Clinton Says He Is 'Troubled' by Handling of Scientist's Case

David Johnston - The New York Times - September 14, 2000

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton said today that he was "quite troubled" by the Government's conduct in the Wen Ho Lee case hours after Attorney General Janet Reno defended the way the criminal case against the former Los Alamos scientist was handled.

Mr. Clinton's remarks, a stinging and highly unusual rebuke of the Justice Department, came a day after Dr. Lee was freed. His release after nine months was part of an agreement under which he pleaded guilty to a single count of what had been a 59-count felony indictment accusing him of illegally putting at risk vital nuclear secrets.

In comments to reporters, Mr. Clinton said he had long questioned whether Federal prosecutors had adequate grounds to keep Mr. Lee in jail pending his trial. "I always had reservations about the claims that were being made denying him bail," Mr. Clinton said.

"So the whole thing was quite troubling to me and I think it's very difficult to reconcile the two positions that one day he's a terrible risk to the national security and the next day they're making a plea agreement for an offense far more modest than what had been alleged," Mr. Clinton said.

"I don't think you can justify in retrospect keeping a person in jail without bail when you're prepared to make that kind of agreement," the president said, speaking with reporters outside the White House after a speech. "It just can't be justified and so I too am quite troubled by it."

Ms. Reno, who spoke with reporters before Mr. Clinton's comments, expressed no regret over the Government's tactics even though the judge in the case, James A. Parker of U.S. District Court in Albuquerque, said the nuclear scientist deserved an apology for the government's abusive and unfair treatmnt of Dr. Lee.

Ms. Reno said, "I think Dr. Lee had the opportunity from the beginning to resolve this matter and he chose not to and I think he must look to himself."

Ms. Reno said she wished "with all my heart and soul" that Mr. Lee had agreed earlier to provide investigators with information, which he must as part of the plea agreement, about seven missing computer tapes onto which he transferred nuclear secrets.

Ms. Reno's defense of Federal prosecutors did little to quell the uproar over a case whose collapse has turned into a debacle of disastrous proportions for Ms. Reno, F.B.I. Director Louis J. Freeh and Bill Richardson, the Energy Secretary who favored Mr. Lee's indictment.

The Government's abandonment of a case officials had once compared to nuclear espionage shattered the calm that had settled over the Justice Department and the F.B.I. in the waning months of the Clinton presidency.

Ms. Reno and Mr. Freeh, whose once close relationship has frayed over a series of internal battles, were forced to once again close ranks and defend their actions.

In Moscow today for meetings with Russian law enforcement officials, Mr. Freeh refused to discuss the Lee case when asked about it by reporters.

After the guilty plea, Mr. Freeh said that the nuclear scientist had pleaded guilty to a serious offense. Mr. Freeh said much of the information was highly sensitive, disputing some weapons experts who have criticized the Government for vastly exaggerating the importance of the information that Mr. Lee removed from the Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory.

"While some of the information was not classified," Mr. Freeh's statement said, "the government was prepared to prove that much of it was highly classified nuclear weapons information."

Senior officials at the F.B.I. and the Justice Department had feuded over the Lee case for years, but it was the law enforcement agency's belief that Mr. Lee was a spy for Beijing, prodded by Energy Department officials, who drove the case forward from the start.

  • The Wen Ho Lee Page