Inquiry adds no Clinton charges Panel finds no evidence president gave China U.S. missile technology

September 26, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After months of supercharged Republican accusations, a special House investigation has found no evidence that President Clinton illegally facilitated the transfer of sensitive missile technology to China, GOP officials say.

The House select committee on China trade has discovered no impeachable offenses and has not referred any of its findings to the House Judiciary Committee, said Rep. Christopher Cox, the California Republican heading the investigation.

"At this point, we have no evidence that would indicate a referral [to the Judiciary Committee] is even a remote possibility," said Brent Bahler, the select committee's spokesman.

"No smoke, no fire," he emphasized, but he noted that the investigation will continue until the end of the year.

The select committee's tentative conclusion underscores the problems Republicans face in their drive to impeach the president.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich has indicated that he would like to expand the impeachment probe beyond the Monica Lewinsky matter to other "scandals," most notably what the GOP calls "Chinagate."

If Clinton is to be impeached, Republicans would like to be able to show that the action is justified by a pattern of abuse of power and obstruction of justice by Clinton beyond his relationship with the former White House intern.

"There is a significant number of people who look at this thing superficially and say it's just about sex and his private life," said Lawrence J. Hogan, a former Maryland Republican representative who served on the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate.

"As shameful as it may be, they think it has nothing to do with government.

"The Judiciary Committee has to look at other matters. They should do a thorough job, just as the Nixon impeachment trial did."

The missile issue is just one matter that GOP leaders are considering adding to the Judiciary Committee's impeachment probe.

Also under consideration are the Arkansas land deal known as Whitewater that launched independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation, alleged misuse of FBI files, the firing of the White House travel office, and campaign finance improprieties, including allegations that Clinton knew of illegal contributions from the Chinese.

But to expand the impeachment inquiry into any of these areas, Republicans will have to find evidence of serious wrongdoing on the part of the president that has yet to emerge after years of investigation.

Democrats charged that plans to expand the probe into areas where there is no clear evidence proved it is becoming a witch hunt, or "an impeachment in search of a cause," said Judiciary Committee Democrat Barney Frank of Massachusetts.

'It's just piling on'

"None of that stuff has been brought to court. None of it has been referred to Congress by the independent counsel," said Stanley Brand, who served as a House Democratic lawyer during Watergate. "It's just piling on."

The controversy could erupt if the Judiciary Committee decides to look into the missile technology issue even though the Cox committee thus far came up dry.

Republicans seized on the missile-transfer charges a few months ago, believing that a national security scandal would resonate more with the public than arcane land deals or even the Lewinsky affair.

A parade of Republicans accused the president of allowing U.S. technology firms to transfer missile-launch technology to the Chinese in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions -- some of which may have come from the Chinese military.

In the harshest terms, some Republicans charged Clinton with treason and threatening the nation with nuclear annihilation. Both the Senate and the House appointed special committees to examine the matter. Indeed, more than 10 congressional panels are investigating aspects of the charges.

"It was the height of irresponsibility," Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, the lead Democrat in a Senate investigation of the matter, said of the GOP accusations. "I'm still getting people at home asking me, 'What about these high treason charges?' "

But when Gingrich suggested the Judiciary Committee include the China issue in an expanded impeachment probe, Cox bridled.

Cox said there is little conceivable way his probe could show impeachable offenses.

The White House did override national security warnings from the State Department in 1996, when it shifted oversight of satellite-licensing authority to the less restrictive Commerce Department. And that shift did coincide with campaign contributions from satellite companies that had been clamoring for the policy change for years.

'We don't have much'

But, Cox said, "the problem is, we know as much about these campaign contributions as we're going to know. Unless we come across a memo that says, 'This is going to violate national security, but this is so much money, let's go for it,' we don't have much."

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