Clinton 'troubled' by US mishandling of spy case

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The Independent US

The Clinton administration is struggling to avert one last great scandal over the collapse of its espionage case against the Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee.

The Clinton administration is struggling to avert one last great scandal over the collapse of its espionage case against the Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee.

Although Dr Lee was freed earlier this week after nine months in solitary confinement without trial, the repercussions of his case are being felt at the highest levels in Washington.

Janet Reno, the Attorney General, and Bill Richardson, the Energy Secretary, have come under pressure to resign for their dogged pursuit of an essentially innocent man.

A high-profile Senate committee will convene this month to try to assign responsibility for the fiasco, in which a scientist accused of passing on the "crown jewels" of the US atomic programme to China turns out to have done little more than download non-sensitive files from a high-security computer without authorisation.

Arlen Specter, the Republican senator from Pennsylvania who will head the committee, said the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation "threw the book at Dr Lee to make up for their own failings". His colleague, Phil Gramm of Texas, was blunter, calling for the resignation of Ms Reno and Mr Richardson.

The first strike against the administration came from the judge in Albuquerque, where the case was settled. On Wednesday, Judge James Parker apologised to Dr Lee for the government's behaviour, calling it an embarrassment to the nation. He came as close as a judge can to singling out Ms Reno and Mr Richardson for reprimand. "It is only the top decision makers in the executive branch, especially the Department of Justice and the Department of Energy ... who have caused embarrassment by the way this case began and was handled," he told the court.

The following day, Ms Reno made the position worse by saying she had nothing to apologise for and that any blame must be laid at the defendant's door. "I think Dr Lee had the opportunity from the beginning to resolve this matter and he chose not to," she said.

President Bill Clinton declared himself "quite troubled" by what had happened and said he had had reservations all along about the decision to deny Dr Lee bail and the claims about his case. (Despite the rhetoric, no espionage charge was brought against him.)

A critical moment appears to have been at a White House meeting last December, a few days before Dr Lee's indictment, which was attended by Ms Reno, Mr Richardson, the FBI director, Louis Freeh, the head of the CIA, George Tenet, and the National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger.

It is not known exactly what was said at that meeting, or if any of it could be construed as a taint on the President. According to Robert Vrooman - who lost his job as the head of counter-intelligence at Los Alamos because he refused to condone the prosecution of Dr Lee - the man most responsible is Mr Richardson.

"He's an entirely political animal," Mr Vrooman said in a phone interview. "He was offered a test of leadership here and he failed."

At the time, the administration was under massive pressure, particularly from the Republican-controlled Congress, to respond to allegations that some of its most sensitive nuclear secrets had fallen into Chinese hands. Dr Lee proved to be a convenient scapegoat. When he admitted having copied information from a secure computer but refused to say what he had done with it, the government pounced.

Mr Richardson was unrepentant. "While there are some regrettable aspects about the way the case unfolded, the bottom line remains that Dr Lee committed very serious security violations involving our nuclear secrets," he said in a statement.

The irony, according to Mr Vrooman, is that while 40 FBI agents were assigned to Dr Lee, not one has been looking at the real problem of how China managed to get hold of top-secret information about the US W-88 nuclear warhead. "The reason, of course, is that it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Going after Wen Ho Lee was just much more convenient," Mr Vrooman said.

The lawyers for Dr Lee are suing the Department of Energy for leaking erroneous documents from his case file to the media. Another suit alleging race discrimination against the scientist, who was born in Taiwan, has been dropped as part of the plea bargain.