Feds Fed Up at Bill's Wen Ho-lier-Than-Thou Act

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"Naturally, many FBI and Justice Department officials believe President Clinton is hanging them out to dry. Long before he spoke out yesterday about the terms of Wen Ho Lee's incarceration, many Justice and FBI officials had been saying the same thing privately. There's a lot of soul-searching about how he came to be held in such harsh conditions before he was convicted of anything.

"The most complete explanation I've heard is that it was not a calculated ploy to make him sweat and confess, but rather the blind action of a rather clumsy system: The FBI had urged that he be held incommunicado because they were concerned about the possibility that he was communicating with an outside power. They say they didn't ask for shackles during exercise and the rest of the conditions about which Lee is complaining. The problem was, according to my sources, that the jail where he was held was operated on contract by a private company, and only had one way of administering solitary confinement. It was a one-size-fits-all policy, usually used for very violent offenders who had attacked other inmates or guard. So Lee found himself treated the same way as a crazed drug dealer who was constantly attacking guards, which was a sort of lockdown. A lot of people in both departments are concerned that the terms of his incarceration fell through the cracks between the various bureaucracies.

"The investigators haven't necessarily changed their views on Wen Ho Lee, but their evidence fell apart. Many people who worked on the case are still totally convinced this is not a situation like that of Richard Jewell — the security guard falsely accused of the Atlanta Olympic bombing. They could imagine no innocent reason why Lee might have downloaded and removed seven or 10 tapes containing highly sensitive codes used in the design of U.S. nuclear weapons.

"Federal investigators believe there was too much hype, and they lost the battle in the public mind. Part of the problem was that somehow during the feeding frenzy over Chinese nuclear espionage, Lee's name had become synonymous with Chinese spying, and they're sorry about that. They know that he broke the law in downloading that data, but they don't know why he did it.

"There were always mixed views among the investigators. Some said they thought he was working for a foreign power even though they may never be able to prove it. Others said simply that he broke the law, and that there could be no innocent reason for doing what he did. One told me if you imagine a spectrum from Richard Jewell, a totally innocent man mistaken for a suspect, to convicted spies such as Aldrich Ames, somewhere in the middle are the people like former CIA director John Deutsch who worked on classified data at home as a convenience, or those who leave briefcases containing classified documents at the gym. On that spectrum, my source told me, Lee is somewhere between the stupid thoughtless fellow and the Aldrich Ames, but they don't know exactly where.

"The case has been an immense disappointment inside those buildings, because it's been immensely damaging to the credibility of the Justice Department and the FBI. There are not a lot of Clinton fans at either place, and to be lectured by Bill Clinton is pretty meaningless among the people I talk to. But there's a feeling that the whole system has gotten a big black eye, because Justice, the FBI and the Energy Department have been totally unable to figure out what Wen Ho Lee did and why.

"They've still not managed to solve the case of how China appears to have come into possession of secrets concerning the miniaturized U.S. W-88 nuclear warheads. That was the issue on which Lee was originally investigated, and agents could find no evidence of his involvement. Still, the government knows China got the information, possibly even more than Washington knows. And they're not sure, even, whether the source is still out there, feeding Beijing even more damaging information."