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CNN Today

Government Reaches Plea Agreement With Wen Ho Lee

Aired September 11, 2000 - 2:31 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: A congressional review finds computer security is poor at the federal government. The General Accounting Office looked at 24 federal agencies. It found passwords are often defaults or easily guessed, workers have access to secure areas that don't pertain to their jobs, and federal contractors did not have their access revoked after they finished a job.

The government alleged one of the worst security breaches took place at its Los Alamos nuclear lab. Scientist Wen Ho Lee was accused of downloading secret material, but the government's case has collapsed. Lee is expected to plead guilty to one count today and walk free on time served.

CNN justice correspondent Pierre Thomas broke the story over the weekend. He joins us now from Washington to talk about where this case has gone to.

Pierre, at one point, the government was saying that Wen Ho Lee might spend the rest of his life in prison for alleged spying. Now, he's going free today. What has happened?

PIERRE THOMAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Natalie, I just talked with a very senior Justice Department official, who walked me through the government's reasoning for this particular deal. They say that Wen Lee proffered that he would tell what happened to some missing computer tapes. He also proffered that he did not give this information to anyone. He also said that he destroyed these tapes.

So the government now says that they have concrete commitments from Wen Ho Lee as to what happened, and in these subsequent briefings that the FBI will give him, they will be able to firm up once and for all what happened to these missing tapes and know with certainty exactly what did in fact happen.

The government says that the national security implications of knowing what happened to these tapes was more important than having Wen Ho Lee in jail for a lengthy period of time.

ALLEN: So does that mean the government still suspects that Wen Ho Lee might be connected to an espionage case?

THOMAS: Well, the government never charged Wen Ho Lee with espionage. However, they were very concerned that all this downloading of computer tapes, millions of codes, millions of lines of codes of nuclear weapons information, that Wen Ho Lee was doing something nefarious with it, but they never had the evidence that he gave it to anyone.

And at the end of the day, they were left with a situation of having a trial coming up in which they would try to put a man in jail for life when they had no evidence that he gave the information to anyone.

So the goal became over time to see what happened with these tapes, and now that they feel that they have a very clear proffer from Wen Ho Lee. And if it turns out that he did, in fact, give this information to someone and it shows up in these subsequent interviews, he would be subject to prosecution.

Wen Ho Lee's camp argues, of course, that he has never done anything illegal in terms of passing along this information to other countries.

ALLEN: So does this move the investigation to others that worked at the lab?

THOMAS: Well, the Wen Ho Lee investigation grew out of allegations of Chinese espionage concerning the W-88 Trident missile, and the question that the government initially was looking at was who might have passed the information along about that particular warhead.

Wen Ho Lee became the subject of the investigation, but that investigation ended up not being able to prove that Wen Ho Lee had provided information that particularly warhead.

Subsequent to that, they found this evidence of him downloading the classified information, and they decided that they would pursue that prosecution because they needed to know what happened to these particular tapes. Now, of course, Wen Ho Lee's argument has always been that he may have downloaded this information but he did not have any intent to harm the United States government.

ALLEN: Is the government now saying that it was wrong to bring charges against Wen Ho Lee when it doesn't have the evidence?

THOMAS: Well, what the government is likely to say later today is that, look, they had information that he downloaded this material. That in and of itself, they say, is a violation of the law, a serious violation of the law, that he in essence was putting national security at risk by downloading this information from a secure computer to a nonsecure computer. So, that is the government's position.

However, they're now saying that, look, if we can determine what happened with this information, that it was not provided to enemies, and that Wen Ho Lee destroyed these missing tapes, then there's no real purpose in having Wen Ho Lee in jail a very long period of time.

ALLEN: All right. Thanks for explaining the story to us.

Pierre Thomas, thank you, from Washington

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