Charge still possible against ex-CIA chief

Thursday, September 14th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON – While former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee has pleaded guilty to a felony for unlawfully downloading national defense data, former CIA director John Deutch is still under investigation by the Justice Department for a similar infraction.

There are indications, however, that Mr. Deutch – if he is accused at all – will face no more than a misdemeanor charge.

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The Deutch case is notable because Attorney General Janet Reno initially declined any prosecution last year for his conduct in storing thousands of pages of highly classified information on unsecured personal and laptop computers at his home.

Ten months later, under pressure from Congress and a highly critical CIA inspector general's report, she ordered the FBI to launch a criminal investigation. Critics said that it seemed unfair to prosecute Dr. Lee and not the man who headed the CIA after serving as the Pentagon's No. 2 official.

Mr. Deutch, who resigned from the intelligence agency in December 1996, was found to have kept large volumes of secret material on home computers used to connect to the Internet.

While Justice Department officials have declined to comment, outside legal analysts said there were no indications that Mr. Deutch had sought to harm national interests – one of the original accusations against Dr. Lee when the scientist was charged in a 59-count indictment.

In August 1999, four months after Ms. Reno first declined to prosecute Mr. Deutch, CIA director George Tenet stripped him of his security clearances. Mr. Tenet acted after receiving the findings of his own inspector general, who concluded that Mr. Tenet and other agency officials had mishandled an in-house inquiry into the potential compromise of secret data by Mr. Deutch.

President Clinton's foreign intelligence advisory board also weighed in with a highly critical report on the CIA's response. Mr. Tenet later acknowledged that he shared responsibility for the shortcomings in the investigation of Mr. Deutch's conduct.

On Wednesday, Mr. Tenet went before a closed session of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has met several times on the Deutch case. Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., told reporters afterward that "we have not totally completed our investigation" but that the committee would issue a report in the near future.

Mr. Deutch has admitted violating agency security rules by writing and storing thousands of pages of data on ordinary home computers while he was CIA director from May 1995 through December 1996. His supporters note, however, that he was working at home with materials he was entitled to see. Dr. Lee, on the other hand, was accused of storing information not necessary for his work at Los Alamos.

"At no time did I intend to violate security rules and fortunately there is no evidence of compromise," Mr. Deutch said in a written statement in February. "I very much regret my errors."

Among the sensitive files found on Mr. Deutch's computers as he was leaving the agency were reports on covert operations, top-secret code words and communications intelligence, memos to the White House and the classified budget for the National Reconnaissance Program, which builds and operates the nation's spy satellites.

Congressional Republican sources who have investigated Mr. Deutch's case said that Paul E. Coffey, a former Justice Department official whom Ms. Reno brought out of retirement to review the matter, is leaning toward recommending a misdemeanor charge against the former CIA director.

Under federal law, gross negligence in handling classified information is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Taking classified information home without authorization, which prosecutors say is not rare, is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison.