WASHINGTON - Under intense criticism, Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis J. Freeh vigorously defended yesterday the prosecution of Wen Ho Lee, a nuclear scientist who spent nine months in jail and was freed this month in a plea agreement.
"Dr. Lee is no hero," Reno told the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Select Committee on Intelligence. "He is not an absent-minded professor. He committed a very serious, calculated crime and he pled guilty to it."
Lee pleaded guilty Sept. 13 to one felony count of downloading nuclear weapons design secrets to a nonsecure computer while employed at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
The government dropped the 58 remaining charges against him. Lee had been accused by authorities of downloading the "crown jewels" of America's nuclear secrets.
"The Department of Justice and FBI stand by each and every one of the 59 counts in the indictment of Dr. Lee," Freeh said. "Each of those counts could be proven in December 1999, and each of them could be proven today."
Reno and Freeh told lawmakers that they entered into the plea agreement for several reasons, including the need to determine what Lee did with missing computer tapes that contain information he downloaded from secure computers at Los Alamos.
Lee downloaded restricted data onto 10 tapes, seven of which have vanished. Federal officials recently learned that Lee made copies of those tapes, Freeh said.
Under the plea agreement, Lee is required to tell authorities what happened to the tapes and the copies.
Freeh said the government also agreed to the deal to prevent sensitive nuclear secrets from being divulged in open court - a likely scenario, he said, after a ruling by the judge overseeing the case.
Both Freeh and Reno denied that Lee was prosecuted because he was an Asian-American - a charge levied by some civil rights groups and Lee supporters.
"There was no effort on anyone's part to target Dr. Lee because of his race," Reno said.
Despite the united front by Reno and Freeh, Republican senators said they didn't buy the explanations.
"I believe the FBI's counterintelligence investigation was a gravely flawed exercise characterized by inadequate resources, lack of management attention and missed opportunities," said Republican Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, chairman of the intelligence panel.
A Democratic senator also criticized the officials. Nevada's Richard H. Bryan said the case resembled a "Keystone Kops" operation and was a "textbook example of how not to conduct an investigation."
Yesterday's hearing came after a meeting last week between Reno and President Clinton - days after Clinton publicly rebuked the Justice Department, saying the outcome of the case "was quite troubling."
Reno told Clinton that she had begun an internal probe into how her office handled the prosecution. That investigation is still in progress.
Yesterday, responding to questions, Reno admitted that Lee was held in unnecessarily harsh conditions. But Reno said Lee's attorneys never raised concerns about his treatment. A jail supervisor also talked to Lee, who made no complaints about his confinement, Reno said.
Except when meeting with his lawyers, the 60-year-old scientist was locked by himself in a cell for the entire nine months and often was shackled when he was taken out to exercise for an hour each day.
The investigation began in 1996, when federal agents descended on the Los Alamos laboratory to find the source of leaks of nuclear weapons information to China.
Federal authorities quickly focused on Lee, who was born in Taiwan and later became a U.S. citizen. They investigated Lee, in part, because he had contacts with officials in the Chinese government during trips overseas.
Authorities soon discovered that Lee had downloaded 400,000 pages of restricted data onto an unsecure computer and onto the 10 tapes, including the seven that are missing.
What happened to the tapes is "of paramount concern to the government and explains the government's decision to enter into plea negations," Freeh said.