ANTI-CHINESE curse or mainland conspiracy? The arrest and indictment of sacked US government nuclear physicist Lee Wen-ho has so far shed little light on the murky world of suspected Chinese espionage in the United States. The prospect of a trial over the next year threatens instead to poison the atmosphere surrounding the wider debate over future relations with China in a potentially volatile election year while further isolating an already fearful Asian-American community. At the same time, any trial is unlikely to get close to answers about the range and penetration of possible mainland spying - something local intelligence experts are quick to put in the sobering context of a global growth industry led, of course, by Washington's own CIA. At the root of the nagging uncertainty is the already troubled case against Lee, a naturalised US citizen. A judge in New Mexico denied him bail during his first court appearance on Monday, describing the softly spoken 59-year-old scientist as a 'clear and present danger'. 'The weight of the evidence indicates to me that I'm required to order his detention,' Albuquerque magistrate Don Svet said. But his stern words mask one important fact. Nowhere among the 59 counts against Mr Lee - including charges involving nuclear secrets under the Atomic Energy Act which carry life sentences - is there a reference to actual espionage. His arrest followed a four-year investigation into alleged Chinese espionage at the Los Alamos national laboratory where he worked for the past 20 years in the top-secret X Division. Mr Lee has been the prime suspect since 1995 but no evidence has surfaced that he passed on any material to the Chinese Government or any other third party. He was sacked in March after flunking a lie-detector test amid clear security violations. Searches of his office and computer confirmed the downloading of secret files - an act detailed for the first time this week. The indictment has described how Lee downloaded material on to tapes, some of which were taken out of the secure area to his home on his laptop computer. Seven of the 10 tapes are now missing. Stephen Younger, the director of nuclear weapons programmes at Los Alamos, told Monday's hearing that the data and codes removed by Lee could reveal the complete design of US nuclear weapons - files representing 'centuries of work', he warned. If only it were that simple. The Lee investigation took place as congressmen examined mainland espionage - published as the Cox report in May. Both were triggered in part by a figure the CIA suspected was a double agent for China. The 'walk-in' spy emerged in Taiwan in 1995 with an eight-year-old document suggesting Beijing had obtained the technology to re-create the W-88 warhead - still America's most advance miniaturised nuclear weapon. Just as intelligence analysts debate the merits of the original document, so too are the sweeping findings of the Cox report facing stiff criticism - most recently from five Stanford University experts who last week warned of errors and 'unwarranted' conclusions. Similar concerns have been raised over the Lee investigation. Two senators, Republican Fred Thompson and Democrat Joseph Liberman, held hearings and decided that the hunt for possible moles focused too quickly on Lee. Their findings were later echoed by a review conducted by the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and former counter-intelligence officials at Los Alamos who warned that other sweeping security breaches at labs elsewhere were ignored. Even top former CIA officials have admitted routinely taking classified information home. Evidence emerged that in the probe's earliest stages, investigators were so zealous in their pursuit of a Chinese spy they even tried to find out who had ordered deliveries of Chinese food. Even the mighty New York Times appeared to backtrack on its highly influential early coverage on the mounting case against Lee. In September it carried a front-page report that reflected the new uncertainty. 'Was China's [nuclear] advance the result of espionage, hard work or some mix of the two?' it asked. One critic in a recent issue of Brill's Content media review described it as the longest correction he had seen in 50 years of reading the newspaper. The debate rages on. Experts agree that spying occurred but clash violently on how much was stolen and what impact, if any, it had on Beijing's advance. Meanwhile, Lee and his wife, a former Los Alamos staffer, lived quietly in their plain, three-bedroom home, trying to ignore the 24-hour FBI surveillance that ended with his arrest last Friday. His favourite pastimes of reading 19th century French and British novels, listening to classical music and gardening provided little escape, Brill's reported. 'If the Government has arrested him in a bid to save face from a botched investigation, it will be a thing of evil that will impact on the tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese scientists, technicians and engineers in this country,' a government nuclear engineer told the Post. 'He has all the signs of an ethnic scapegoat. Believe me, we are sick in our stomachs over this.' His views were reflected in a statement on Thursday by an alliance of 14 Asian-American associations. The group, led by New York's influential Committee of 100, warns that Mr Lee is the first person to face charges of mishandling classified material without actual espionage charges. It links the current 'anti-Chinese hysteria' to the atmosphere across America in World War II when the Government unlawfully cited 'national security' to round up and imprison some 120,000 Japanese-Americans based solely on their race. 'The Asian-Pacific American community has sworn that such an egregious violation of our civil rights will never occur again, even to one Asian-Pacific American, and our organisations will monitor the future handling of Dr Lee's case until his guilt or innocence is ultimately determined by the courts,' the group's statement says. A veteran pro-China business lobbyist in Washington said: 'It may read like it is over the top, but they are right. 'I've never seen the atmosphere so highly charged, given everything that has happened to Sino-US relations over the past year. And you must remember it is election year soon. 'At the same time, it is hard to believe the Government would want to risk a failed prosecution that is so high-profile.' Bates Gill, director of the Centre for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said he believed wider issues surrounding the balance and direction of Sino-US ties would probably dominate any election debate on China. Another sober American voice is Joseph Finder, novelist and frequent writer on intelligence issues, who warned it was dangerous to read too much into the case against Lee. 'It may be hard to accept, but China's intelligence-gathering should be expected,' he wrote in the New York Times last week. 'Using the Lee case to try to derail Chinese-American relations . . . simply smacks of political opportunism. 'Instead of railing against China, we should plug our security leaks . . . spies will always practise their craft, and we must make their job as tough as possible. 'To make political theatre out of it, to react with hysteria and indignation and to call for retaliation, is foolish. It is a little like leaving the front door open and then griping when you find the good silver gone.'