Washington — Letting scientist Wen Ho Lee leave jail on a plea bargain was the best way to recover missing nuclear secrets, prosecutors insisted Wednesday, but that failed to persuade senators to drop their criticism of the government's handling of the matter.
"This case was not handled appropriately or he would not have pleaded to only one of 59 counts," Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., said Wednesday.
But officials from the Justice Department, the FBI and the Energy Department insisted at a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing that their only choice was a plea bargain to get Lee to tell them what he did with the tapes. Lee has sworn he has destroyed them.
"The answers were more important than prosecuting Dr. Lee for his very serious crimes," said James Robinson, assistant attorney general overseeing the criminal division.
Lee pleaded guilty to one of the 59 counts of his grand jury indictment. In exchange, he was released after being held for nine months. He also agreed to tell officials what happened to the information he downloaded at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
FBI Director Louis Freeh and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno told the Senate Select Intelligence and Judiciary committees Tuesday that they had decided that they couldn't reveal nuclear secrets in court to prosecute Lee. The presiding judge had indicated he would force the government to do so, said U.S. Atty. Norman Bay of Albuquerque, N.M.
"Had that happened, our indictment would have been gutted," Bay said, because prosecutors would not have any evidence, other than the secrets they were unwilling to use. "At the end of the day, we would have had nothing."
Lee's lawyers took advantage by threatening prosecutors with a trial, promising a "long slow death march" toward publicity on the nuclear secrets, Bay said.