WASHINGTON — The government's astonishing about-face in dropping 58 of 59 counts against nuclear physicist Wen Ho Lee last week draws the curtain on one of the most sordid chapters in recent memory regarding the Department of Justice and the FBI. Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz is right: "This case stinks!"
The government's case unraveled rapidly with the recent admission by the FBI's lead investigator that he made an "honest" mistake in accusing Mr. Lee of lying, and with expert testimony that compromising the data Lee downloaded would pose no serious threat to US security.
You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see it. All you need do is think back to the bitterly partisan environment of early 1999 to understand how the charges were manufactured - and Lee kept in shackles in solitary confinement for nine months - for political reasons: i.e., the overriding imperative to capture and imprison a "Chinese spy."
While Attorney General Janet Reno needs to discipline those responsible for this latest travesty at Justice, she must be acutely aware, too, that she owes them a debt of gratitude. Ironically, the FBI's bungling of the Lee case has taken her off the horns of a painful dilemma. Had she pressed on with the charges against Lee, she could hardly have avoided prosecuting former CIA Director John Deutch.
In 1995 and 1996, when Mr. Deutch was director, he placed highly classified material on his unsecured home computer. An inspector general's report later said Deutch had deleted 1,000 secret documents from his computer days after he became aware of a government inquiry. Only in 1999 was he stripped of his security clearances; but no charges were ever filed against him. Now, the government appears to be widening its investigation of Deutch.
By any reasonable standard, Deutch is guilty of "gross negligence" in handling classified information - a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Even Deutch protg George Tenet has conceded that his predecessor kept "enormously sensitive material" on unsecured computers in his home, computers used to visit "high risk" Internet sites.
Since the CIA director has ultimate statutory responsibility for protecting the nation's secrets and sets the tone for tens of thousands of others with access to classified information, Deutch's disdain for rudimentary security procedures is particularly egregious.
In March, a Reno aide described her as "deeply concerned" over the appearance of inequity in the handling of the Deutch and Lee cases. More recently, she had been weighing a recommendation to prosecute Deutch for crimes similar to those with which Lee was charged. Now that the government's case against Lee has evaporated, Ms. Reno may be off the hook on Deutch.
And Wen Ho Lee? Reno's decision to release him says, in effect: "Oops, we lied. Sorry about that nine months in solitary."
In the coming weeks, it should be possible to determine who is responsible for the arrogant, yet bumbling way in which the government has proceeded.
Harvard's Dershowitz is again right in suggesting that the resolution of the Lee case "doesn't make it smell any better. It only makes the contestants happy, but it shouldn't make the public happy." Reno should make heads roll at Justice; or else change the name of the place.
*Ray McGovern, a CIA analyst from 1963 to 1990, is co-director of the Servant Leadership School, an inner-city outreach ministry in Washington.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society