White House defends Reno, Berger in nuclear secrets case
May 24, 1999
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Responding to criticism that the Clinton administration was lax in dealing with alleged nuclear spying by China, the White House said Monday that the president retains full confidence in Attorney General Janet Reno and National Security Adviser Samuel Berger.
The words of support came as a special House committee prepares to release a report detailing China's quest for American military secrets. The report, due to be made public on Tuesday, details how China allegedly stole or otherwise obtained U.S. satellite and nuclear secrets over the past two decades.
Also Monday, Reno, in her most extensive statement to date on the issue, defended the Justice Department's decision-making. The statement came one day after Republican calls for her resignation over the department's actions.
Reno said she backs the department's refusal to grant government wiretaps and searches of Wen Ho Lee, a scientist at the Los Alamos, New Mexico, nuclear weapons laboratory who is suspected of passing secrets to Beijing.
"Although I was not apprised of the details of the case at the time the decision was made, I have reviewed the decision of the OIPR (Office of Intelligence Policy Review), and fully support it," Reno said.
The White House said congressional Republicans are making allegations against the Clinton administration to score political points.
"I think you're beginning to see some elements of partisan fingerpointing," said spokesman Joe Lockhart, referring to the calls for Reno's resignation.
Among those saying Reno should step down is the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Richard Shelby, R-Alabama.
Lockhart said he differentiates between what Shelby and other Republican critics are saying and related comments from Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey.
Torricelli, while critical of Reno, said she should be given a chance to defend herself.
Reno has long been under fire from GOP lawmakers for her refusal to have an independent counsel investigate charges the Chinese funneled illegal contributions to Clinton's 1996 presidential campaign.
She said in her statement that on the most recent issue, the question of approving wiretaps of Lee, she has the backing of FBI Director Louis Freeh, who "firmly believes that the decision in this case was based on a principled analysis of the law and the facts that were presented by the FBI at the time" of the request.
"If there is not probable cause that a citizen is knowingly engaged in clandestine intelligence gathering activities for, or on behalf of, a foreign power which may involve a violation of federal law, then (the Justice Department) will not recommend that the application be presented to the Court," Reno said.
Lee, a U.S. citizen who was fired from Los Alamos in March, has denied the allegations, and he has not been charged with any crime.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said she was informed of the spy allegations only earlier this year, even though the Energy Department, which operates U.S. weapons labs, notified Berger of its suspicions in 1996.
Lockhart said it was a mistake that Albright wasn't informed of the suspicions much earlier, but insists "it's not clear to me where the breakdown was."
"The president remains fully supportive of Berger," he added.
Correspondent Wolf Blitzer contributed to this report.
Shelby: Reno should resign over China espionage probe
Chinese Embassy to the U.S.
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