WASHINGTON — Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft defended the Justice Department's decision to withhold a report on its handling of the case against nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, saying Thursday the department is protecting national interests, not stonewalling.
"There are lots of times, especially in international intelligence security matters, when we don't release things because it's not in the national interest to do so," Ashcroft said when questioned about the report before the House Judiciary Committee.
Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.) said the department's withholding of the Lee report and information about other cases indicates both "a government obsessed with secrecy" and "a culture of concealment."
A Washington watchdog group appealed the department's decision this week. The Federation of American Scientists argues the review covers a longer time span than a previous department report and may contain new revelations about professional misconduct by Justice Department and FBI personnel.
Lee, a former Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist, was indicted in December 1999 on 59 felony counts alleging he mishandled nuclear weapons information. He was held in solitary confinement for nine months before he was released in September 2000 as the federal case crumbled.
Lee pleaded guilty to a single felony count and was sentenced to time served.
In a May 29 letter to the federation, a Justice Department lawyer said she had determined the Office of Professional Responsibility report "should be withheld in its entirety."
Mark Corallo, a Justice Department spokesman, said the report is still undergoing a classification review and portions of it might be made public.