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Attorney General Janet Reno Addresses Wen Ho Lee Case at Regular News Briefing

Aired September 14, 2000 - 9:33 a.m. ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Live now to the attorney general, Janet Reno, now briefing with reporters in Washington.


JANET RENO, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I think on all the circumstances we tried to look at it very carefully. We went over the evidence, we looked at the law, we made the best decision we could based on the evidence and the law, and I feel very comfortable about that.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, I'm going to pose a similar question, but actually in Judge Parker's words, because he asked the question I think that deserves to be answered, what I believe remains unanswered, is the question: "What was the government's motive in insisting on your being jailed pre-trial under extraordinary onerous conditions of confinement until today when the executive branch agrees that you may be set free essentially unrestricted? That makes no sense to me," close quote.

I wonder if you could respond to the judge's question.

RENO: We had tried from the beginning to make sure that if he had something to say, if he could explain what he had done with the tapes, if he could tell us if had conveyed any information from the tapes, or who might have access to the computer, the unsecured computer, and would do that, subject to us being able to confirm his statements, that we would reconsider detention and that we would consider charging decisions.

We tried very hard. And in this instance, we now have what we sought then.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, the judge apologize repeatedly in court to Mr. Lee. Do you think he deserves an apology from the Justice Department?

RENO: I think we have tried to do everything we could to address the issue based on the evidence and the law and the concern for national security. The judge recognized that Mr. Lee -- that Dr. Lee had violated the criminal law, had taken -- I mean, in this instance, evidence was taken off a secured computer, downloaded, put into an unsecured computer, which people could have access to. And there was no explanation for what the man did with the information that was so sensitive and subject to so many concerns.

And I think in that situation, you have to look at the consequences of doing that.

QUESTION: But in the end, though, I mean, as the judge said, do you feel like he's entitled to an apology, after all is said and done?

RENO: I think Dr. Lee had the opportunity from the beginning to resolve this matter, and he chose not to. And I think he must look to himself.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, you say that an apology is out of the question here. But what regrets, if any, do you have about this case? And secondly, would you support any disciplinary action against the FBI agent who provided false testimony in the case?

RENO: I'm not aware, based on Judge Parker's comments, that there was any conclusion that testimony was false, in the terms of the law. With respect to issues of whether apologies are out of the question or what, who, what should have been done differently, I with all my heart and soul wish that Dr. Lee had come forward, said, "This is what I did with the information, this is what I did with the tapes. I made copies, I didn't make copies. And here, I'll sit down with you, and we'll work it out and I'll try to give you as much information as possible to permit you to confirm and corroborate it."

QUESTION: Directly that you could have...


RENO: What a minute, you all are getting too stereophonic.


QUESTION: Do we understand correctly that the plea bargain that was reached yesterday could in fact have been reached before Dr. Lee spent eight or nine months in confinement, that his attorneys were basically offering this deal last winter and the government turned it down? Is that your understanding?

RENO: No, my understanding is that the attorneys offered to make information available. And then, we were not able to carry through with it and did not have access to it. And in January, we were writing them again saying, if you will answer these questions and give us an opportunity to corroborate it, we will reconsider the pre- detention, the detention issues.

Again, you had significant information that related to this nation's national security. We went over the evidence carefully. The judge has his role as a trier and determiner of fact. We have our responsibilities, both to make sure that we feel like we have evidence sufficient under the law to charge, and then we do everything we can to protect the national security; i.e., to find out what happened to the information.


QUESTION: ... their offer early on to do this. What was wrong with their offer to sit down?

RENO: I don't think there was ever the ultimate follow through, in terms of what we asked for and the subsequent letter that we wrote. We gave very specific questions that needed to be answered and, essentially, laid out what we now have.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, if you can give for a second -- can you give us a sense of whether the department is reviewing new allegations concerning the 1996 campaign?

RENO: As you know, I don't comment on whether we are -- we've opened or haven't opened an investigation. But I can suggest that in -- as we approach the election, I think there will be more issues like this raised, and we should be very careful. We're going to review everything that comes up, if there is anything, based on the evidence and the law.

QUESTION: My question was specific to Vice President Gore.

RENO: I'm not being specific as to anybody except to...

QUESTION: Are you suggesting that that...

RENO: Wait, wait, wait. Let me finish. You all are...


QUESTION: Aggressive today.

RENO: No, you're getting stereophonic and that -- then you're not going to be able to hear each other.

I'm going to approach it with respect to anybody concerned, based on the evidence and the law.

QUESTION: But is there concern that as we get to the election that more allegations will come out, and the Justice Department will be put in this position of having to make decisions that could sway the election one way or the other?

RENO: I don't do what-ifs.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, are you suggesting that, on what you said, as we get closer to the election, more these things are going to come out. Are you suggesting that this is politics? I mean, that these things are being tossed out there?

RENO: I just think we should be very careful and make sure that we react, and I'm going to try to do that based on the evidence and the law.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, the... RENO: Wait. Stephanie hasn't had her shot.

QUESTION: I just wanted to go back to Wen Ho Lee for a moment. Is there any internal review underway about the department's conduct or the FBI's conduct, specifically the early questioning of him when he was questioned without an attorney present, and he, according to his lawyer, was threatened with electrocution if he didn't answer the questions. It seems to hark back to the days of Richard Jewell in the investigation of the -- the question wasn't handled properly.

RENO: I will review it and see if there is any basis for it.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno...

RENO: This gentleman.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, the department is negotiating with the Los Angeles Police Department about certain reforms following the Rampart scandal. Do you believe that a consent decree is really necessary to achieve these reforms? Or would you be willing to accept the less restrictive memorandum of understanding, perhaps, to solve it?

RENO: I think what we need to do is work together to come up with what needs to be done. A consent decree, rather than being onerous or burdensome, can oftentimes be very helpful. And we just need to work with everybody concerned to work out some solution that will address the long-range issues that have concerned everyone. And we look forward to trying to do that.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, in the past when there have been preliminary investigations -- I just want to make sure I understand you. Can you comment, are you at liberty to comment whether or not Robert Conrad has begun a preliminary investigation of this phone call made back in 1995?

RENO: I cannot comment. I will see if there is any appropriate comment that can be made one way or the other. But I don't think that we should get into commenting on anything, whether or not there is an investigation.

HEMMER: Janet Reno, the attorney general, taking questions there on a variety of topics. Two of the main topics, though, number one, the Wen Ho Lee case. A lot of law enforcement officials have been embarrassed after Wen Ho Lee walked free after nine months of solitary confinement.

Asked if the Justice Department owed Wen Ho Lee an apology. The attorney general said there is still an outstanding issue and outstanding questions regarding those missing tapes, which had top secret information downloaded upon them.

She says she wishes Dr. Lee would have been more forthcoming initially when this case first broke.

A few other questions about Democratic fund-raising, and whether or not a presidential veto was tied to a campaign contribution four years ago. Janet Reno said, at this time, it is best to withhold comment.

That's a wrap from Washington.



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