POTUS REMARKS UPON DEPARTURE ON PATIENTS BILL OF RIGHTS
September 14, 2000
Q Mr. President, could you take a question? I was wondering, Mr. President, if you share the embarrassment that was expressed yesterday by the federal judge in New Mexico about the treatment of Wen Ho Lee during his year of confinement under federal authorities?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I always had reservations about the claims that were being made denying him bail. And let me say -- I think I speak for everyone in the White House -- we took those claims on good faith by the people in the government that were making them, and a couple days after they made the claim that this man could not possibly be let out of jail on bail because he would be such a danger -- of flight, or such a danger to America's security -- all of a sudden they reach a plea agreement which will, if anything, make his alleged defense look modest compared to the claims that were made against him.
So the whole thing was quite troubling to me, and I think it's very difficult to reconcile the two positions, that one day he's a terrible risk to the national security, and the next day they're making a plea agreement for an offense far more modest than what had been alleged.
Now, I do hope that, as part of that plea agreement, he will help them to reconstitute the missing files, because that's what really important to our national security, and we will find out eventually what, if any, use was made of them by him or anybody else who got a hold of them.
But I think what should be disturbing to the American people -- we ought not to keep people in jail without bail, unless there's some real profound reason. And to keep someone in jail without bail, argue right up to the 11th hour that they're a terrible risk, and then turn around and make that sort of plea agreement -- it may be that the plea agreement is the right and just thing, and I have absolutely no doubt that the people who were investigating and pursuing this case believe they were doing the right thing for the nation's security -- but I don't think that you can justify, in retrospect, keeping a person in jail without bail when you're prepared to make that kind of agreement. It just can't be justified, and I don't believe it can be, and so I, too, am quite troubled by it.
Q -- clemency here? Are you thinking in terms of clemency for him, for Wen Ho Lee?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I'd have to look at that. It depends on, if he's in fact -- he has said he's going to plead guilty to an offense which is not insubstantial, but it's certainly a bailable offense, and it means he spent a lot of time in prison that any ordinary American wouldn't have, and that bothers me.
THE WHITE HOUSEQ Joe, tell me about -- the President, was just talking about, about Wen Ho Lee. Has he registered these feelings to the Attorney General or just to Department lawyers?
Office of the Press Secretary
September 14, 2000
The James S. Brady Briefing Room
1:35 P.M. EDT
MR. LOCKHART: I think you can assume by what he said there that is he is troubled by part of this, so I would expect that he will be looking for a more full explanation from them, have them look at this particular question that he raised and to report back.
Q But, Joe, he said he'd always been troubled by this, suggesting from the very outset. And, yet, he didn't express reservations to Justice -- thought it would have been improper or --
MR. LOCKHART: No. I think he said -- and I'm not going to try to decipher his words here, I thought he was very clear and I think no one could dispute that -- that there had been some questions, there was a rationale for holding someone without bail that seemed to disappear in a few day period. And I think his expression of trouble was in any case where people are held without bail. It's a basic tenet of our justice system and I think, as he said out there, he was troubled by the fact that this seemed to evaporate quickly.
Q Joe, just to follow up, if he was troubled by this from the outset and he felt an injustice was being done to this man, why didn't he step in sooner?
MR. LOCKHART: I would look at what he said --
Q He said, I always had trouble with this.
MR. LOCKHART: Josh, what he said when he was out there talking to you just a few moments ago was, there were a number of assurances that were made about the reasons for. And what he's troubled about here is that those seemed to evaporate between a hearing just a few days ago and the plea agreement that was announced yesterday.
Q Joe, he used the term "they," as in that he is not somehow part of federal law enforcement. Why would he do that?
MR. LOCKHART: Obviously, this case was prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney and those who are charged with that. The President is not charged with that.
Q Is anybody to be held accountable for conduct that the President says is very troubling?
MR. LOCKHART: I think as I said at the beginning here that he'll be looking for some answers to how this came about.
Q Well, I understand looking for answers, but my question is will anybody be held accountable?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think we tend to -- which is probably quite the opposite of what you tend to do -- is look for answers before we make judgments. You may want to make a judgment before you have the answers.
Q Was this criticism directed against the entire Justice Department, including Janet Reno, or just the prosecutors?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think we'll look to have more information on this, but I wouldn't see it as a blanket criticism of anyone.
Q Joe, you said that you thought that the President's remarks about Wen Ho Lee shouldn't be seen as a blanket criticism of anyone. Does the President still think that Janet Reno and Bill Richardson are doing a good job and that they retain his confidence?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. Susan?
Q Joe, the President has occasion from time to time, at official political events, to run into Asian American groups an Asian American activists. Have they raised the Wen Ho Lee case with him? And has he made any statements to them, similar to what you just made to us --
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not aware of any exchanges on that subject.
