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Attorney General Janet Reno Testifies Before Congressional Investigators on Justice Department Handling of Wen Ho Lee Case

Aired September 26, 2000 - 10:06 a.m. ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: And we're going to interrupt that sound bite to take you to Capitol Hill, Attorney General Janet Reno testifying in front of Congress about the Wen Ho Lee situation and how it was handled by the Justice Department.


JANET RENO, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: At the outset, I must caution that we're limited in what we can discuss here. The government has secured a commitment from Dr. Lee to cooperate and to submit to a comprehensive debriefing in the next few weeks and further inquiries for some months after that. We do not, and I am sure you do not, want to do or say anything here that would interfere with the debriefing. Some issues may also require that we go into closed session. And, Chairman Shelby, I appreciate that you have made provision for a closed hearing later today to do just that.

As attorney general and as director of the FBI, Director Freeh and I share together an awesome responsibility to protect the national security of this nation, but at the same time to protect the Constitution and the rights of all Americans.

These cases are difficult without full access to the facts. And given some of the rumors and speculations that have been reported in the press, I can understand that questions arise. But I hope that by the end of our session today you will agree that our actions made sense, were reasonable and were correct.

Dr. Lee is no hero. He is not an absent-minded professor. He is a felon. He committed a very serious, calculated crime and he plead guilty to it. He abused the trust of the American people by putting at risk some our core national security secrets. He had one of the highest security clearance levels possible, granting him access to the most sensitive of nuclear weapons information. He had worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory for 20 years. He had access to the Los Alamos computer system that was designed precisely to be secure against unauthorized intrusions.

What was on that secure system? Nuclear weapon design and testing data that is in effect the library of blueprints of most of the United States nuclear weapons designs; designs that are the fruit of an investment of hundreds of billions of doctors. Dr. Lee systematically, deliberately moved nuclear weapons data that was not even related to the work he was doing. He moved it from the system where it was safe and secure to a vulnerable computer in the Los Alamos system that any hacker or foreign government could penetrate. Dr. Lee did so by betraying the trust that had been placed in him to protect those secrets.

The process of transferring this data took Dr. Lee a long time, nearly 40 hours over a 70-day period. As has been pointed out, it involved the equivalent of 400,000 pages. Stacked up, that's a 13- story building. He left this information that is so vital to our national security on that unsecure computer, not for hours or days or even months; he left it there for years. He knew that it was classified. He knew that what he was doing was wrong. He moved files in such a way as to defeat security measures he knew were in place.

He went further: He copied the information from the unsecure computer onto 10 portable tapes. Three were recovered by the FBI, seven are missing. What's more, he made copies of the portable tapes and those copies are also missing.

When Dr. Lee found out he was being investigated, he took steps to cover up his actions. After his access was revoked to the part of the lab where the secure computer resided, he tried over and over again to get in, including at 3:30 a.m. on one Christmas eve.

Despite what you read in the papers, until he entered the plea agreement, Dr. Lee never had said he would admit his wrongdoing, plead guilty to a felony and tell us what he did with the tape. The plea agreement entered into by the government with Dr. Lee is our best chance to find out what happened to the computer tapes containing some of the nation's most important nuclear designs and testing information. That is why our debriefing of Dr. Lee is our first order of business.

Now Dr. Lee has a powerful incentive to tell us what happened to the tapes and to do so truthfully. The plea agreement requires that he submit to questioning under oath and to a polygraph. It requires that he respond to the government's inquiries for a year thereafter. And during that year, he cannot leave the United States without permission from the mediator-judge. If he does not tell the truth or if he breaches the plea agreement, he can be prosecuted.

The FBI and the staff of Los Alamos National Laboratory did excellent forensic work in this case. Their computer forensics found out what Dr. Lee did and what steps he took to avoid detection. Without that high caliber and complicated investigative work, we would not even have known that Dr. Lee had illegally taken the files because he was so careful to hide his actions. I commend all involved in this excellent computer forensic work. Without that work, we would not be in the position we are today to take steps to protect these secrets to the extent that it is possible now.

