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FBI Cleared China Funds RevelationBy Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 13, 1997; Page A01
Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) says his decision to begin campaign finance hearings last week by confirming reports of a Chinese political influence-buying plan came after aides spent hundreds of hours reviewing sensitive information on the matter.
Executive branch sources said that Thompson's statement was cleared late Monday by the FBI, the CIA and the National Security Agency, a day before he read it at the opening of his hearings.
Thompson, who chairs the fund-raising probe, said in an interview Friday that the information which executive branch sources said included highly classified communications intercepts has been made available to all members of his Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, but that only some have examined it. FBI Director Louis J. Freeh was involved in clearing the information, executive branch sources said.
"There is no dispute about the facts among anyone who looks at the documents," Thompson said.
In his statement at the hearings Tuesday, Thompson said the committee believed "that high-level Chinese government officials crafted a plan to increase China's influence over the U.S. political process," and took "specific steps" to do so, including the allocation of "substantial sums of money" to influence federal and state elections.
"Our investigations suggest that the plan continues today," Thompson said in his statement.
Thompson went on to talk about other aspects of the Senate inquiry, w hich is expected to continue through the fall, and subsequent proceedings last week shed little new light on the China question. But his statement on China confirming in public much of what already has appeared in the media was what made the week's most prominent headlines and provoked the strongest political response.
The existence of the Chinese plan was reported first last February by The Washington Post, based on information provided by executive branch sources. In an article on Feb. 13 and in subsequent articles, The Post reported that the Justice Department was investigating the effort, much of which was uncovered in coded communications traffic between Beijing and the Chinese Embassy here and elsewhere.
The investigation has established that the plan was launched in 1995 as a relatively benign congressional lobbying activity, but became an effort whose goal was to illegally funnel money into political campaigns. Approved at the highest levels of the Beijing government, the plan was placed under the control of the Chinese Ministry of State Security, Beijing's equivalent of the CIA.
Thus far, however, federal investigators have been unable to discover a direct link between money from Beijing and the Democratic National Committee or the Clinton reelection campaign.
In his own opening presentation Tuesday immediately following Thompson, Sen. John Glenn (Ohio), the committee's ranking Democrat, noted that he had declined to sign on to Thompson's statement and asked whether there was "any real evidence" that such a plan had been carried out by China. Glenn, who had access to the same information as Thompson, said he believed Thompson had gone "a little further than I would choose to go."
But Thompson insisted in the interview Friday that he felt the information was of sufficient gravity that a summary should be made public. "We couldn't sit on it. If it came out in a year or six months that China was doing all this with all the issues with regard to China on the table, ranging from trade status to defense issues, the committee would rightly be subject to intense criticism."
Thompson said he had examined some of the critical intelligence data, and that three senior investigators on the committee staff had spent "hundreds of hours" reviewing the information.
"I felt it was important to make it public right away," Thompson said. "I cannot imagine Congress and the American people not having the benefit of what we know. . . . Nothing could be more relevant than this information."
He acknowledged, however, that given the sensitivity of the information, "We may never be able to lay out all of the details." Documentation of the Chinese plan is contained in highly classified intelligence intercepts that rarely are made public because disclosure might compromise sensitive sources and methods used to protect national security.
Glenn indirectly referred in his statement to possible partisan motives on Thompson's part, and the fact that the overall committee investigation has focused in large part on suspect foreign donations to the Democrats. "If there was Chinese government money illegally entering the American political system," Glenn asked, "is there any evidence that such money went to candidates of only one political party?"
In addition, Glenn said, "I am greatly concerned about how the reports are sometimes discussed by individuals in this body and in the press. I've heard language like 'infiltration,' 'foreign spies,' 'foreigners,' we're 'jeopardizing our national security.' "
"Well, on this issue," Glenn said, "the committee should go just as far as the facts take us, recognizing that it's the FBI that's in a much better position than a congressional committee to do an espionage investigation."
Some Senate Democrats have played down, if not disputed, Thompson's revelations. "For a large man, Senator Thompson has crawled out on a very narrow limb, and it's a long way back," Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), a committee member, said on Fox television last week. "I was very surprised by his statement."
But another Democratic senator familiar with the classified evidence said Thompson was on solid ground.
For his part, President Clinton has neither embraced nor disputed Thompson's account. "I do not know whether it is true or not," Clinton said last week.
Accordingly, Clinton said the charge "can't in any way, and shouldn't affect the larger long-term strategic interests of the American people and our foreign policy. . . . However, it is a serious charge. . . . And I think we have to let the investigation play itself out."
On Thursday, the Chinese government repeated its previous denials that such a plan was ever formulated or carried out. "Some people in the United States, out of domestic political needs, are out of thin air once again slandering China," Foreign Ministry spokesman Tang Guoqiang said in Beijing.
Thompson's Tuesday statement provided additional details on the scope of the plan and its goals. In addition to targeting federal and state campaigns, he said, "another aspect of the plan is remarkable because it shows that the [People's Republic of China] is interested in developing long-term relationships with persons it has identified as up-and-coming officials at state and local levels. The intent is to establish relations that can be cultivated as the officials rise through the ranks to higher office. . . ."
U.S. intelligence has established that about $2 million was allocated by the Chinese government, of which at least $1 million was transferred to U.S. banks or to the Chinese Embassy here.
But officials familiar with the details of the investigation are quick to point out that critical gaps remain, and may never be closed.
Principal among them is the failure to establish a conclusive link between the well-documented plan and any of the suspect contributions that went to the Democratic National Committee.
The intelligence on the Chinese plan establishes that Beijing had the "intent" to make illegal campaign contributions, one official said. Separate public records show that millions of dollars of suspect and possibly illegal contributions were made to the DNC. But there is no direct line between Chinese money and DNC-Clinton coffers.
"There is an intent and a crime," the official said, "but the two have not been connected."
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a veteran of the Senate intelligence committee and a member of Thompson's committee, has called this missing link "the dotted lines" between the plan and political contributions.
Others on the Republican side have described the establishment of those links as the central goal of the committee's inquiry. "The premise that the Chinese government has been involved in our political process underpins everything we're trying to prove about the serious problems with the last election," said Paul Clark, spokesman for the committee Republicans.
Because of the Justice Department's criminal investigation, the FBI is declining to provide Congress including Thompson's panel and the House and Senate intelligence committees with more details about the Chinese connection.
"The curtain has come down," one source said, noting that some of the most sensitive intelligence sources were being used in the criminal probe.
Staff writer Guy Gugliotta and researcher Jeff Glasser contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company