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DOJ Report on Lee Investigation Reveals More Blunders by Bureau

By Dan Eggen

The FBI’s investigation of Wen Ho Lee was more seriously bungled than officials have previously disclosed, with inept agents making amateurish mistakes and ignoring orders to consider other suspects, according to an unreleased portion of a classified Justice Department report.

The 166-page chapter, part of a larger report on the Lee probe, outlines a succession of blunders, misjudgments and faulty assumptions by the FBI that contributed to the government’s shoddy investigation of the former Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist. Lee was suspected of giving nuclear secrets to China. Inattentive FBI supervisors in Washington compounded the problem by failing to correct the mistakes or to keep the investigation on track.

The chapter says FBI Director Louis Freeh was not kept informed of the case’s shortcomings, including problems with the investigation in New Mexico and disagreement among government experts over the seriousness of the suspected security loss.

“This investigation was a paradigm of how not to manage and work an important counterintelligence case,” says the report, written by federal prosecutor Randy Bellows.

If Lee was a spy, Bellows concludes, the FBI let him get away. If he was not, the bureau blew repeated opportunities to consider other options -- including the possibility that nuclear weapons secrets were not obtained by the Chinese.

Originally charged with 59 felony counts, Lee pleaded guilty in September to one felony charge of mishandling classified information after the government’s case against him fell apart. He was not charged with espionage and has repeatedly denied giving information to China.

Two other chapters of the exhaustive Bellows inquiry were released by the government earlier this month. They faulted the FBI and the Energy Department for their “slapdash” investigation. But the latest chapter, obtained by The Washington Post with some sensitive information blacked out, underscores how investigators botched the case. Among its revelations:

-- Investigators in the FBI’s Albuquerque office ignored an order from top FBI officials in December 1997 to open inquiries into suspects other than Lee and his wife, Sylvia. Those inquiries were not begun until 15 months later, after Lee had been fired.

-- The photocopying of the outside of Lee’s mail, known as a “mail cover” operation, was allowed to lapse for three months in 1997 because investigators failed to file a routine renewal application.