WASHINGTON — In John Huang's strange odyssey into the heart of the Clinton administration and the Democratic Party, few things remain so shrouded in intrigue as the handling of his coveted security clearances and his access to U.S. government secrets.
The former Commerce Department official and Democratic fund-raiser has played a leading role in the campaign finance controversy since it erupted last fall. But now federal investigators are looking into more serious questions about whether Huang also, as a House committee chairman has charged, "committed economic espionage."
If Huang was supplying sensitive U.S. government information to his Indonesia-based former employers or, more troubling, the Chinese government, then the Commerce Department may have been the perfect place for him to get it--because of the casual manner in which the department handled his access to top-secret materials and classified CIA briefings, according to Commerce Department records and extensive interviews.
Commerce Department officials have described Huang as a mid-level functionary cut off from policy action on Asia. But they are unable to explain why he had almost weekly one-on-one briefings from a CIA officer on the latest intelligence concerning China, Taiwan and Vietnam.
What's more, a series of stunning security breaches at the Commerce Department allowed Huang to get and maintain a top-secret clearance for 18 months, both before and after he became a government employee--a period longer than the time he actually served.
Huang's security status was of keen interest to at least one high-level Commerce Department official. Huang's boss tried to ensure that Huang maintained his top-secret clearance even after he left the department for the Democratic National Committee.
But when Huang--in a marked departure from previous department practice--turned down an offer from his boss to be upgraded to the government's highest security clearance, Commerce Department officials showed strangely little curiosity. An upgrade from "top secret" to "sensitive compartmented information," or "code-word" clearance, which his two immediate predecessors had, would have required Huang to undergo a much more detailed investigation of his ties to foreign nationals, including his former employer, the Jakarta-based Lippo Group.
Former department officials and others now agree that Huang's apparent reluctance to subject himself to the intense scrutiny required for code-word clearance should have raised questions.
Huang, who was let go by the Democratic National Committee late last year after allegations surfaced about his involvement in the campaign finance controversy, was unavailable for comment. The Glendale resident's Washington attorneys have said they "have no doubt that he comported himself honestly at the Commerce Department."
One of the lawyers, Ty Cobb, declined to comment on most questions concerning Huang's security clearances and the classified information he received at the Commerce Department.
No Criminal Charges Filed
Huang, a naturalized U.S. citizen, has not been charged with any crime. And the Justice Department task force investigating the campaign finance controversy and the alleged covert scheme by the Chinese government to buy political influence in the United States has not publicly discussed its investigation of Huang.
But the congressional committees investigating fund-raising abuses are looking into how the Commerce Department handled Huang's security clearances and his access to intelligence--and whether Huang exploited vulnerabilities in the government's security-clearance procedures.
The content of the intelligence briefings Huang received on Taiwan, China and Vietnam could not be learned. But, in general, he was in a position to glean internal government information about U.S. trade practices, the business practices of foreign competitors, links between foreign governments and the private sector and corrupt business practices in those countries. Such information could have been of value to companies and individuals doing business in or wanting to invest in the region, including Lippo, Huang's previous employer.
From the beginning, Commerce Department officials considered Huang a "White House hire" steered to the department because of his political connections. His former bosses at Lippo--founder Mochtar Riady and his son, James--told acquaintances that they placed Huang at the department. The Riadys, once part-owners of a bank in Little Rock, Ark., had developed close ties to President Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas.
In January 1994, Huang was approved for the job of principal deputy assistant secretary of commerce in the international economic policy office.