cases were all subsequently dismissed, severe damage had already been done to their lives and families.
The FBI prides itself in bringing high-quality prosecutions to justice. And yet the system of checks and balances has failed some Chinese-American citizens miserably
The FBI prides itself in bringing high-quality prosecutions to justice. And yet the system of checks and balances failed these American citizens miserably. Perhaps they were human mistakes and “collateral damage.” Perhaps it was the FBI’s bias or sinister objective to use them as convenient scapegoats for the rise of China. Whether the cause was human mistakes, implicit bias or explicit prejudice, the FBI has not been held accountable, instead acting as if these cases never occurred.
As the former national ombudsman at the US Department of Energy, this writer lived through the xenophobia created by the Cox Report, which implicated all Chinese-American scientists in the 1990s. Wray’s current term of “non-traditional collectors” is eerily similar to the term “grains of sand” used by the FBI at that time.
As far as is known, the Cox Report did not catch any spies, yet the hysteria that followed created fear and fury among many Americans in general, and Chinese-American scientists in the national laboratories in particular. It inflicted irreparable damage to Dr Wen Ho Lee, a naturalized US citizen and a nuclear scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The FBI rushed to lock on to Lee as the only suspect in its investigation. FBI agents “never came close” to meeting the legal standards of probable cause for a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, despite the court’s reputation as a rubber stamp for approving the government’s requests.
After nine months of solitary confinement, Lee was released by the presiding judge, who issued an unprecedented apology to Lee for the mistreatment he had received from the executive branch of government, including the FBI.
Patsy Mink, then a Democratic congresswoman and former chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, took the House floor and spoke about the investigation and treatment of Dr Lee in a special-order session in 2000. Her call for a review of the FBI behavior and practices is still pending in congressional records.
Asian-Americans including this writer hope Wray’s deeds will match the words of he uttered on December 7. The American people, including those of Asian background, vested their trust and enormous power to Wray to be just and fair. He is also accountable by his own words.
For the sake of the FBI workforce dedicated to honorable duties and the Bureau itself as an institution to be trusted, Wray should justify his February 13 remarks with additional facts and evidence in public statements and future congressional oversight hearings.
It may be hope against hope that he will also review the profiling approach by recognizing that Chinese-Americans have made many positive contributions to every aspect of American society. They include former and current students, scholars and scientists.
Disclaimer: This article is based on a letter that the writer, a retired US federal employee, wrote recently to FBI Director Christopher Wray. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s and his only. They do not reflect the official position or policy of any organization or any agency of the US government.