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Crossfire

Who Is to Blame for Bungling the Wen Ho Lee Case?

Aired September 27, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Tonight, the chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wen Ho Lee: Is he guilty of espionage? Was it wrong to shackle him in prison? And who's to blame for this bungled case?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Robert Novak. In the crossfire, Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, and vice chairman of that committee, Senator Richard Bryan, a Democrat from Nevada.

NOVAK: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

U.S. government nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee spent nine months in solitary confinement, shackled, on 59 counts of espionage. But when he was released after pleading guilty to just one charge in a plea bargain, the sniping began. What was the government up to?

Justice Department and FBI officials were hauled before a Senate subcommittee today for the second day. The government's testimony was that the plea bargain was necessary to get the scientist to talk. They couldn't risk a trial that would reveal nuclear secrets.

The U.S. attorney handling the case said Dr. Lee's lawyers actually threatened prosecutors with a trial, promising a -- quote -- "long slow death march" -- end quote -- revealing secrets. To that Senator Arlen Specter, a former prosecutor said, "Let's start walking."

Questions abound that the two top members of the Senate Intelligence Committee ought to be able to answer: Is Lee a martyr or an artful dodger? Is he a spy? If not, what in the world was he doing? Were police state tactics used to get him to talk? And all the bumbling, were U.S. secrets lost? -- Bill.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Mr. Chairman, a lot of directions to look in here for whom might be responsible. I want to start with the Congress, because it wasn't long before there were reports of possible espionage at Los Alamos where members of Congress started going into overdrive, including yourself, senator. You said March 25th -- quote -- "This problem could be more serious, more widespread and potentially more dangerous than most Americans realize."

Are you willing to admit tonight you were wrong? SEN. RICHARD SHELBY (R-AL), CHAIRMAN, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: No, no, that's very true. That was a real problem. The investigation has been botched. It was botched by the Justice Department I believe and so do a lot of other people.

The damage -- we will probably never know the extent of what Wen Ho Lee did, but Wen Ho Lee is not an innocent man. He stands tonight before everybody a convicted felon. Make no mistake about it.

PRESS: So what you're saying -- I want to know for sure. Is what you're saying that you're still convinced that he is a spy, that he stole classified information, that he gave it to the Chinese, but he got off because we blew the case? Is that what you're saying, senator?

SHELBY: Well, I don't know everything he did, but I do know that he -- a lot of the things he did were very suspicious, more than suspicious, make no mistake about it. I don't know how anybody could stand up and say Wen Ho Lee was a victim. He's a convicted felon just like the FBI director reminded the American people yesterday.

PRESS: now, Bob Novak in the open to the show mentioned the treatment that Wen Ho Lee received -- solitary confinement for nine months, kept in shackles, denied reading material -- it goes on and on and on, senator. And actually, your comment -- I want to be kind to you -- was rather mild compared to some of the others.

I mean, Majority Leader Trent Lott said that this was "the biggest security breach of our lifetime." Arlen Specter also said, "You have the greatest case of grand larceny in the history of the world."

So isn't it possible with these kinds of statements you were not only maybe wrong on the evidence, but that you directly contributed to the treatment that Wen Ho Lee received?

SHELBY: Absolutely not. First of all, I don't believe we were wrong. I think there was a problem in the investigation from the beginning. You've talked about this on this show. You've read about it. You know about it. This was not the finest hour for the FBI and it certainly was not the finest hour for the Justice Department in not pushing and seeking to the ultimate conclusion the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) application.

NOVAK: Senator Bryan, the attorney general, Janet Reno, testifying before Congress, before the Senate yesterday said that Wen Ho Lee is not a martyr. He is not an absent-minded professor. What is he? Is he a spy? And if not a spy, what is he?

SEN. RICHARD BRYAN (D-NV), VICE CHAIRMAN, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: I agree with the attorney general's observation. We may never know all of the facts of the case, Bob, but I think there are a number of things that are highly suspect.

Dating back to the 1980s, Wen Ho Lee made contact with the suspect that the FBI was investigating for espionage. When confronted with that, he denied that he made contact. Only when the FBI produced evidence of the contact did he recant.

He went to China, made some contacts with some Chinese nuclear officials and failed to disclose those contacts as required. In the '90s, when Chinese physicists from the People's Republic of China came to the United States, he attended a meeting where he was not invited, had conversations with people who obviously knew him, but had never reported the fact that he had contact with those.

Now, fast forwarding with respect to the current situation, he downloaded over a period of a number of years, a number of years, probably 70 days in which 40 hours was involved, 400,000 pages of highly sensitive classified information.

NOVAK: What was he doing? Tell me what he was doing.

BRYAN: We don't know, but clearly that was a violation of the law. And when we're talking about the Los Alamos X division, Bob, we're talking about the design of nuclear weapons, some of the most sensitive classified secrets that we have, information that in the hands of a foreign adversary would be highly dangerous to the security of this country.

