Clinton says race was not a factor in Lee case

Saturday, September 16th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON – President Clinton said Friday that he does not believe Wen Ho Lee was singled out for prosecution because he is Chinese-American, but the president said he planned to talk to Attorney General Janet Reno about concerns that the Los Alamos nuclear scientist was not treated properly by prosecutors.

Aides said Mr. Clinton would discuss the government's handling of the case with Ms. Reno next week at the White House. On Friday, in an appearance with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the president said it would have been wrong for him to express his concerns to the attorney general while charges were pending.

"It would have been completely inappropriate for me to intervene," Mr. Clinton said.

White House aides also sought to assign some responsibility for the pressures that propelled the prosecution forward to the news media and to members of Congress.

Dr. Lee, who had been in solitary confinement for nine months while awaiting trial, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to one count of improperly handling classified information. Under a plea deal that represented a collapse of the government's case, prosecutors dropped 58 other counts, and the judge in Albuquerque, N.M., freed Dr. Lee, harshly criticizing the prosecution for its handling of the case.

The administration has since been fielding questions about Dr. Lee's treatment, including whether he had been unfairly singled out because of his Chinese ancestry. Although Ms. Reno defended the Justice Department's conduct, Mr. Clinton said he was "quite troubled" by the department's behavior.

Mr. Clinton sought to soften the sting of his words Friday but said he would continue to review the case. And some of his aides strongly criticized media coverage.

"There was a very difficult climate that was generated in this town when this story came out, a climate generated by some very explosive and near-hysterical investigative reporting, a climate that was fueled by explosive comments from political leaders, including members of Congress," White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said.

The aides said they had not heard the president express concern about the media's role. But they said Mr. Clinton has privately expressed concern for weeks about whether Dr. Lee was treated fairly.

On Friday, at the urging of aides, Mr. Clinton stressed the seriousness of the charges against Dr. Lee.

"He has admitted to a very serious national security violation," he said. "And the most important thing now is that he keep his commitment to the government to work hard to figure out what happened to those tapes, what was on the tapes, to reconstitute all the information."

Under the plea deal, Dr. Lee agreed to tell prosecutors why he downloaded the nuclear secrets onto computer tapes, exactly what he did with the information and whether anyone else had seen it.

Mr. Clinton reiterated his doubts Friday about whether officials had been sensitive enough to prohibitions against "abusive execution authority" when they sought to keep Dr. Lee in jail without bail.

White House aides said Mr. Clinton was not directing his criticism at any officials in particular, including Ms. Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh. Asked if the president was trying to signal that he wanted the resignations of Ms. Reno or Mr. Freeh, spokesman Jake Siewert said: "No. The president said he had some questions about the handling of this. He's not going to prejudge anything. He will wait until his questions are answered."