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White House Unswayed By China Allegations

By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 1997; Page A01

President Clinton and his senior foreign policy advisers disagree with senators of both parties who have concluded China had a plan to influence U.S. elections illegally, according to administration officials, who said high-level White House discussions last week reaffirmed there is so far no cause for taking punitive steps against Beijing.

"We have received the relevant briefings," White House press secretary Michael McCurry said. "We believe there's no basis for any change in our policy toward China, which is one of engagement."

This has been the consistent White House line. What changed last week was that Clinton became newly isolated in his insistence that China's leaders still are entitled to benefit of the doubt. Others who have received the same "relevant briefings," including administration supporters such as Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and John Glenn (D-Ohio), have reached the opposite conclusion.

This disconnect – dramatically different readings of what is apparently the same evidence – has created a dilemma shadowing Clinton's entire China policy. The administration has said repeatedly that there would be "serious" consequences for the relationship if it turns out allegations of an influence-buying plan are true. Now Clinton is under increasing pressure to confront the Chinese or face criticism he is so determined to pursue warm relations that he will overlook a plan to meddle illegally in U.S. elections.

Even among senators who have concluded there was such a plan, there is disagreement. Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), chairman of the committee investigating allegations of illegal 1996 campaign fund-raising, has said he believes the Chinese plan targeted presidential and congressional elections. Lieberman and Glenn say they believe the evidence shows the Chinese targeted only congressional elections.

Moreover, they and other senators who have been briefed by the FBI and seen classified documents have said they have not seen any evidence the plan was carried out, or that there is evidence linking specific campaign contributions to illegal government money from Beijing.

Administration officials have said it is clear that China had a plan to increase its Washington influence through legal lobbying of the sort that its archenemy Taiwan has engaged in for years. But these officials said it is not clear that Beijing planned to supplement this legal activity with illegal contributions.

The Chinese government has denied any attempt to meddle in U.S. elections, including at a March meeting in Beijing between Premier Li Peng and Vice President Gore. "It goes to the question of credibility," said Nicholas Lardy, a China analyst at the Brookings Institution, who said critics of China would point to any evidence of an influence-buying plan by Beijing to argue that it cannot be trusted on other subjects.

Clinton has called such speculation premature. Asked earlier this month about Thompson's accusations against China – made before Lieberman and Glenn said they partly agreed with their Republican colleague – Clinton said, "I do not know whether it is true or not. Therefore, since I don't know, it can't . . . and shouldn't affect the larger long-term strategic interests of the American people in our foreign policy."

From the beginning, administration officials have taken a soft line toward the China allegations and suggested that, from the White House perspective, maintaining the engagement policy toward Beijing is a more important concern than whether the allegations are true. When the FBI investigation of the alleged Chinese plan was reported in The Washington Post in February, Clinton and senior White House officials said they knew nothing about it. Privately, senior administration officials scoffed that the reports were overblown and predicted the investigation would amount to little or nothing.

The FBI uncovered evidence about the alleged plan, in part, through electronic intercepts of conversations between government officials in Beijing and officials at the Chinese Embassy here. According to government officials, the plan, first discussed in early 1995, called for Chinese officials to channel more than $2 million into U.S. campaigns.

Lieberman initially said he doubted Thompson's suspicions about a Chinese plan to influence U.S. elections, but he changed his mind last week after seeing new evidence provided by FBI officials.

The decision by Lieberman and Glenn to go public with their suspicions about China forced White House national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger and senior aides to reassess their position. The White House sought and received new assurances that the Justice Department was living up to an agreement to provide the White House all relevant information about foreign policy, in contrast to earlier this year when senior White House officials were caught unaware about the China allegations.

McCurry said the White House has a "mechanism in place" to make sure it knows what it needs to "conduct foreign policy."

On Capitol Hill, by contrast, Thompson has told other senators and top staff members that the Justice Department's reluctance to share more information about its investigation is impeding his own. "We're having the door slammed in our face," Thompson has told others. "The FBI has been more restrictive in latter briefings than in earlier briefings."

Among Thompson's complaints:

Citing its criminal investigation, the FBI last week declined to answer questions or provide information about Democratic fund-raisers John Huang and Charles Yah Lin Trie – even in a classified, closed-door briefing to members of Thompson's committee.

Attorney General Janet Reno's opposition to a grant of immunity to four nuns who gave money at a 1996 Gore fund-raiser in a Buddhist temple in California.

Delay in receiving documents requested from the FBI several weeks ago relating to the China connection.

Thompson told others that he plans to ask FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and CIA Director George J. Tenet to appear in an executive session before the committee to explain.

Staff writers Michael Dobbs and Bob Woodward contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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