NOVAK: I want to play you a little sound bite of the director of the FBI, Louis Freeh, testifying yesterday. Let's look at it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LOUIS FREEH, FBI DIRECTOR: The Department of Justice and the FBI concluded that this guilty plea, coupled with his agreement to submit to questioning under oath, and to a polygraph, was our best opportunity to protect the national security, by finding out what happened to the seven missing tapes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK: Now, if it's as serious as you say it is, the FBI botched it to end up with a little plea bargain where he gets -- he goes scot- free. Wouldn't you agree with that?

BRYAN: I would acknowledge that there was incredible ineptitude in the investigation, both by the Department of Energy, by the FBI and the Department of Justice. Clearly, there's plenty of blame to go around. Whether or not there was ever the possibility of an espionage case to prove that a transfer of information occurred, I don't know.

I've seen no evidence of that. But Dr. Lee clearly violated the law in downloading that information. And when his access to the lab had been revoked, attempted on 18 times -- 18 separate occasions -- one at 3:30 on Christmas Eve -- to gain access to those files.

NOVAK: Now -- now, Bill was mentioning the fact that he was in shackles. He was also -- he's a cancer -- a colon cancer survivor. He was denied his diet -- could only see his family very rarely. Do you think that the FBI and the authorities were trying to sweat him for nine months to get him to talk, and after nine months, they said: Gee, we can't do this? Is that proper police and prosecutorial tactics?

BRYAN: Let me say, I disagree with the conditions under which he was confined: that is to say, the shackles when he was exercising -- a whole host of other issues that were involved there. I think that was wrong. The attorney general acknowledged it.

I do think it was important, because we were fearful that he might talk to somebody on the outside and do something with those tapes that were missing, that it was appropriate to confine him under circumstances that he could not have conversations with people outside.

NOVAK: Were they trying to sweat him, do you think?

BRYAN: I don't know that answer. I would say that the FBI's conduct was inappropriate. And Louis Freeh acknowledges that, in terms of threatening an execution. That was, I think, wrong.

PRESS: Senators, we're going to have to take a break. We have lots more questions -- take a break now -- lots more questions, including: How about Norla (sic) Trulock, the person who broke this case? Whatever happened to her?

We'll be right back. More CROSSFIRE coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

On Capitol Hill today, government prosecutors argued that letting Wen Ho Lee off easy was necessary to protect the nation's nuclear secrets. But most senators weren't buying it. They say the Justice Department goofed -- big time. So was Wen Ho Lee treated unfairly? Was he targeted because of his race? And whatever happened to the man who broke the case?

More questions for the chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee: Chairman Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama, and Vice Chairman Richard Bryan, Democrat of Nevada -- Bob.

NOVAK: Senator Shelby, the person who broke the case was the head of security at the Department of Energy, Notra Trulock. He was fired. I understand he has lost his security clearance. What did he do wrong?

SHELBY: Well, I'm not part of the investigation. We've been briefed a couple of times regarding him. But I think he's done some good things. What he's done wrong, I don't know. He did get some kind of meritorious award at the Department of Energy. I remember the secretary of energy talking about that publicly.

NOVAK: Is there a cover-up?

SHELBY: I hope not. But, you know, a lot of things have gone on that have troubled me for a long time in the failure to follow through on the FISA application by the Justice Department -- carry it all the way.

(CROSSTALK)

SHELBY: The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, where you have a special court here that reviews that.

NOVAK: Senator Shelby, there's a very senior American official who thinks -- who has said now that this was very badly done. Could we take a listen to what he said?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And they made the claim that this man could not possibly be let out of jail on bail, because he would be such a danger of flight -- or such a danger to American security. All of a sudden, they reach a plea agreement which will, if anything, make his alleged defense look modest compared to the claims that were made against him. So it's -- the whole thing was quite troubling to me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK: What do you think of that, Senator?

SHELBY: Well, it was deeply troubling to me. You know, I have a lot of respect for the president and his ability, especially his ability to communicate. And he's communicating again. But you have got to remember: This was done on his watch with his basic assent to what was going on.

His national security adviser was in a meeting, where they decided, with the attorney general, to go forward with this. And now I guess he has discovered gambling in "Casablanca." You know, the police chief finally did, although it's been going on a long time.

PRESS: Senator Bryan, let me pick up there, if I can, because I heard you say earlier -- correctly -- that, so far as we know, this activity started back there the early '80s, mid-80s.

BRYAN: That's right.

PRESS: That the Chinese knew these secrets as early as 1988, that the first test of the nuclear missile occurred -- nuclear bomb -- occurred in 1992. And Wen Ho Lee was -- started make his visits and -- with Chinese scientists back in the late 1980s. Was Bill Clinton president all that time?

BRYAN: He was not. That's why I'm saying there's plenty of blame to go around. In my opinion, in the early 80s, when the FBI confronted him, he denied making the contact with the espionage suspect. When he returned from China and did not inform them of the contact, there was grounds then, in my judgment, not to prosecute him for espionage, but to revoke his security classification.

That should have been done. And that's where I think there was a failure, both on the part of the Department of Energy and the FBI at that time.