One of the things I want to assure the American people -- and as you pointed out, Senator Bryan, I asked for a review of this matter, perhaps we can address that later in closed session, but I think that report dealing with how Dr. Lee came to our attention indicates quite clearly that there was no effort on anybody's part to target him because of his race.

Finally, I would like to talk about why we charged Dr. Lee as we did. Criticism of the department for allowing Dr. Lee to plea to only one of 59 counts has been made, but each of these counts was very serious. They involved charges involving four statutes. The 59 counts represent a separate violation of federal law based on the downloading of each of 19 separate computer files and on the separate downloading onto each of the 10 tapes. Allowing a defendant to plea to one charge at the end of the day in a situation like this would not be uncommon.

In our joint written statement we explain why Dr. Lee was charged, why he was detained, why he reached a plea agreement. Director Freeh will give that statement, but it represents the views of both of us. We believe that it is important that the public understand these questions.

We want to do everything we can, as I have previously announced, to make sure that we take steps to make available to you and to the American public all the information possible under the law and consistent with national security so that people will understand what actions were taken, why they were taken, and so that they can have confidence in the process.

I thank you for the opportunity to appear.



SHELBY: Will you bring your mike up closer to you?

BAY: I'm sorry.

SHELBY: That's OK.

KAGAN: We were listening to Attorney General Janet Reno as she speaks to congressional investigating committee wanting to know why and how the Wen Ho Lee case was handled as it was. The Attorney General saying -- wanted to point out that Wen Ho Lee is not a hero, in her words, that he pleaded guilty to a felony and that copies of nuclear secrets, that tapes that he made are still missing.

Let's bring in our Justice correspondent Pierre Thomas to help answer some questions here.

Pierre, when we started planning our morning, we knew that FBI director Louis Freeh had planned to speak, and we have yet to hear from him. We did not know the attorney general was going to come to this meeting.

PIERRE THOMAS, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Daryn, there was some back and forth going between the department and members of the committee. It was unclear whether Reno would attend. And then this morning, Sen. Hatch said that Reno was not on the witness list, but appeared this morning and wanted to speak, and they allowed her to do so.

KAGAN: This is kind of like the Justice Department's day in court that they didn't get because this did end in a plea agreement, and it looks like a no-holds-barred attack on Wen Ho Lee.

THOMAS: Well, that's an excellent analogy, Daryn. I'm told by sources that the FBI director and, as you saw, the attorney general, will make a very vigorous defense of what the government did. They will claim that Wen Ho Lee essentially put together a personal library of the nation's nuclear secrets. They say that he was involved in various nefarious activity.

The problem that they have is that they were never able to charge him with espionage. And there will be also questions that if he engaged in all this activity, why didn't the government take action earlier against him?

KAGAN: And it also begs the question, as you sit there and listen to Attorney General Reno, if the case is so stronger and everything that he did was so terrible, what happened to the government's case? How did it fall apart from 59 counts to one plea agreement on one count?

THOMAS: Well, the government would make the argument that their case did not, in fact, fall apart. They said that they had evidence on all 59 counts to prove that Mr. Lee was guilty. What they're saying is that because they did not know what happened to these missing tapes and copies that we've later found out of these missing tapes, they needed to know what happened. They got a guilty plea, a plea agreement in which Wen Ho Lee will be debriefed and also be subject to lie detector tests. They say that that will give them the answers to these very significant national security questions.

KAGAN: And real quickly, do you know if we plan to here from Dr. Lee or someone representing him at these hearings?

THOMAS: We do not have any information that Dr. lee will be speaking or anyone from his camp. But we will be reaching out for his attorneys today to get some response to, as you said, a pretty blistering attack against Dr. Lee's name today.

KAGAN: All right, Pierre Thomas, we'll hear more from you in the next hour of MORNING NEWS.



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