WASHINGTON - President Clinton rebuked his own Justice Department yesterday for the way it handled the prosecution of Wen Ho Lee, the nuclear scientist who was held in solitary confinement for nine months as a threat to national security only to be released Wednesday in a plea agreement.
"The whole thing was quite troubling to me," Clinton said. "I don't think you can justify in retrospect keeping a person in jail without bail when you are prepared to make that kind of agreement."
Clinton's words directly conflicted with those of Attorney General Janet Reno, who earlier yesterday refused to apologize for the case and declared that Lee was to blame for his treatment because he had kept silent for so long.
The president's disparaging comments followed those of a federal judge who on Wednesday accused administration officials of abusing their authority in their "demeaning, unnecessarily punitive" treatment of Lee.
The White House said the president's rare public disagreement with his attorney general was not meant as a slap at Reno or at Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, whose agency also investigated Lee, a former Los Alamos nuclear weapons engineer.
"I wouldn't see it as blanket criticism of anyone," said Joe Lockhart, Clinton's spokesman. "I think we'll have to look for more information on this."
With the evidence against Lee unraveling, the scientist, who was once suspected of giving China the "crown jewels" of America's nuclear arsenal, was allowed to plead guilty to just one of the 59 felony counts he was charged with. He confessed Wednesday to improperly handling nuclear secrets and left court in Albuquerque, N.M., a free man.
In his remarks to reporters at the White House yesterday, Clinton said he had "always had reservations" about the case, and he sharply distanced himself from the decisions made by the Justice Department.
"A couple of days after they made the claim that this man could not possibly be let out of jail on bail because he would be such a danger, all of a sudden they reach a plea agreement, which will, if anything, make his alleged offenses look modest compared to the claims that were made against him," Clinton said.
Asked if would consider a pardon for Lee, Clinton was noncommittal but said Lee had been detained for "a bailable offense, and it means he spent a lot of time in prison that any ordinary American wouldn't have and that bothers me."
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart indicated yesterday that Clinton may order a review of the case. "He'll be looking for some answers to how this came about," Lockhart said.
Justice Department officials said Reno would not respond publicly to the president's criticism.
Yesterday, responding to U.S. District Judge James A. Parker's accusation that federal authorities' treatment of the scientist had "embarrassed our entire nation," Reno countered that Lee's conduct was responsible for the protracted legal battle. Specifically, she argued that Lee should have explained all along why he downloaded classified information onto unsecured computers and then copied that information onto 10 tapes, seven of which have vanished.
"Dr. Lee had the opportunity from the beginning to resolve this matter, and he chose not to, and I think he must look to himself," Reno said.
"With respect to issues of whether apologies are out of the question or who, what should have been done differently," Reno said, "I with all my heart and soul wish that Lee had come forward, said, 'This is what I did with the tapes.'"
Richardson said yesterday in a statement, "While there are some regrettable aspects about the way the case unfolded, the bottom line remains that Dr. Lee committed very serious security violations involving our nuclear secrets."
Under the plea agreement, Lee promised to explain the missing tapes. He has told investigators that he destroyed the missing tapes, and he has already given authorities several sworn statements.
Federal prosecutors and investigators say they will question Lee extensively in coming weeks. They will concentrate on "testing the veracity" of Lee's assurances by questioning witnesses, using computer forensics and administering lie-detector tests, said George A. Stamboulidis, the chief prosecutor in the case.
If Lee is "caught in one lie," prosecutors will reinstate the indictment and also charge him with perjury, Stamboulidis said.
Lee's release comes after nearly five years of investigation that began after confidential U.S. nuclear weapons information was discovered in China.
In 1996, federal agents descended on the Los Alamos laboratory to find the source of the leaks and soon focused their attention on Lee, who was born in Taiwan and became a U.S. citizen. They investigated Lee, in part because he had had contacts with the Chinese government on trips overseas.
Authorities soon discovered that Lee had downloaded the secret data and copied it onto 10 tapes. Authorities found three of them. Though federal officials labeled Lee a threat to national security and said the remaining tapes contained highly sensitive nuclear secrets, they never charged him with espionage.
Lee was indicted in December and was held in solitary confinement until Wednesday, when Parker leveled unusually blistering criticism at federal authorities for filing a weak indictment, for misleading the judge and for holding Lee under "onerous conditions."
In December, Parker noted Wednesday, he had ordered the former scientist held without bail after hearing evidence that "was so extreme that it convinced me that releasing [Lee] ... would be a danger to the safety of this nation."
But the government's arguments that the nuclear information was ultra-secret collapsed last month, after Lee's attorneys produced expert witnesses who said most of the information was already available in the public domain.
An FBI agent also admitted that he had testified erroneously in an earlier hearing when he said that Lee had engaged in deceptive behavior. Wednesday, Parker declared that he had been "led astray last December by the executive branch of our government."
"They have embarrassed our entire nation and each of us who is a citizen of it," Parker said.
Throughout the government's investigation of Lee, Asian-American and civil rights groups protested that Lee had been singled out and discriminated against because of his Chinese ancestry - a charge Reno vigorously denied yesterday.