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FBI Withheld Information

Times: Freeh Denied White House Request For China Intelligence

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WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, March 25) -- FBI Director Louis Freeh blocked an attempt by White House officials last month to obtain sensitive information about China's possible involvement in the U.S. political process, according to a report in today's New York Times.

Freeh was worried that the information would leak, opening the FBI up to criticism for sharing information with the White House, federal officials told the newspaper.

In a Feb. 18 letter to Deputy Attorney General Jamie S. Gorelick, new White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff asked questions about the federal investigation into purported plans by Chinese officials and citizens to make illegal contributions to American campaigns, the Times said, citing sources who have seen the letter.

The letter asked for information only about the activities of Chinese nationals and officials, not American citizens. Ruff's letter also said he was not asking for the release of information that might interfere with any criminal investigation, the Times reported.

Ruff said he wanted the information to brief Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was preparing for a trip to China at the time. He told the Times on Monday that there was nothing improper about his request, and he and Justice Department officials said the request was a legal and ethical attempt to obtain information that could be helpful to Albright in her meetings with Chinese officials, the Times said.

Freeh

Indeed, some government lawyers contacted by the Times yesterday said Freeh erred in blocking the release and left Albright without critical information for her China trip.

After Gorelick received the letter, a reply was prepared for Ruff with the approval of top Justice Department officials. But Freeh, who was traveling in the Middle East at the time, intervened and ordered that the reply be withheld, federal law enforcement sources told the Times.

Those sources said Freeh blocked the request because of his earlier decision that no information about the investigation into possible Chinese involvement in American campaigns would be shared with anyone in the executive branch or Congress.

The decision by Freeh to withhold the information is seen as further evidence of tensions among the White House, the Justice Department and the FBI over investigations into possible irregularities in campaign financing during the 1996 campaign.

Last year, the FBI warned six members of Congress that they had been targeted by China to receive illegal campaign contributions. FBI agents also briefed National Security Council officials at the White House. But two weeks ago, President Bill Clinton complained that he was not told at the time about possible Chinese involvement in American campaigns.

That led to a very public flap between the White House and the FBI. White House officials insisted that Clinton had not received the information because the FBI asked NSC officials not to disseminate it. FBI officials said they did not place restrictions on the information.

White House officials are angry at Freeh's refusal to provide the information. Officials say Ruff's letter was carefully drafted and said that any information sent to the White House should also be sent to the congressional intelligence committees, to make certain that the White House was not trying to undermine the ongoing FBI investigation.

Speaking to reporters today, Press Secretary Mike McCurry said, "I don't know," when asked if the FBI considers the White House an enemy. Pressed if the FBI has the right to deny the secretary of state "relevant information," McCurry said, "I think the president has the right to request information necessary for his conduct of official duties as commander in chief and as the nation's chief foreign policy maker, and we sought that information and we got what we got from the Justice Department."

Asked if the information given was "not responsive" to the request by Ruff, McCurry replied, "I have no way of knowing how responsive it was; they provided what they provided." Asked if the FBI withholding the information was dangerous, McCurry said, "We can't make that judgment because we don't know what they did or did not provide."

McCurry would not speculate on what reason Freeh would have for withholding the information, but when asked if the director had the president's unqualified support McCurry said yes.

Asked if the president was disturbed about this situation, McCurry said, "The president would be disturbed if any information necessary for the conduct of his official duties was withheld from him. I don't know whether that happened or not, and you should ask the Justice Department if you are interested," he said.


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