Presidential buck-passing

Posted: Sunday, September 17, 2000

The following editorial appeared in Saturday's Washington Post:

With his public hand-wringing about his administration's treatment of Wen Ho Lee, President Clinton asks us to see him as one more commentator troubled by the case, rather than as the head of the government that brought it. He is right to be troubled. The facts on the record so far portray Lee either as a relatively minor offender who was dramatically overprosecuted or as a serious miscreant who has been granted an excessively lenient deal. Clinton may not know, any more than we do, whether either of these images is correct. But he is in a better position to find out precisely how his administration erred. Rather than pretending that the Justice Department that brought this case is some kind of fourth branch of government, he should take responsibility -- either by defending the prosecution, as FBI Director Louis Freeh and Attorney General Janet Reno have done, or by ordering an inquiry into whatever wrongs he thinks were committed.

Given that the Wen Ho Lee case remains in progress -- he has yet to explain what he did with the nuclear secrets he downloaded -- the president's conflicting comments in the past two days seem inappropriate. Nor is their meaning clear, save that he is steadily veering from responsibility. On Thursday, he said that he "always had reservations about the claims that were being made denying (Lee) bail" and had taken "those claims on good faith by the people in the government that were making them." Friday, he called his "always" into question when he said he had had "no reason to believe" that the high bar required to deny someone bail "had not been met" until the unraveling of the case. If indeed he had reservations from the beginning, why did he not act on them? The president ordinarily should not intervene in a criminal case. But this was not just a criminal case. It was a case involving national security in which his national security adviser, director of intelligence and other close advisers were involved, presumably weighing issues such as the magnitude of the national security threat Lee posed.

Clinton also said in response to a question Thursday that he would "look at" whether clemency was appropriate in Lee's case. But in Friday's further back-pedal he described Lee's crime as "a very serious national security violation" about which "the American people shouldn't be confused." Why then would he consider clemency?

Lee's case presents numerous questions. There are allegations of racial profiling, of prosecutorial misjudgments, of undue congressional pressure. There is concern that China's true source of clandestine information remains at large. Friday Clinton called for an "analysis" of what his spokesman called the "narrow question" of whether Lee should have been released on bail. Clinton should go further. More useful than his shifting observations on the case would be an order to the Justice Department's inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility to examine the entire handling of the case.

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