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A PATTERN OF BOTCHED CASES



Published: Thu, August 30, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



San Jose Mercury News: In freeing Wen Ho Lee under a plea bargain last fall, U.S. District Court Judge James Parker chastised the federal government. Its mishandling of the alleged spy case had "embarrassed our entire nation," he said.

It turns out Parker didn't know the worst of it. The Justice Department's own internal analysis had reached the same conclusion months before, while Lee was still in jail.

U.S. assistant attorney Randy Bellows' report for U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno was scathing in criticizing how the Energy Department and the FBI went after Lee, whom they suspected of handing over nuclear weapons secrets to China. Bellows was especially unsparing toward the FBI, whose "investigation was a paradigm of how not to manage and work an important counterintelligence case."

Total review: Bellows' report was completed in May 2000 but is only now finding its way piecemeal into print. The 880-page document underscores the importance of a total review of how the FBI ferrets out spies.

Lee was charged with 59 felony counts that could have landed him in prison for life. He was never charged with espionage and eventually pleaded guilty to one count of mishandling secret information.

Bellows found bureaucratic bungling at the FBI from the start of the investigation to the end, and from top to bottom. The FBI never considered that the Chinese had gotten the nuclear secrets some other way or figured out the weapons design on their own. The agency glommed on Lee too quickly. Then, even after being told by higher-ups to widen the search, the FBI's Albuquerque office ignored the order for 15 months.

Meanwhile, the FBI handed the Lee case to incompetent agents who were inexperienced in espionage work. They stretched the inquiry out "at a pace that can only be described as languid, if not torpid," Bellows said. FBI Director Louis J. Freeh was not kept informed about problems with the case.

The Energy Department compounded the problem. It led the FBI astray with "misleading characterizations" about the case, then didn't share information that might have shifted the investigation elsewhere.

Race: Lee, who was born in Taiwan, has said that investigators targeted him because of his race -- a charge backed by two former Energy Department counterintelligence officials. But a third Energy Department official, Notra Trulock, has sued Lee for defamation.

Bellows sided with Trulock, concluding that "recent allegations of racial bias" in the Lee case "are without merit." But his findings of ineptness, not racism, provide cold comfort.

In the past year, the FBI arrested a high-ranking agent, Robert Hanssen, on charges of spying for Moscow, and disclosed that it lost nearly 200 laptop computers, at least one of which contained classified information.

The pattern fits. The Lee case was not an isolated blunder but indicative of a troubled agency that its new director, Robert Mueller, must reform.

KEEP PRESSURE ON OLD PLANTS

Dallas Morning News: Some factories, power plants and refineries are more equal than others. Those built before the federal Clean Air Act was enacted in 1970 are allowed to pollute much more than those built after. Why the "grandfather" loophole?

Because it was assumed that the older plants eventually would become obsolete and close. Thirty-one years later, hundreds are still operating, spewing pollution in volumes many times greater than newer ones.

Older plants owe much of their longevity to normal repairs and upkeep. But sometimes they cross the line. They create what are, in effect, new sources of pollution. In that event, the rules require them to install the same kinds of pollution control technology that new plants are required to install. But often they evade the rules and get sued for it. Indeed, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is party to nearly three dozen such suits.

The old plants' desire to avoid having to control their new sources of pollution is at the heart of the Bush administration's re-evaluation of the clean air rules.

Emissions cap: The administration is considering pulling out of the existing suits and replacing the requirement with a national cap on emissions. Old plants would decide for themselves whether to buy other plants' rights to pollute.

In theory, the administration's proposal, which is expected to be unveiled next month, could reduce pollution at least as much as the current rules. However, enforcement would have to improve much beyond the current state. Furthermore, some might avoid controlling all of their new pollution by simply buying credits, in which case people who live near them would suffer disproportionately and certain cities would have more difficulty meeting their clean air targets.

The administration rightly wants to ensure that Americans have enough energy. But the answer is not to absolve plants for their violations of the current rules. Neither is it to create another grandfather loophole. The administration should continue requiring all old plants to control their new emissions. It should take steps to provide for a more secure and abundant supply of energy but not in ways that could perpetuate damage to the environment and the public health.




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