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Lie Detector Test an Issue in Spy Case

It was suggested that suspect be tested in the mid-1990s, U.S. officials say, but she was not.

May 02, 2003|Greg Krikorian and Scott Glover | Times Staff Writers

Years before Katrina Leung's arrest for allegedly obtaining secret documents for China, officials at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., suggested that she submit to a polygraph test because of questions about her reliability, according to federal law enforcement officials.

But Leung, who allegedly worked for China for decades while the FBI thought she was spying for the United States, never took the test in the mid-1990s.

One former Justice Department official involved in the Leung case said she refused to take the test. Other sources close to the investigation say that although it is certain she did not take a test, the reason is unclear. The sources said they could find no written record of any refusal by Leung.

"All we know is that she didn't take it," said one official.

Janet I. Levine, one of Leung's lawyers, said her client had never refused an order to take a polygraph test. "Katrina Leung did as she was directed, and was at all times a loyal American," Levine wrote in a prepared statement.

In a telephone interview, Levine said she knew neither whether the topic of a polygraph had been broached on a less formal basis nor whether Leung may have said she preferred not to take the exam.

Leung was arrested April 9 with her longtime handler, former FBI agent James J. Smith. Smith's attorney, Brian Sun, said that his client never received a directive from FBI headquarters in the mid-1990s to have Leung take a polygraph.

It was unclear whether a lie detector test could have helped the FBI uncover Leung's alleged treachery years before May 2000, when the bureau launched an investigation into her and Smith, her longtime FBI contact and alleged lover.

Sources close to the investigation say that Leung, a highly regarded informant for nearly two decades, passed two lie detector tests in the 1980s. The suggestion that she be given another exam in the mid-1990s was prompted by "inconsistencies" in some of her reports to the FBI, but it was never pressed by headquarters, according to one official.

Nearly a month after the arrests of Leung and Smith, current and former FBI officials continue to voice concern that the bureau missed several opportunities to uncover the case years earlier. "If the informant was asked and declined to take a polygraph, it would certainly be another alarm," said one former assistant director.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said Thursday that she remains troubled by the potential damage to national security allegedly caused by Leung and Smith.

"I am very concerned about this case and I don't know how far it will go," Harman said in an interview. "No one is claiming yet that we have gotten to the bottom of this case."

Harman, who was briefed Thursday by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller and CIA Director George Tenet, praised the breadth and depth of the FBI's current investigation. She said she was optimistic that "the same vigilance that unearthed this problem is being employed" by the FBI as it investigates the Leung case.

She said she had received assurances that investigators would leave "no stone unturned" in pursuing the case well beyond the Los Angeles field office and FBI headquarters.

"If it goes to San Francisco and other offices, so be it," said Harman.

As far back as 1991, records and interviews show, Leung's actions drew concerns at the FBI. Though a prized "asset," the Chinese businesswoman rankled counterintelligence officials when it was discovered that she had made unauthorized contact with a Chinese official.

A now-retired FBI agent in San Francisco approached then-Agent Smith with worries about Leung after discovering her voice on an "intercepted conversation" with a Chinese official. That same year, the two agents discussed the issue with FBI officials in Washington, where it was decided that Leung's actions would be handled by Smith.

The former Justice Department official involved in the Leung case said that when Leung declined to take the exam, officials at FBI headquarters "did not press" the matter because they were worried about losing her as a counterintelligence source.

Other law enforcement officials versed in counterintelligence, however, said it would not be surprising if Leung -- or any longtime source -- would decline a polygraph, especially in the murky world of informants and espionage.

"It was not outside the norm for an informant to refuse a polygraph and we knew that was a possibility," said one federal law enforcement source. "You are not dealing with choir boys here. They are reluctant because of their past or because of things they are currently involved in."

One former FBI official who worked for years in counterintelligence agreed. "This is always a difficult area when you are dealing with long-term assets," said the official, who had no role in this case. "To be successful at what they do, informants or sources have to be liars, so there is almost no way they could ever pass a polygraph."

But one current counter-terrorism agent disagreed, insisting that polygraph examinations -- with all their potential pitfalls -- can be helpful in assessing an informant's credibility. And, the agent said, any source worth keeping had to be willing at any time to submit to a polygraph.

"If one of mine tried to [refuse], I would make it clear this is not open to discussion," said the agent. "Either you do this or the relationship is over. It is not an option."

Even with her later arrest as a suspected double agent, the sources agreed, it is impossible to say whether a polygraph could have helped the FBI uncover Leung's alleged betrayal.

"I don't think anybody knows whether the polygraph would have made a difference," one official said.

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