White House sought FBI data on China probe Freeh rejected request, administration says

March 25, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The White House tried last month to obtain sensitive counterintelligence information from the FBI about Beijing's plans to influence American politics, but FBI Director Louis J. Freeh rebuffed the inquiry, administration officials said yesterday.

The FBI material was sought by Charles F. C. Ruff, the new White House counsel, for a briefing of Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.

In a Feb. 18 letter to Jamie S. Gorelick, the deputy attorney general, people who have seen the letter said, Ruff posed questions about what federal investigators knew or suspected about the involvement of Chinese officials and citizens in a purported plan to make illegal contributions to American political campaigns.

Ruff, who said yesterday that there was nothing improper about his request, said he was seeking the information on behalf of the National Security Council. At the time, Albright was preparing for a late February trip to China.

A reply was prepared, with the approval of top Justice Department officials, but Freeh, who was traveling in the Middle East at the time, intervened and ordered the document withheld, federal law enforcement officials said.

The officials said Freeh had decided to stick to his earlier decision that no information relating to possible influence-buying by China would be provided to Congress or the executive branch.

The dispute over Ruff's request may also help explain why Freeh has seemed so at odds with the White House, to the point where the FBI argued publicly with the president this month over accounts of briefings that the FBI had provided to the NSC at the start of the China investigation.

In addition, the exchange showed the extent to which the investigation has tied the relationships among federal agencies in knots. Indeed, some government lawyers suggested yesterday that it was Freeh who had erred by withholding the information from the White House and thus leaving the secretary of state without critical information at a time when she was embarking on a diplomatic mission to Beijing.

Pub Date: 3/25/97

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