Freeh, Reno defend case against scientist

By MICHAEL J. SNIFFEN

Associated Press

WASHINGTON – FBI Director Louis Freeh and Attorney General Janet Reno defended the government’s case against nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee today, saying the prosecution would likely have succeeded if they had gone to trial.

“The Department of Justice and the FBI stand by each and every one of the 59 counts in the indictment of Dr. Lee,” Freeh told the Senate Select Intelligence and Judiciary committees. “Each of those counts could be proven in December 1999 and each of them could be proven today.”

However, Freeh said a trial would have exposed some of the nation’s nuclear secrets and might not have revealed what the scientist did with the information he downloaded on computer tapes.

“The Department of Justice and the FBI concluded that this guilty plea, coupled with Lee’s agreement to submit to questioning under oath and to a polygraph, was our best opportunity to protect the national security by finding out what happened to the seven missing tapes, as well as to the additional copies of the tapes that he now admitted to have made,” Freeh said.

Reno and Freeh also denied accusations that Lee was ever targeted because he is Asian-American. “There was no effort on anyone’s part to target Dr. Lee because of his race,” Reno said.

Freeh and Reno are among a number of top federal officials to be questioned by senators who want know what led the government to hold Lee in solitary confinement for nine months on 59 charges, including downloading nuclear secrets onto computer tapes, while he was employed at the national weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M.

“I believe the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation was a gravely flawed exercise characterized by inadequate resources, lack of management attention and missed opportunities,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.

“This is a textbook example of how not to conduct an investigation,” said Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev.

Prosecutors ultimately dropped all but one charge in a plea bargain, and Lee was released.

Prosecutors have said they couldn’t let Lee tell someone else what he had done with the weapons secrets before he told the government. They point out that he spent six hours a day, four days a week in the courthouse with his lawyers preparing his defense.

Lee walked free Sept. 13, sentenced to the time he had served awaiting trial, after he agreed to tell the government what he did with the tapes. His debriefing had been scheduled for today but was postponed.

The plea bargain caused the presiding judge to apologize to Lee for his pretrial imprisonment and lambast the government for embarrassing “our entire nation.”

President Clinton said he found it difficult to reconcile how the government could “keep someone in jail without bail, argue right up to the 11th hour that they’re a terrible risk, and then turn around and make that sort of plea agreement.”

Lee, a U.S. citizen born in Taiwan and educated in the United States, initially was an espionage suspect, the target of a federal probe into how China may have obtained secret nuclear warhead blueprints.

His supporters contend Lee was targeted because he is Asian-American. Some are demanding a presidential pardon and an apology.

Attorney General Janet Reno has refused to apologize to Lee but ordered an internal review of Justice Department actions after meeting with the president.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., is expected to continue the questioning Wednesday in his Judiciary subcommittee.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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