Robert Edmund Lee, 80, a former journalist and official with the State and Commerce departments, died of emphysema July 13 at his home in Washington.

Mr. Lee, a Washington correspondent for the United Press and later the Ridder newspaper chain, joined the State Department in 1962 as deputy assistant secretary for congressional relations and was acting assistant secretary when he resigned in 1965. In 1967, he became special assistant to Commerce Secretary Alexander B. Trowbridge. He retired in 1969.

As chief labor relations reporter for United Press from 1949 to 1952, he covered many of the bitter postwar contract negotiations and national strikes in coal, steel, railroad, telephone and other industries.

Mr. Lee's stories about the political operations of the labor movement helped win him a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University from 1952 to 1953.

While following the labor story in 1950, he achieved a major scoop, sending the first stories about the attempted assassination of President Harry S. Truman by Puerto Rican terrorists. Mr. Lee was on the phone to a source at the Congress of Industrial Organizations on Nov. 1, 1950, when he heard gunfire on the CIO end, near the Blair House residence used by Truman during structural repairs at the White House.

Mr. Lee sprinted to the scene and after observing a dead Secret Service officer and terrorist, he rushed across the street to dictate a story from a pay phone.

Mr. Lee, a native of East Orange, N.J., attended Amherst College. After graduation, he became one of the first Navy Reserve volunteers, and in March 1941, nine months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he received his commission.

During World War II service on destroyers, he rose to the rank of lieutenant commander and won two Bronze Stars with Combat V.

Benjamin Bradlee, the future executive editor of The Washington Post, served with Lee in the Pacific on the destroyer Philip, and later praised him in his book, "A Good Life."

"He was just like the hero of Tom Heggen's great war novel, 'Mister Roberts'--relaxed, wry, hardworking, and loved by the people who worked under him," Bradlee wrote.

After the war, Mr. Lee became assistant to the War Department's director of civilian personnel.

In that position, he drafted a plan to train promising war veterans for careers in federal service.

The plan was adopted by the U.S. Civil Service Commission and was supported by some members of Congress and newspaper columnists, but was never enacted.

Mr. Lee's newspaper career began at the Newark Evening News in 1947. He joined United Press's Washington bureau two years later.

In 1962, he and his wife, Phyllis Lee, restored and expanded a Georgetown house in the 2800 block of Q Street that was singled out in 1984 for its "quality of design."

Lee was a member of the Metropolitan, Chevy Chase, Burning Tree and Federal City clubs and the Naval Historical Foundation. He had served as secretary of the National Press Club.

His wife died in 1992.

Survivors include a stepson, Daniel E. Mead of Massachusetts; and a sister.