Q Joe, just to go back to Wen Ho Lee. If I understand you correctly, you're saying we should read the President's comments as to refer to what's happened in the last few weeks as this case has unwound, if you will. Would it be fair to assume that in the year or so before that, that Mr. Lee was in custody, the President didn't express any reservations to Justice?
MR. LOCKHART: Let me take another crack at this. The President expressed an unease with the concept of holding someone without bail. But what was troubling here was, after a series of assurances that this must be done because of the risk, that he thought that the timing of making that argument in a bail hearing and then just a few days later making a plea agreement that allowed him to go free raised some troubling questions. It seems to me that that's pretty straightforward.
Q And when you say the President expressed an unease, you mean he did that here in the Rose Garden or he's done that on previous occasions and, if so, where or when?
MR. LOCKHART: No. I think what he expressed here is that he has -- as a student of the law, that all Americans should have -- we should have a high threshold for the concept of holding someone without bail. But in this case, there were explicit assurances and reasons given, in this case.
And what's troubling is how quickly those seem to evaporate. And that's the point he was making. And it was limited to a very narrow piece to this, and I think it doesn't eliminate the crime that the gentleman pleaded guilty to and the important work that has been done on this. But there is a troubling aspect to this and he articulated what it was.
Q Has he, to your knowledge, expressed this unease prior to today? And, if so, when or where?
MR. LOCKHART: Not to me.
Q Does the President think he was deceived or misled or perhaps just not fully informed --
MR. LOCKHART: No. I think he said that the sequence of events raised some troubling questions. I think he certainly hopes that some answers are provided to ease that concern.
Q Does the President think Lee is deserved an apology?
MR. LOCKHART: I didn't ask him that question and I don't know the answer to it.
Q Joe, does the President believe that Asian Americans will express concern over the prosecution of Dr. Lee -- is there some questions about the role of race in this case --
MR. LOCKHART: I actually have never discussed that particular case. But I think the President has spoken clearly, in the aftermath of 1997 and some of the campaign finance investigations, that there are questions and that times in this country Asian Americans have been singled out unfairly. But in this particular case, he's never expressed that to me.
END 2:00 P.M. EDT
FW: 2000-9/15 POTUS and PM Vajpayee in photo op
September 15, 2000
Q Mr. President, if you always had doubts about whether Wen Ho Lee should be in jail, why didn't you share those with us until yesterday? And what do you say to Asian Americans who are concerned that his ethnicity may have played some role in the fact he was detained for so long?
THE PRESIDENT: First of all, I don't believe that. I don't think there's any evidence of that. Let's look at the facts here.
He has admitted to a very serious national security violation. And the most important thing now is that he keep his commitment to the government to work hard to figure out what happened to those tapes, what was on the tapes, to reconstitute all the information. That's very important.
In America, we have a pretty high standard, and we should, under our Constitution, against pre-trial detention. You have to meet a pretty high bar. I had no reason to believe that that bar had not been met. I think the fact that in such a short time frame there was an argument that he needed to stay in jail without bail, and then all of a sudden there was a plea agreement which was inconsistent with the claims being made, I thought -- that raises a question not just for Chinese Americans, but for all Americans, about whether we have been as careful as we ought to be about pre-trial detention.
And that's something that -- you know, in a government like ours, that was basically forged out of the concern for abusive executive authority, we sometimes make mistakes, but we normally make mistakes the other way, where we're bending over backwards. So that was my narrow question. Our staff has talked to the Justice Department about it. I'm sure I'll have a chance to talk to the Attorney General. It would have been completely inappropriate for me to intervene. And I don't believe she intervened. This was handled in the appropriate, normal way.
But I want you to understand, there was a serious violation here. He has acknowledged that. We have to get to the bottom of what was on all the tapes. But the narrow thing that I want to illustrate here is that when the United States, whenever we hold anybody in prison who can't get bail or who is interned for a long period of time before being charged and convicted and sentenced, we need to hit a very high threshold. That is the specific thing I wanted to focus on. And I think that there ought to be an analysis of whether or not that threshold was crossed, in light of the plea bargain.
But the American people shouldn't be confused here. That was a very serious offense and we've got to try to reconstitute what was on the tapes. That's the number one thing we have to do for the national security now.
