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Plea deal to end case of spying

The bargain, a reversal of the government's position, could free a former Los Alamos physicist today.

Former Los Alamos physicist Wen Ho Lee has agreed to plead guilty to a single felony count of improperly retaining classified nuclear weapons data and could be released from jail today if a federal judge in Albuquerque, N.M., accepts a plea agreement negotiated by Lee's attorneys and a team of prosecutors.

The deal, approved by Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, represents a stunning turnaround by the government, which identified Lee as an espionage suspect in March 1999 and indicted him in December on 59 felony counts that left him facing life imprisonment for violating the Atomic Energy Act and sections of the Espionage Act for mishandling classified information.

"Considering the manner in which the case was originally characterized by the government _ a massive loss of information and allegations not in the indictment that he was dealing with the People's Republic of China _ it certainly is a victory for the defendant," said John L. Martin, who retired in 1997 as head of the Justice Department's Internal Security Section after a 26-year career in which he supervised the prosecution of 76 espionage cases.

The plea agreement calls for Lee to plead guilty to the single felony count and accept a sentence of 275 days, which he has already served while awaiting trial. He will not be fined or suffer any other penalty, and the government will drop 58 of the original 59 felony counts.

In return, Lee has agreed to fully cooperate with government prosecutors for six months and make a "full and sworn" description of what he did with seven missing computer tapes containing a trove of nuclear weapons secrets.

The deal was reached in secret negotiations mediated this summer by a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge whose services had been recommended by U.S. District Judge James A. Parker.

Parker, who would have presided over a trial scheduled to begin in November, denied Lee's bail request in December but reversed himself last month after a nuclear weapons expert from Los Alamos testified that the data downloaded by Lee were not nearly as sensitive as prosecutors claimed and an FBI agent admitted to previously giving inaccurate testimony against Lee.

If Parker accepts the plea agreement at a 2 p.m. hearing today in Albuquerque, as expected, Lee will be released from jail immediately and allowed to go to his home in White Rock, N.M., a suburb of Los Alamos. As recently as last week, the government had been demanding highly restrictive release conditions if Lee was freed on $1-million bail, which prosecutors strongly opposed.

Mark Holscher, a partner at O'Melveny & Meyers in Los Angeles and Lee's lead attorney, declined to comment on the specifics of the agreement but said Sunday night, "We are thrilled at the prospect that Dr. Lee may be regaining his freedom, a free man, as early as tomorrow."

Lee is expected to admit today in open court only that he downloaded information onto tapes using a machine in the unclassified C Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory, knowing that security regulations prohibited such downloads anywhere but in the classified confines of X Division, where Lee worked.