The Wen Ho Lee Diversion

OpinionJournal - September 19, 2000

The one thing the Clinton administration has shown the energy and skill to protect is itself.

The Wen Ho Lee case ended last week with the former weapons scientist pleading guilty to a single felony charge, with the President of the United States distancing himself from his own Justice Department, and now with Asian-American activists charging that the Lee case was the product of racism. This has the look of a classic fiasco. We're not so sure, though, that the case didn't end just about the way Bill Clinton would have liked--in a fog of non-conclusions. Before our jovial President saunters away from another stink pile, it might be worth putting this affair in its proper context.

Incredible to behold, "Wen Ho Lee" somehow became a household name in the United States. To the casual viewer, the story line ran that a sole Chinese-American computer scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Wen Ho Lee, managed to become the conduit for passing some of the nation's most sensitive nuclear weapons data to China's government. Lee himself participated in his inflation, appearing on "60 Minutes" last August to proclaim his innocence. By then, needless to say, he had become an ethnic martyr.

Let's review the actual timeline on the Lee affair:

Start with the atmosphere of unseriousness about security that pervaded the administration. Early on, Rep. Frank Wolf held hearings into the White House's slovenly process for issuing security clearances to its own personnel. Russian intelligence managed to place wiretaps in one of the most presumably secure floors of the State Department, with sensitive laptop computers disappearing. There was as well the gaudy cast of characters rolling through the White House for campaign-contribution coffees and photo-ops--Macau gangsters, Chinese arms dealers, Johnny Chung and Charlie Trie, who later fled to China.

At an amazing press conference on Dec. 7, 1993, Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary unveiled the DOE's "openness initiative." "The Cold War is over; we're coming clean," she said. She announced that 32 million pages of classified documents were now subject to review and possible release to "put the United States out in front as a nation willing to share." She joked: "During the Cold War, I would have been arrested for what I said."

No wonder Wen Ho Lee thought the rules had changed. They had.

Indeed, in mid-1997, Attorney General Janet Reno turned down the FBI's request to put a wiretap on Wen Ho Lee, whom they'd been investigating for years. Given the stakes here, and the by-the-books use of a wiretap under such circumstances, the request should have been a routine slam dunk. But Ms. Reno blocked it. Her justification: The evidence against Lee was too fragmentary.

We know, however, that Wen Ho Lee copied sensitive data onto 10 computer tapes, a warehouse of information. Seven of those tapes are still missing. He repeatedly failed polygraph tests. A prima facie case was obvious; the wiretap was warranted. In the event, he entered a guilty plea to one count and promised to cooperate with investigators over the next year.

The Hazel O'Leary "willing to share" national security policy ended in January 1999, with the release of the Cox Report, asserting: "The PRC thefts from our National Laboratories began at least as early as the late 1970s. Significant secrets are known to have been stolen, from the laboratories or elsewhere, as recently as the mid-1990s. Such thefts almost certainly continue to the present."

Exactly two months later, the Energy Department announced that it had fired Los Alamos computer scientist Wen Ho Lee. Quickly, Lee ended up carrying responsibility for the whole sieve of data leaking out of Los Alamos.

On March 19, 10 days after the Wen Ho Lee firing and two months after the Cox Report, President Clinton was asked at a news conference whether any of these Los Alamos security breaches took place on his watch. The President replied: "To the best of my knowledge, no one has said anything to me about any espionage which occurred by the Chinese against the labs during my presidency."

This is almost certainly a false statement. A New York Times story the next day notes "different accounts" of when Mr. Clinton was informed of China's espionage. A House committee was told Mr. Clinton was briefed in 1998. But in the weeks prior to the March 19 news conference, White House aides said National Security Adviser Sandy Berger had briefed the President in July 1997.

According to the Times, NSC spokesman David Leavy "said that since the completion of [the Cox] report, Berger and other aides had refreshed their recollections. 'After the Cox committee process, we've remembered more,' Leavy said."

Also at his March 19 news conference, Mr. Clinton hotly denied that his administration suppressed reports of Chinese spying to avoid association with reports of laundered Chinese contributions to the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign. "That is not true," the President asserted.

Our view of this "fiasco" would run like this:

With the issuance of the Cox Report, it was obvious that the administration faced a massive security embarrassment involving the very nation alleged to have funneled money into the President's re-election. And so to divert attention from a genuine fiasco, the Clinton brain trust found a scalp, a fall guy, in Wen Ho Lee.

We may never know the truth about Lee's activities or guilt (of a piece with the Chinese contributions), but the notion, allowed to run for a year, that somehow this one man constituted the Los Alamos breakdown was preposterous; it was a diversion. Now the chase has ended in a predictable plea-bargain, and the "investigation" will soon disappear into the mists, carrying with it this presidency's responsibility for what happened at the Energy Department on its watch, as with so many other security lapses.

As we've learned, however, even embarrassments can be turned to political advantage. Rendering the whole affair into mush the day after the plea agreement, the President said, "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."

But yesterday, just four days later, a report appears in the New York Times, in which government sources lay the primary blame for the Wen Ho Lee case on FBI Director Louis Freeh: "The FBI sold Janet Reno a bill of goods," says a voice from the shadows. Director Freeh, with Charles La Bella, is the one administration official in the Justice Department who recommended that Janet Reno appoint an independent counsel to investigate Bill Clinton's and Al Gore's fund-raising activities in the 1996 campaign. Looking at this from top to bottom, it would appear that the one thing the Clinton administration has shown the energy and skill to protect is itself.

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