Justice Dept. Says Lee's No Hero

Key Justice Department officials went before Congress Tuesday and defended the prosecution of scientist Wen Ho Lee against accusations of racism and overzealousness by recounting how he downloaded U.S. nuclear secrets onto portable tapes.

CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart says if the Senate was expecting an apology or retreat from FBI Director Louie Freeh and his boss, Attorney General Janet Reno over the Wen Ho Lee case, they got neither.

The former Los Alamos lab scientist may not be a spy, Reno and Freeh said, but he did steal secrets from his country.

“Dr. Lee is no hero,” Reno testified. “He is not an absent minded professor. He is a felon.”

Reno also cited Lee’s guilty plea. “He committed a very serious calculated crime and he pled guilty to it. He abused the trust of the American people by putting at risk some of our core national security secrets,” she said.

Lee, 60, pleaded guilty earlier this month to one of 59 original felony counts for downloading nuclear weapons design secrets to a non-secure computer while previously employed at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

The plea agreement freed Lee from jail and requires him to tell prosecutors what happened to missing tapes containing the nuclear secrets.

Lee had downloaded the classified information on nuclear weapons design and testing onto 10 tapes, seven of which are missing. Prosecutors said they had recently learned that Lee had also made copies of those tapes which were also missing.

"He created his own secret, portable, personal trove of this nation's nuclear weapons secrets," said Freeh.

Time and time again, the officials said, Lee went poking around in the Los Alamos computers downloading reams of nuclear weapons data he had no business dealing with.

In March 1998, Freeh said, Lee even attempted to enter the computer while visiting Taiwan. He failed. In December 1998, after his security clearance was pulled, Lee tried to enter his office at 3:30 a.m. on Christmas Eve. Again he failed.

And in January, 1999, after being told he had flunked a polygraph, Lee began deleting 360 highly classified items from his computer files.

"The restricted data that Dr. Lee downloaded onto 10 portable computer tapes included the electronic blueprints of the exact dimensions and geometry of this nation's nuclear weapons," Freeh charged.

All of which seems to beg the question: Why, didn't the government throw the book at Lee instead of settling for just one minor felony charge?

The answer, says the FBI, is that once they determined Lee hadn't sold the secrets to another country, the only important thing to clear up is, what did he do with them?

Next week is when Lee is scheduled to sit down with agents and answer that question.

Lee spent nearly 40 hours over 70 days transferring nuclear data from a classified computer system to an unclassified system, Reno aid. “It involved the equivalent of 400,000 pages, stacked up that's a 13-story building,” she added.

“Overall, the president agrees with the attorney general that these were serious offenses, a serious offense that Dr. Lee pleaded guilty to,” White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said. Reno has assured President Clinton there will be a full review of questions raised about the prosecution, he said.

The New York Times on Tuesday took the unusual step of publishing an internal review of its reporting on Lee after criticism that it had contributed to a witch hunt atmosphere.

“On the whole, we remain proud of work that brought into the open a major national security problem,” the Times said, adding some things it wished had been done differently included giving “Dr. Lee the full benefit of the doubt.”

One major criticism of the handling of Lee's case was that he was held in solitary confinement for nine months in New Mexico before his release with feet and hands shackled at times. The federal judge in the case denounced the government's actions and apologized to Lee.

Reno at the hearing said she agreed it was unnecessarily harsh to shackle Lee, but that steps were taken to improve the conditions in which Lee was held.

A memo from the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Department said Lee was asked about how he was being treated and had no complaints other than the fact he was in jail.

Another criticism of the prosecution of Lee, who is an American citizen, has been that he was singled out early in the investigation because of his ethnic heritage.

Reno and Freeh both adamantly denied that. “There was no effort on anybody's part to target him because of his race,” Reno said.

Lee was stripped of access to the highly-classified section of the “X Division” where he worked after a Dec. 23 1998 lie-detector test in which he admitted having been approached in 1988 by a Chinese nuclear weapons scientist, but had not reported it, Freeh said.

Shortly after that, he asked the “Help Desk” to revive his X Division secure computing privileges without disclosing that his access had been removed, and the desk reactivated his account, Freeh said. “Once he regained access to his account, Dr. Lee deleted files from his X Division server,” he said.

Sen. Richard Bryan, a Nevada Democrat who is Senate Intelligence Committee vice chairman, faulted the Department of Energy for not revoking Lee's security clearance earlier after a “litany” of questionable actions dating back to 1983.

“The X section in Los Alamos is the most sensitive. I would not want anybody in there with the track record that Dr. Lee had developed over a period of a number of years,” he said.

“We might not ever know what happened to those tapes,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Ricard Shelby said. “He's made copies, a lot of inconsistent statements, espionage is hard to prove. But Wen Ho Lee is not an innocent man, don't ever believe that,” the Alabama Republican said.


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