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Panel Examines Hiring Of Huang at CommerceBy Edward Walsh and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 17, 1997; Page A01
The Senate panel investigating campaign finance abuses delved into the complex details of government appointments, security clearances and job performance assessments yesterday as it explored how controversial fund-raiser John Huang became a mid-level Commerce Department official in the Clinton administration and whether he posed a security risk while in that position.
Republicans on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee portrayed Huang as an unqualified political appointee who was supposed to be "walled off" from policy affecting China but who nonetheless was given access to sensitive intelligence information about China that might have been useful to his former employer, the Indonesia-based conglomerate known as the Lippo Group.
But three intelligence officials told the committee there was nothing unusual about the information given to Huang and that they know of no evidence that he misused it or disclosed it to unauthorized people.
Given Huang's responsibilities, "we were 100 percent correct in what we showed him," said Robert P. Gallagher, director of the Commerce Department's Office of Intelligence Liaison.
Gallagher was joined at yesterday's hearing by two Central Intelligence Agency officials, John H. Dickerson, who briefed Huang and other Commerce officials about intelligence information, and William H. McNair. Only their dark-suited silhouettes could be seen through a clouded glass screen that shielded them from public view. Despite that dramatic prop, the two CIA officials and Gallagher did little to advance GOP charges that Huang may have misused his government position to benefit the Lippo Group and possibly the Chinese government.
Huang is at the center of a web of allegations about an influx of illegal foreign money into the 1996 presidential and congressional elections. He left the Commerce Department in late 1995 to become a fund-raiser for the Democratic National Committee, where he was credited with raising about $3 million in contributions for President Clinton's 1996 reelection effort.
Republicans on the committee are attempting to establish that substantial amounts of foreign money flowed to the Democrats in that campaign through Huang, the Lippo Group and its U.S. subsidiaries, and that some of the money may have come from the Chinese government.
The most damaging portrayal of Huang at yesterday's hearing came from Jeffrey E. Garten, a former undersecretary for international trade at Commerce who is now dean of the Yale School of Management. He said that Huang was "totally unqualified" for a policymaking position at the Commerce Department and that "he should not be involved in China at all."
"In retrospect, he certainly didn't need those [intelligence] briefings," Garten added.
But Gary A. Christopherson, a former White House personnel office official, told the committee that Huang seemed like a "perfect fit" for the job he was given at Commerce. Paul A. Buskirk, acting director of the Commerce Department's Office of Security, also testified that Huang was allowed to go to work at the department with an "interim" security clearance, before there was a full investigation of his background, but that there was nothing unusual about this or the security checks he did undergo.
The two CIA officials who testified yesterday confirmed that some of the classified material that Huang was briefed on was so sensitive that unauthorized disclosure could have resulted in the deaths of "assets," otherwise known as intelligence sources.
But during repeated questioning, the CIA officials and Gallagher, the head of the intelligence liaison office at Commerce, said they had no evidence to show that any intelligence sources were killed or compromised during the time Huang received his briefings.
For the past several weeks, the CIA has been conducting an assessment of the potential damage to U.S. intelligence in the event that the information was disclosed by Huang to a foreign power, according to a U.S. official.
Typically, the classified briefings for Commerce officials included political, economic and biographical information about foreign countries. Based on the material Dickerson was allowed to discuss in public yesterday, some of the secret information Huang received appeared to include issues such as the leadership succession in China and the drop in food production in North Korea. Dickerson briefed Huang 37 times from October 1994 to November 1995. The briefings were sought by Huang's boss, Dickerson said, not by Huang.
The committee's chairman, Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), and Sen. John Glenn (Ohio), the committee's ranking Democrat, provided sharply differing views about how the day's sometimes confusing testimony should be interpreted. Glenn complained that the GOP-led investigation was "trying to make [Huang] into some sort of nefarious person who was placed [at Commerce] for nefarious reasons. I've read through all the intelligence stuff and I just didn't see anything sinister."
But Thompson said the committee had uncovered enough about Huang's background and activities at Commerce to raise troubling questions, and "to say we haven't proved he's a spy yet is totally missing the mark."
Separately yesterday, a White House official confirmed that Vice President Gore, Huang and a top Chinese official attended a private dinner three years ago organized by the DNC in the Los Angeles area. Gore's contact with the Chinese official was suggested in documents released by the Senate panel earlier this week.
The Chinese official, Shen Jueren, was the chairman of China Resources Group, a wholly owned wing of China's Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation. China Resources has large financial stakes in a number of Lippo enterprises.
The White House official said about 50 people attended the Sept. 27 dinner at the home of real estate developer Bruce Karatz and his wife, Janet. Gore gave brief remarks at the dinner, but officials did not know whether he met with Shen or had discussions with him. The Karatzes and their firm, Kaufman & Broad Home Corp. one of the largest home builders in the industry have given about $50,000 to Democrats since 1993.
A White House official said Jack Quinn, then Gore's chief of staff, has no recollection of meeting with Shen and Huang at the White House three days before the dinner. In a letter released by the committee Tuesday, Huang wrote Quinn thanking him for meeting the Chinese official and noted that, on Sept. 27, "Vice President Gore was just super."
Staff writer John Mintz and staff researcher Jeff Glasser contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company