AUSTIN, Texas -- The "case" against Wen Ho Lee of the Los Alamos Laboratory is disgraceful. The man was held for nine months over a "case" that never even rose to the level of contempt. And by and large, the media have been culpable as well.

One need know very little about nuclear weapons to realize that the likelihood of Lee's having given away the "crown jewels" of our nuclear secrets was extremely remote, starting with the fact that the W-88 technology is more than 20 years old. Science just doesn't work like that. I suppose this is another indication of how short the American media are in trained science writers.

Nor was it difficult to discern from the beginning that the case, qua case, was quite rank. Wen Ho Lee was busted and smeared all over the front pages for something that we knew almost immediately was not that unusual, and we knew that the same thing had been done by the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who was not accused of treason.

If the people at Los Alamos did not previously think the national security apparatus was being manned by dimwitted gumshoes (as per the case of the missing computer hard drives that were eventually discovered lurking behind the copier) they are now entitled to think that it's being manned by racist liars.

It is not the culture of the laboratory that's under question here. It's the culture of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which flatly lied about Lee to a federal judge, as well as providing a series of wildly unlikely scenarios.

Why veteran reporters of Washington intelligence agencies were not more suspicious of this story from the beginning is also a puzzle. I suppose we're programmed to go after spy stories the way we go after "a good murder," but the thing was clearly leaked before it had been fully investigated.

From the beginning, we had very knowledgeable sources saying the thing was a crock. We all know there's a problem with the spy agencies trying to find enough to do since the end of the Cold War, but the media should examine their own consciences over all those "Chinese spy" headlines (the man is a U.S. citizen from Taiwan, for pity's sake).

To my knowledge, only Newsweek has treated this story with appropriate skepticism. Anyone who buys the lame government line about how they didn't want to prosecute the case because "nuclear secrets" would come out in open court needs his head examined.

Believe me, a classified document does not a nuclear secret make. I suspect that people in the security system would have a great deal more respect for it if every requisition for paper clips weren't "classified."

If this case is as bad as it looks, and I don't see how it could look much worse, it's not the "culture" of the labs that's the problem. We're going to continue to have the problem because this country has to rely on foreign-born scientists.

It is well-known that perhaps the only happy fallout of the Tiananmen Square tragedy is that we got half a generation of Chinese physicists who were studying over here out of it. Go to any school of physics in this country and look at the composition of the students. I have no idea why so many are foreign-born, but I have heard it suggested that American kids just don't want to work that hard. I suspect that's racist, too, and it has more to do with poor science education and a failure to encourage the very bright kids who would be drawn to the field.

If by some remote chance Lee is actually guilty of something important, the FBI has destroyed its own case and made its work on future cases that much more difficult. This country has been through 50 years of suspicion, paranoia and government lying at various levels over various things, with the result that we've poisoned our own civic culture, alienated much of the citizenry and spawned a movement of nuts in the militias who consider the government the enemy. It's enough to make you miss Jimmy Carter, who at least never lied to us.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.