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Saturday, September 16, 2000, updated at 17:41(GMT+8)

Clinton Calls for Review of Wen Ho Lee Secrets Case

President Clinton on Friday called for a review to determine if the government had been justified in holding nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee without bail for nine months.

Talking to reporters, Clinton said the US Constitution demands that prosecutors meet a ``very high threshold'' in deciding whether a suspect should be held in prison for a long period without being convicted of a crime.

``I think that there ought to be an analysis of whether or not that threshold was crossed, in light of the plea bargain,'' Clinton said.

Lee, arrested last year after being portrayed as a Chinese spy at the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory, spent nine months in pretrial solitary confinement before prosecutors agreed to a plea bargain this week.

Only days before prosecutors had insisted Lee represented a national security risk and could not be freed on bail.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said he did not know what form the review would take nor whether an outside expert would be appointed to lead it.

``But I think we're looking for some sort of process that can look at the narrow question that the president posed about holding someone pretrial without the possibility of bail,'' he said.

Despite concerns by some Asian-Americans, Clinton said he did not believe Lee was singled out because of his Chinese heritage.

``I don't believe that,'' he said. ``I don't think there's any evidence of that.''

The United States has been concerned that China has sought to steal U.S. nuclear secrets.

Lawyers for Lee say the nuclear scientist planned to go ahead with a civil lawsuit filed against the government last year alleging he was portrayed as a Chinese spy in press leaks by the Justice Department (news - web sites), the FBI (news - web sites) and the Energy Department.

In his daily news briefing, Lockhart said the White House played a ``hands-off role'' in the case and that others were to blame, including reporters and members of Congress.

He said a difficult atmosphere was generated in Washington by ``some very explosive comments and near-hysterical investigative reporting, a climate that was fueled by explosive comments from political leaders, including members of Congress.''

Under his plea deal, Lee pleaded guilty to a felony count of copying U.S. nuclear weapons design secrets to a non-secure computer tape at Los Alamos and was sentenced to the time already spent in jail. The government dropped 58 counts, including acting to harm the United States, that could have meant life in prison.

Clinton appeared to try to retreat from comments he made on Thursday when he said he had always had doubts about holding Lee without bail.

He said recent developments in the case troubled him the most, that one day Lee was a risk and the next day there was a plea agreement on a far more modest charge.

``In America, we have a pretty high standard ... against pre-trial detention. We have to meet a pretty high bar. I had no reason to believe that that bar has not been met,'' Clinton told reporters during a picture-taking session with visiting Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

``I think the fact that there was such a short time frame, that the argument that he needed to stay in jail without bail, and then all of a sudden there's this plea agreement, is inconsistent with the claims being made,'' Clinton said.

His comment on Thursday that he was ``quite troubled'' about the case was seen as a rebuke of the Justice Department and the Energy Department, prompting him to try to clarify his stance.

Asked why he did not intervene if he always had concerns about the case, Clinton said it would have been wrong for him to do so. ``It would have been completely inappropriate for me to intervene,'' he said, adding he did not believe Attorney General Janet Reno (news - web sites) had intervened either.

``This was handled in the appropriate, normal way,'' he said.

Clinton said the Lee episode still represented ``a very serious national security violation'' and that he hoped Lee would keep his commitment to work with the government to tell exactly what he did with computer tapes containing the equivalent of 400,000 pages of nuclear weapons data from the Los Alamos lab. (Source:

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President Clinton on Friday called for a review to determine if the government had been justified in holding nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee without bail for nine months.

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