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Published: Sunday, 1/14/2001

Better defense against spies

President Clinton's last-minute flurry of executive orders and rule-making has infuriated the incoming Republican administration, but the new leadership will soon learn to appreciate the outgoing chief executive's order establishing a federal counterintelligence board.

The board, assuming it is used properly by the newcomers, will make intelligence embarrassments like the Wen Ho Lee imbroglio less likely to occur and improve this nation's defenses against real spies.

Dr. Lee was the Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist tagged by top government officials as a nuclear weapons spy. He was held in prison much of last year but had to be freed when - oops! - it turned out there was no credible evidence he did anything other than harmlessly mishandle some government weapons data back in 1994.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R., Ala.), head of Congress' Select Intelligence Committee, said the FBI bungled the Lee investigation because of “inadequate resources, lack of management attention, and missed opportunities.”

The new “CI-21” board created by Mr. Clinton's order will bring together top CIA, FBI, and Defense Department officials to pool information and ensure, apparently for the first time, that the government's right hand knows what the left hand is doing in anti-spy matters.

The board, to be chaired by the FBI director, is to establish a comprehensive counterintelligence program, allowing information to be shared across agency domains and broadening the focus to economic crimes instead of merely protecting government secrets.

The Wen Ho Lee case demonstrated that officials, particularly those in the FBI, lacked the information to accurately gauge the extent of a security breach. As a result, they panicked and created the public appearance of espionage where there was none.

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