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Clinton ‘Quite Troubled’ By Wen Ho Lee Espionage Case

By Robert L. Jackson
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- WASHINGTON

Contradicting his own attorney general, President Clinton said Thursday that he is “quite troubled” that former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee was kept in jail for months without bail before a plea agreement set him free.

“I always had reservations about the claims that were being made denying him bail,” Clinton told reporters, referring to statements of federal prosecutors, who were backed by their Justice Department superiors.

“We took those claims on good faith by the people in the government that were making them.” The president’s remarks, his first comments on the Lee case, also marked a rare public divergence between a president and his top law enforcement official.

Three hours before Clinton’s remarks, Attorney General Janet Reno defended her department’s conduct in the case, including demands by prosecutors’ that Lee be held in solitary confinement for nine months.

Reno said Lee “must look to himself” if he is unhappy with his long confinement. If he had explained why he had downloaded large volumes of nuclear defense secrets on an unsecured computer network at Los Alamos and what he had done with tapes he had made of the data, he could have been freed, Reno declared.

“We made the best decision we could, based on the evidence and the law. And I feel very comfortable about that,” Reno told her weekly news briefing.

On Wednesday in Albuquerque, N.M., however, U.S. District Judge James A. Parker questioned why the government had ignored an offer by Lee’s lawyers, shortly before his indictment Dec. 10, that the scientist take a polygraph test to answer questions about the tapes. Had they responded, the judge suggested, the last nine months might have been different for Lee. “Nothing came of it, and I am saddened that nothing came of it,” Parker said.

In her remarks, Reno flatly rejected sentiments expressed by Parker, who apologized to Lee and said that the Clinton administration’s handling of his case had “embarrassed this entire nation.”

The comments of Clinton and Reno served to highlight the ongoing tensions in their relationship. Reno was Clinton’s third choice to head the Justice Department, although she has now served throughout his administration, becoming the longest-serving attorney general in U.S. history.While the two communicate on significant law enforcement issues, they never meet socially, according to associates.That frostiness is atypical of the relationships many presidents have had with their attorneys general John F. Kennedy’s brother Robert served as his attorney general, while Richard M. Nixon chose his friend and campaign manager John Mitchell for the job during his administration.

William French Smith, who served under Ronald Reagan, for years was Reagan’s personal lawyer.Clinton rebuked Justice Department officials for adopting what he said were seemingly opposite positions.

“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 they’re making a plea agreement for an offense far more modest than what had been alleged,” the president said.