PRESS: Now...

BRYAN: The FBI, for example, Bill, failed to follow up for a period of a year after that.

PRESS: Well, that's exactly where I want to go next. And I would like to read you the first line of an article about this whole case in this week's "Slate" magazine -- online magazine -- written by David Plotz.

Here's Mr. Plotz -- quote -- "Here's a theory. Louis Freeh has photographs of key Republican congressmen in compromising positions with young boys. What else could explain his J. Edgar Hoover-esque immunity on Capitol Hill?"

Senator, you've got Ruby Ridge , you've got Waco. Now you have the Wen Ho Lee case -- in each one of which, the FBI has royally screwed up. Why does Louis Freeh still get this kid-glove treatment from Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill?

BRYAN: I don't think the Intelligence Committee has gave him kid gloves. Yesterday, in talking with him, I thought and believed that there were some fundamental mistakes that the FBI made. They did not assign competent people. They did not provide the resources for this investigation. And they did not, in my judgment, have the kind of priority and follow-up. It was ineptly handled.

PRESS: I know you want to get in there, Senator. I mean, I have heard a lot of people call for Janet Reno's resignation.

(CROSSTALK)

PRESS: I've never heard anybody call for Louis Freeh's.

SHELBY: Well, I can tell you, Louis Freeh is not perfect. But I believe, overall, he has done a credible job. I disagree with him on some things. And I agree with Senator Bryan: The FBI has made some mistakes in this case. But the Justice Department, I believe, has made more.

NOVAK: Senator Shelby, I want to ask you a couple intelligence questions -- if you can answer them. I think many Americans, frankly, don't give a damn about Wen Ho Lee. They do care about nuclear secrets.

SHELBY: Absolutely.

NOVAK: Have we lost nuclear secrets to China because of this?

SHELBY: Oh, I think that's the statement of the intelligence community. They said that we have, that China has obtained,..

NOVAK: Because of this?

SHELBY: Now, I don't know because of this, but because of espionage going on a while that we have not proven, that we have not sent anybody to jail that I know of offhand. But I believe you will see a lot of the information on these tapes in years to come in the new development of Chinese missiles.

NOVAK: Do you disagree with that?

PRESS: Do you disagree, senator?

BRYAN: I'm not sure I agree totally with the chairman. There is no question that the information that Wen Ho Lee downloaded in an unsecure computer was highly sensitive and could compromise the national security of this country. What is the less clear is whether or not that information was transferred to the Chinese.

The intelligence community is divided as to whether or not the Chinese, with respect to the W88, acquired this information on their own, without espionage, whether there was a sufficient amount of information out there on the Internet or whether in fact a transfer occurred. We simply don't know whether that information was transferred...

PRESS: Senator...

SHELBY: Senator, I was giving you my judgment, my experience and what I believe that they have benefited from espionage, that they have a lot of our information. Whether they got it from Wen Ho Lee directly we will maybe never know, but they've got a lot of our...

NOVAK: I've got to ask you -- I'm sorry. I've got to ask one question. Why was John Deutch, the former CIA director, who downloaded illegally about every secret he had into his personal computer, why wasn't he thrown in jail?

SHELBY: Well, let me tell you this: Senator Bryan and I initiated an investigation, sent it to the Justice Department, and we believe that John Deutch or anybody else ought to be treated just like anybody else over at Langley.

PRESS: Was he ever accused of spying, senator?

BRYAN: No.

SHELBY: No. We didn't accuse him of spying.

BRYAN: And there was nothing to suggest that, but the chairman and I did insist that this investigation be reconvened to take a look at the information and evidence that we...

NOVAK: We're out of time...

SHELBY: And there has been a recommendation of prosecution recently, as you know.

NOVAK: Senator Shelby, thank you very much. Senator Bryan. Bill Press, superspy, and I will be back with closing comments.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NOVAK: We've got a special week of CROSSFIRE you don't want to miss. Mary, Bill and I are hitting the road, airing before a live audience at the George Washington University all next week at 7:30 Eastern on CNN.

Tomorrow night, in the CROSSFIRE, departing White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart gives the inside story on President Clinton's final days in office -- Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Eastern.

Bill, typically you try to put the blame on the Reagan administration and on the FBI. I think Louis Freeh and Janet Reno are both culpable in this mess, but to tell you the truth, I don't know what to make of Wen Ho Lee. There's a lot we don't know, and maybe the senators don't know either.

PRESS: I agree, and by the way, I'm not letting Janet Reno off the hook either. It started under Reagan, continued under Bush, continued under Clinton. Neither Louis Freeh nor Janet Reno did a good job in this case.

But you know, Bob, I think the lesson is that the politicians and the media ought to think twice before they pile on and jump to conclusions. That's the lesson...

NOVAK: Now let's...

PRESS: That lesson will be ignored in the future as it has been in the past.

NOVAK: Let's not jump to conclusions that he's innocent or a martyr. Let's just keep an open mind. I know that's hard for you, but let's keep it.

PRESS: Another investigation. From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE

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