Sept. 15, 2000 -- Hours after Attorney General Janet Reno refused to apologize for the government’s handling of the Wen Ho Lee case, President Clinton said Thursday he was “quite troubled” by prosecutors’ treatment of the former Los Alamos scientist.
“I think that it’s very difficult to reconcile the two positions, that one day he’s a terrible risk to the national security and the next day [prosecutors are] making a plea agreement for an offense far more modest than what had been alleged,” the president said.
“I don’t think that you can justify, in retrospect, keeping a person in jail without bail when you’re prepared to make that kind of agreement. It just can’t be justified,” Clinton said, adding that he’s been troubled by the case for some time.
Clinton said he has many questions on how the investigation on Lee was conducted. While specific plans have not been set, Cinton said White House chief of staff John Podesta was going to look into the case.
Clinton’s comments come after Reno refused during her weekly press briefing to apologize to Lee for his nine-month incarceration. During that time, Lee was held in solitary confinement.
“I think Dr. Lee, from the beginning, had the opportunity to resolve this matter and he chose not to so. I think he has to look to himself,” she said.
Reno said she was “comfortable” with the handling of the Lee case but wished “with all my heart and soul” that Lee had come forward early on and provided investigators with information about seven missing computer tapes that prosecutors said contained nuclear secrets.
Scientist Freed on Wednesday
Apologizing for “unfair” treatment by government officials, a federal judge on Wednesday freed a grateful Lee from nine months of imprisonment after the fired Los Alamos laboratory scientist pleaded guilty to one count of mishandling classified data.
U.S. District Judge James Parker in Albuquerque, N.M., scolded the “top decision-makers” in the departments of Justice and Energy as he sentenced Lee to 278 days — one day less than time served.
“I sincerely apologize to you, Dr. Lee, for the unfair mannerin which you were held in custody by the executive branch,” Parkertold him. “The executive branch has enormouspower, the abuse of which can be devastating to citizens. … They have embarrassed our entire nation and each of us who is a citizen of it.”
Responding to Parker’s comments, Reno said she respected the judge and “regret that he feels that way.”
Reno said federal prosecutors had long hoped that Lee “could tell us if he had conveyed any information from the tapes” and had suggested that if he was cooperative, “we would reconsider detention. In this instance, we have now what we tried to do then.”
A Free Man
Lee left the courtroom shortly after his sentencing Wednesday to reunite with hisfamily in private. He did not express any bitterness.
“I am very happy to go home with my wife and my children today and I want to say thank you to all the people who supported me,” Lee told reporters outside the courthouse. “For the next few days, I am going fishing.”
The former Los Alamos scientist pleaded guilty to having unauthorized possession of, access to, and control over documents and writings relating to the national defense. He was initially charged with 59 counts of mishandling nuclear secrets and could have faced life in prison if convicted.
After months of investigation, the government’s case began to crumble last month at a bail hearing where experts testified that most of the information that Lee improperly handled was already known. In addition, an FBI witness admitted that he had given inaccurate testimony that incorrectly made Lee appear deceptive.
In court, Lee read a statement admitting he used an unsecured computer to download information relating to national defense onto tapes. He said he knew his possession of the tapes outside of the top-secret area where he worked was unauthorized.
Lee’s lawyers have said in court the tapes were destroyed, but the government has refused to accept that explanation. Prosecutors have been primarily concerned about the fate of seven tapes containing sensitive data still missing from the Los Alamos lab in New Mexico.
Lee to Be Debriefed
After Lee’s release, U.S. Attorney Norman Bay called the deal a “fair result” that protects national security. Under the terms of the agreement, he said, Lee will tell the government what he did with the tapes.
The former scientist must submit to debriefings and lie-detector tests, Bay said. If prosecutors believe Lee has lied to them during their interviews, they can move to prosecute him for perjury, obstruction of justice and false statements, Bay said.
“If a court finds Lee lied, every count in the indictment springs back into life,” he said. “In the event that were to happen, government prosecution of Dr. Lee would be swift and sure.”
If Lee had been tried on the one count to which he pleaded, hecould have spent eight years in prison without disclosing thehandling of the tapes.
The Justice Department has faced growing criticism for its handling of the case.
Lee had earlier said he believed he was being targeted because of his ethnicity. Born in Taiwan, he is a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Reno said there was no racial bias in the handling of this case.
“I can be very clear to you that there was no racial bias in anything we did with respect to Dr. Lee in terms of my decision making and in terms of what I was concerned about.”
ABCNEWS’ Beverley Lumpkin, ABCNEWS.com’s Geraldine Sealey, ABCNEWS Radio and The Associated Press contributed to this report.