THE WHITE HOUSE Office of the Press Secretary ________________________________________________________________________ For Immediate Release September 15, 2000 PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The James S. Brady Briefing Room 1:00 P.M. EDT [...] Q Joe, does the White House take issue with the characterization of the President's remarks yesterday on the Wen Ho Lee case as a rebuke of the Attorney General, of the Justice Department, of federal investigators? MR. LOCKHART: I think I said yesterday it was not a rebuke of any particular person. I think the President made clear today that it was not -- that he did not view his remarks as directed toward the Attorney General. The President believes very strongly in her, the job she's done and in her abilities. There are questions, though, as he said, that should be answered, and we hope they will be. [...] Q Joe, on Wen Ho Lee, what sort of follow up review is the White House considering? MR. LOCKHART: Well, there were some discussions yesterday between the White House staff and the Justice Department. I think as the President -- get it today, he will take an opportunity at some point to talk to the Attorney General. I don't know what form it will take, 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, you know, without the possibility of bail. I think he put into perspective today many of the important issues about what is crucial here is finding out what happened to the tapes, looking at a very serious national security violation by the gentleman in question. But there are questions about the legal issues surrounding the pretrial bail, and the timing of the bail hearing versus the arguments made in the bail hearing and the arguments made subsequently in the plea bargain. That needs some examination. I think he was fairly clear on that. Q Is he considering, though, appointing some sort of outside person? MR. LOCKHART: The conversations haven't gone that far. I know that there was some very helpful advice provided on editorial pages about how we should do this -- the very same pages that provided exactly the opposite advice some months ago. But I think we'll ignore the editorials and rely on our own counsel. Q Joe, do you think -- the President said he doesn't think racial bias was a factor here. Do you think that just an atmosphere of hysteria may have been a factor in -- MR. LOCKHART: I'll tell you, we take these kinds of issues very seriously. And I think when there are troubling questions, we think there should be answers. And I think the President was very clear on what the American people deserve. And it's certainly our hope, although it is not a hope that we genuinely believe anything will be done about, that others will take some time and do some examination. I think there was a climate of -- a very difficult climate that was generated in this town when this story came out, a climate generated by some very explosive and near-hysterical investigative reporting, a climate that was fueled by explosive comments from political leaders, including members of Congress. And I hope everybody takes a moment, looks at how they handled this situation, and looks to see if in the future they can do better -- just as I think the executive branch will do. Q Joe, do you believe that the media reporting and the explosive atmosphere that you've described affected the prosector's decisions on which charges to bring and how this case was -- MR. LOCKHART: That would be a question you would have to put to the prosecutors, and they will stand up, I'm certain, and answer their questions. It's certainly my hope that those who wrote the stories will also be willing to stand up and talk about their motivations and whether there is anything they can learn in the aftermath of their reporting. Q What about the question of an apology? The judge raised the fact that he could not apologize for the executive branch, but he could apologize for what he thought had happened in his courtroom. Is there any thought being given to contacting Mr. Lee and making any kind of formal apology? MR. LOCKHART: I think given the limited and the proper role, and hands-off role that was played here by the White House, there is no discussion of that. I think the President's obligation, as he addressed directly yesterday and then again this morning, was when questions are raised, when they are legitimate questions, when people are troubled by things -- and he, indeed, is troubled, himself, by some of these questions -- we should look at it. We should look at it and see what it is we can learn from this experience and see if anything needs to be done to improve in the future. Q So who should apologize in this case here? Is Mr. Lee due an apology? MR. LOCKHART: I'm in no position to make a judgment on that. Q Joe, can you clarify something I think you said this morning? The President, when he had the opportunity, I guess, to talk about this earlier but chose not to talk about it until yesterday, you suggested that the press would have jumped on him if he had made a statement earlier -- MR. LOCKHART: No. I think, quite rightly, the President -- again, we're looking at a very narrow band of issues here in this case, and we shouldn't loose sight of that. But there were -- he had an understanding of the reasons for holding this gentleman without bail, and within the last week or so -- and I think, as he said this morning, it is a very high standard in this country, as it should be. I think he said that we often lean in the other direction on this, for good reason. The questions are generated, the specific questions are generated from the fact that between a bail hearing on one day and three or four days later, those reasons seem to have dissipated in a plea agreement, as far as the risk of -- posed by allowing the gentleman before a trial out of prison. So I think he has a general, as I think most Americans do, high standard, and always a sense of unease when someone is being held without the possibility for bail. And in this question -- the questions are generated and derived from, just in the last week, you know, the difference between where they were from the bail hearing and where they were in the trial, or the plea agreement. Q But it wasn't a fear of an adverse press reaction that kept him from speaking out earlier? MR. LOCKHART: No, I think the -- I think what I was referring to yesterday, and I think he touched on a little bit this morning is, that there were certainly -- and the little that he knew about this -- there was a case made for why they had to go in this direction. And I think that you would all understand, and would have, I think, had a field day reporting, if somehow he tried to intervene in this case, as somehow being politically motivated. Q Could the President -- does the President think he could have done anything to sort of calm the hysteria you described earlier? MR. LOCKHART: Well, let me tell you something, because I happened to be around here during that period, and I think most of you who talked to me on a variety of bases, heard a pretty clear and consistent message, which is -- and particularly with some news organizations -- that we believe that you were out ahead of yourself. There were a lot of people jumping to a lot of conclusions, and we ought to sit back and make suer that we know all the facts. So I don't think that in this particular case that, at least from this particular podium in this particular building, we'll take the blame for creating whatever sort of environment we were in, in this case. And I would suggest that those of you who didn't talk to me during that period talk to your colleagues who did. [...] END 1:25 P.M. EDT