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Reno Defends Actions, Won't Quit

Espionage: Attorney general, under fire in Chinese spy case, says key decisions were made without her knowledge. Resignation push builds.

May 28, 1999|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Under fire over the Chinese espionage scandal, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno gave a detailed defense Thursday of the Justice Department's controversial handling of a suspected spy in New Mexico and said flatly that she is not thinking of resigning her long-held post.

Reno has come under increased attack in recent days over charges that her department botched an investigation of computer scientist Wen Ho Lee at the Los Alamos National Laboratory by refusing in 1997 to sign off on an FBI wiretap of Lee.

Providing details about the events leading to that decision, Reno acknowledged at a news conference that she should have been kept better informed about the debate, both by her own department and by the FBI.

Although FBI officials sought four times to get Justice Department intelligence experts to sign off on the wiretapping, Reno said she was never briefed about details of the dispute.

"Where there is something serious, where [FBI] Director [Louis J.] Freeh disagrees with the findings, I think that it should be discussed at my level," Reno said. In such counterintelligence disputes, she said, "I want to make sure that I'm the one that ultimately resolves it."

Despite the missteps in communication, Reno said that, on the whole, the decision by her counterintelligence aides not to seek a wiretap of Lee two years ago was the right one because there was not enough evidence at the time to substantiate such an intrusion into his privacy.

"From my experience with determining probable cause, I don't think it existed here," she said.

FBI officials did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Reno refused to discuss any details of the evidence against Lee, or lack of it. But she said she would never ask the court that oversees foreign intelligence surveillance to authorize a wiretap unless she believed the legal standard for suspicion had been met. "To do so would violate my oath of office, and I'm not going to do it," she said.

Lee, who worked on nuclear weapon simulations, has not been charged with a crime. He was fired from his job at the Los Alamos lab in March for alleged security violations, weeks before investigators discovered that he had transferred thousands of top-secret computer files into an unsecured system.

As early as 1996, Lee was identified as a chief suspect in an ongoing federal investigation into how Beijing acquired secret details about the shape and design of America's most modern nuclear warhead. But Lee's lawyer has described his client as a "loyal American" who never passed classified files to the Chinese or any unauthorized person.

Republicans in Congress have criticized a "tragedy of errors" by federal authorities because of their failure to pick up on early signs of spying at the national laboratories. The criticism has only increased since Tuesday's release of a congressional report on Chinese espionage, and Reno--the longest-serving attorney general of the century, with more than six years of service--has borne much of it.

Several Republican members of Congress--and even one Democrat--suggested this week that she should step down. And speculation about Reno's job status has continued unabated, even though the Chinese espionage report was less critical of federal law enforcement authorities than some people in the Justice Department had feared.

Since Reno's earliest days as the nation's first female attorney general, her department's handling of various scandals--from the fiery end to a long standoff with religious separatists near Waco, Texas, to the FBI shootout with survivalists at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and 1996 Democratic campaign finance abuses--has prompted repeated calls for her resignation.

To her opponents, the Lee case is simply the latest example of her weakness. A leading critic, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Thursday that there continues to be "a lot of talk on the hill that she has to go." He predicted that "her tenure won't be long" at the Justice Department.

Shelby said he remains unsatisfied by Reno's explanations.

The senator said a 1982 phone call by Lee should, on its own, have provided substantial evidence to justify wiretapping him. In the taped phone call, Lee reportedly made suspicious comments to a fellow Taiwanese-born scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who was under suspicion of passing classified data to China.

"We've heard a lot of excuses over the years from Janet Reno, and we have given her the benefit of the doubt on a lot of questionable decisions. But to try to defend herself and her department in this espionage case is indefensible," Shelby said. "It's sort of sad."

Reno, asked by a reporter at her weekly news conference whether she has considered resigning in the face of such criticism, answered curtly: "No."

Does she believe that the White House is seeking to make her a "fall guy" for the controversy over Chinese espionage?

"No," she answered again.

Indeed, a senior Clinton aide at the White House said Reno's job status is "a nonissue here. . . . There's not any discussion of it here."

Reno spoke Thursday morning with White House Counsel Charles F.C. Ruff. "He assures me of the White House's confidence," she said.

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