FBI handling of informants questioned by 3 senators

Hearings sought on case against former counterspy

April 29, 2003|By Richard B. Schmitt | Richard B. Schmitt,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - A group of senators is calling for a congressional investigation into the FBI's handling of suspected China double agent Katrina M. Leung, saying the bureau's system for handling confidential informants may be flawed.

In a letter to Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican, that was released yesterday, three senators requested hearings on the "larger national security issues" stemming from the arrests this month of Leung and retired Los Angeles FBI counterintelligence agent James J. Smith.

Leung is accused of passing to China classified information that she took from Smith during a 20-year relationship in which the two were also sexually involved, prosecutors say.

"If even a portion of the allegations are true," the letter said, "we cannot afford to wait until yet another breach of national security occurs before we work with the FBI to improve security and the handling of confidential informants."

The letter was signed by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and Republican Sens. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. All three have been vocal critics of the FBI in the past.

Friday, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, sought a Justice Department investigation into whether Leung illegally contributed to Republican campaigns money from the Chinese government.

Several years ago, Senate Republicans investigated the possibility that China had tried to influence the 1996 presidential election by funneling money to Democrats. The results were inconclusive.

A spokeswoman for Hatch didn't return a telephone call seeking comment.

Since the arrests of Leung and Smith, the FBI has begun an internal investigation into the ways it uses and manages counterintelligence "assets." One line of inquiry is whether intelligence officers should continue handling their informants when they become supervisors.

Critics say that can present potential conflicts of interest when questions arise about the informants and in deciding how much and whether the informants should be paid.

Another top FBI counterintelligence specialist, William Cleveland Jr., has told investigators that he alerted Smith as long ago as 1991 that he feared Leung was passing secrets to China, according to an FBI affidavit.

The Los Angeles Times reported last week that FBI officials in Washington and Los Angeles were aware for years that Smith had met with Leung alone to pay her in person, despite a policy that usually requires the presence of two agents at such meetings. That policy is aimed, in part, at discouraging theft.

Richard B. Schmitt is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper

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