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Breaking News

Wen Ho Lee Pleads Guilty to Mishandling Classified Data

Aired September 13, 2000 - 2:01 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: We begin with the Wen Ho Lee case in Albuquerque at the U.S. courthouse where a hearing has been under way to settle that matter over the missing nuclear secrets at the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory.

CNN national correspondent Tony Clark is there. He's on the line with us.

Tony, what's going on. What's the latest?

TONY CLARK, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Lou, just about two minutes ago, Wen Ho Lee pled guilty to one count, count number 57, of having possession of information, data that was valuable to the nuclear defense. He pled guilty and Judge James Parker accepted the guilty plea.

They have recessed for five minutes, but when they come back the judge is expected to sentence Wen Ho Lee to 278 days in custody. He has already served those 278 days. In fact, this is the 279th day. So he will be released a little bit later.

On Dr. Lee's face, there was this smile. In fact, at the start of the hearing, the judge asked him if he was nervous. He shook his head no. For almost an hour, he answered the judge's questions. They went through the plea agreement, an agreement that calls for him to cooperate with government authorities; also to give them a statement that says he never intended to disclose information to any third party, to help anyone other than -- just to get the information.

And that is the kind of thing that the prosecution says that they wanted. They simply want his cooperation and they believe this was a better outcome than having this go to trial.

I just saw his daughter and son go by a short time ago and they are just all smiles. Everyone, his supporters, are in the courtroom wearing T-shirts that say "Free Wen Ho Lee Now."

So that should happen just in a short time. They're just taking a five-minute break and then the judge will come back and do the final sentencing that will allow Wen Ho Lee to go free today -- Lou.

WATERS: Tony, stay on the line if you will. We're going to pull in our Justice correspondent Pierre Thomas here from Washington.

Pierre, they apparently have a deal here. What took so long?

PIERRE THOMAS, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, apparently there was language difficulties on Monday that caused the government to say, well, wait a minute, let's reexamine this. Obviously Wen Ho Lee's side wanted to make clear that once this was over, his client, their client would be able to go free.

I've been talking to Justice Department officials all morning and one of the things that they pointed out to me, they expect that they will take somewhat of a public relations hit. After all, Wen Ho Lee went from being charged with 59 counts and facing life in prison to essentially walking free today. But they emphasize that it became more important over time to find out what happened to some missing tapes, that the national security implications were much more important than the length of Wen Ho Lee spending in jail.

WATERS: Now, when you say language difficulties, is part of the language of this agreement having anything to do with the allegations that Wen Ho Lee says he was targeted because he is of Taiwanese or Chinese descent?

THOMAS: We don't yet have those details, but, clearly, over the weekend when they initially reached an agreement, Wen Ho Lee's side set forth what he would be able to tell the government, the government listened to that, felt comfortable with that, and there was some kind of change that came up on Monday that caused both sides to take a day, essentially, to try to resolve it.

WATERS: Let's get Tony Clark back on the line here.

Tony, do you know anything about the details of the agreement, the settlement over language difficulties that Pierre refers to?

CLARK: Well, there were certain things mentioned in the plea agreement that deal with the areas that can be covered by the questioning, how long he can be questioned -- he can be questioned over -- for 10 days over the next three-week period six hours a day -- and certain fine points of this that may have been part of the problem.

One of the things that was interesting, though, Lou, is that the judge, Judge Parker, asked the attorneys, the defense attorneys, do you really recommend that he accept this? because, in the judge's words, you "turned a battleship in this case." He praised the defense attorneys and said there is information that he, the judge, has that the defense doesn't have that they could have, perhaps, been successful during a trial. And one of the attorneys for Wen Ho Lee said, you know, you look at it and if he was just convicted on one of those counts, he could serve eight years. Thirty-nine of those counts had life as a possible sentencing. He said it was just too much of a risk. It was not an acceptable risk to Dr. Lee.

And so this was, from his standpoint, the defense standpoint, the best possible option. From the government's standpoint, it is, as Pierre said, the whole issue of cooperation, the lead prosecutor saying that cooperation gives them the best chance to find out exactly what happened to those tapes.

WATERS: Clear something up for me, Tony: Was this actually a hearing in this final settlement, if it indeed is a settlement? I understand there was a mediator employed, that the mediator was the judge himself. So was this actually a hearing?

CLARK: Well, yes. In fact, what has happened, back in June, the judge in this case, Judge Parker, asked the parties to consider having a mediator both to help determine if they could come to a plea agreement, or if they could come to some sort of bail agreement. He offered them the names of a number of federal judges from other districts. And so what's happened is, behind the scenes, this other federal judge, Judge Levy (ph), has been working with both the prosecution and the defense to come up with an agreement.

You know, one of the things that the prosecutors said in addition to, you know, they're going to learn more about what happened to the -- the specifics of what happened to the tapes, they also said this is a serious felony that Dr. Lee is pleading guilty to and should be a deterrent to others; and perhaps most importantly, it avoids the public dissemination of nuclear secrets. And that was one of the things that the prosecutors really didn't want to do: go to trial, discuss a lot of the nuclear weapons data, which would become an integral part of this case.

WATERS: Pierre.

THOMAS: Well, the other major flaw or weakness that the government had going into this, again, 59 counts against Wen Ho Lee that would have put him in jail for life, yet they never had evidence that they could show that he gave this information to anyone. So that was a very difficult obstacle the government had facing it.

But, again, from their standpoint, the critical issue was finding out what happened to these tapes. And, again, we don't yet know the answer for, why did Mr. Lee download this information in the first place?

WATERS: And it's all come down to a felony count of mishandling classified data, Pierre. I don't believe I've ever heard that -- of that charge before.

THOMAS: Well, his defense attorneys have made very strongly the point that this is the first time that anyone's ever been prosecuted for mishandling classified information. In fact, they presented numerous cases in the past where government officials had classified information, lost it, mishandled it, but were never prosecuted.

WATERS: OK, we are awaiting the appearance of Dr. Lee and others, the prosecutor, defense attorney, outside the U.S. courthouse in Albuquerque, New Mexico where this deal has just been struck moments ago.

In the meantime, we're already getting reaction from folks in the state of New Mexico and elsewhere. First from one of Dr. Lee's neighbors in White Rock, New Mexico. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's just the end of a really long year and a half of turmoil in all of our lives. And I'm just thinking about even the neighborhood getting back together.

QUESTION: Getting normal?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Getting normal, having our street empty and just us again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WATERS: Again, the breaking news story, Wen Ho Lee, the physicist who worked at the Los Alamos Nuclear Lab who, at one time, was charged with 59 counts of violating nuclear security, now has plea bargained down to one count of mishandling classified data. His sentence is time served, which is 200-plus days in solitary confinement. As an assurance, as part of the deal, Lee has agreed to tell prosecutors what they want to hear -- that he could walk now away as a free men if he tells them what he did when he mishandled this classified information, what he did with the tapes, what happened to the nuclear secrets. That's the next question to be answered here.

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