Reno Deflects Calls To Resign

Attorney General Janet Reno is standing by her job despite constant suggestions from some members of Congress that she should step down. This time, Reno is being singled out for what some lawmakers see as her failure to investigate and deter China's theft of American nuclear secrets, reports CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., is calling the espionage discovery the last straw. Shelby contests that the Justice Department was so lax, that she ought to leave.

A spokesman says the attorney general is not resigning. And in a written statement Monday night, Reno says that after reviewing the case, she just believes the FBI did not have evidence to warrant a wiretap.

"I'm right here, going strong," she told two reporters who encountered her in a Justice Department hallway and asked if she was going to leave after her future became a topic on the Sunday television talk show.

The case involves a now-fired Taiwanese-born scientist, Wen Ho Lee, who is under investigation for possibly providing nuclear secrets to China from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Through his lawyer, he has denied spying for China.

Lee first came under suspicion in 1996 after intelligence suggested that the Chinese knew details about the U.S. W-88 nuclear missile warhead, which was data to which he had access. The Justice Department declined to seek a warrant for electronic surveillance of him in 1997.

In a statement defending her decision, Reno disclosed that the FBI's 1997 request for a surveillance warrant on Lee "did not contain a request to search any computer."

The Cox Report:
China, the US, and Nuclear Secrets
> View the espionage timeline
> Read the Overview of the Cox Report

When Lee's computer was finally searched this spring wih his permission, FBI agents found he had moved nuclear weapons testing data from a secure computer to an unsecure computer in his office. Agents are still investigating whether any unauthorized people gained access to the data from the unsecure computer.

In addition, a senior Justice official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the FBI was never informed by the Energy Department that Lee had signed a waiver that would have allowed agents to search his computer without a warrant.

"I take very seriously the department's responsibility to protect the national security," Reno's statement said. "But the Justice Department has not - nor will it - authorize such intrusions when, as in this case, the standards of the Constitution and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act have not been met."

She said career Justice lawyers rejected the FBI's warrant application. "Although I was not apprised of the details of the case at the time the decision was made, I have reviewed the decision ... and fully support it," Reno wrote.

Reno said FBI Director Louis Freeh "firmly believes that the decision in this case was based on a principled analysis of the law and the facts."

A senior FBI official, requesting anonymity, has said, "We didn't have any real evidence of espionage. All we knew was the Energy Department put him on a list of people who had access to this information and he had made a trip to China to give a lecture."

To get a warrant, the act requires probable cause to believe a citizen is knowingly engaged in clandestine intelligence-gathering for a foreign power.

Reno has named a senior career prosecutor to review how the Lee case was handled back to 1982, the first time his name ever came to the FBI's attention.

The White House said Monday the embattled attorney general still has the president's confidence, but his spokesman conceded he hasn't called to offer his support. "We would burn up the phone line if every time someone stood up on Capitol Hill and said this person has to resign or that person has to resign, if we did that," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.

Since she took the blame for the ill-fated federal assault on the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas, Janet Reno has been a lightening rod.

During the first term of the Clinton Administration, it was no secret that the White House wanted Reno to leave. She had appointed three separate independent counsels to investigate three separate cabinet members, and wasn't very popular around the White House.

But she did not take the hint. In fact, she made a public statement insisting she wanted to stay on. From that point on, Republicans suggested that she was dragging out her investigation of campaign finance irregularities involving President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore because she wanted to keep her job. She lost the confidence of the Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch.

Key senators in bot parties agree that Justice Department bungling in the espionage case was so bad, that Reno must go.

Appearing on CBS News' Face the Nation, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. said, "Somebody made some major mistakes here, and somebody needs to be held accountable."

Shelby said Reno should resign immediately for the good of the country. "It's time for new leadership at the Justice Department," he said. "I believe the attorney general ought to resign and she ought to take her top lieutenants with her. And she ought to do it now for the sake of the country."

Even a Democrat -- New Jersey Senator Robert Torricelli -- is raising questions about Reno's tenure. Torricelli called it incredible that the Justice Department twice turned down FBI requests to wiretap the chief suspect in the case. "Had the warrants been granted," said Torricelli, "some of this damage would have been prevented and some of the national security damage to the United States could have been avoided."
©1999 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report