Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger publicly upbraided Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. yesterday for making "injudicious and incorrect statements" critical of the government's plea-bargain arrangement this week in the Walker spy case.
The unusual rebuke, delivered in a statement to Pentagon reporters, charged that Lehman "did not have all the facts" before challenging the plea agreement, approved by Weinberger, in which John A. Walker Jr. pleaded guilty to espionage Monday in exchange for lenient treatment for his son, Michael.
"Secretary Lehman now has all the facts and is in complete agreement with the government's decision," Weinberger said. Pentagon officials said the verbal flogging was the strongest public rebuff of a service secretary during Weinberger's five-year tenure.
Lehman, a dynamic official whose outspoken views have provoked Pentagon pique in the past, was reported to be visiting a Navy weapons-testing center in the Mojave Desert. In an interview with The Washington Post Tuesday, Lehman assailed the plea agreement as typical of the Justice Department "treating espionage as just another white-collar crime, and we think it should be in a very different category." He said the deal sends "the wrong message to the nation and to the fleet."
Lehman, unhappy that the younger Walker, a Navy seaman, will receive a 25-year prison term, said he deserved "the maximum sentence" of life imprisonment imposed on his father, who is a retired Navy communications expert.
Weinberger, who learned of Lehman's criticism as he was flying home Wednesday from a conference in Brussels, was "surprised and angry" that his Navy secretary would publicly question an agreement to which Weinberger consented after meeting with Justice Department lawyers last week, Pentagon sources said.
Weinberger summoned Lehman to his office Thursday and scolded him during a 40-minute meeting that ended with Lehman acknowledging that he "wasn't judicious," said a source, who added, "John knew his comments were not helpful."
Sources said yesterday's statement was drafted by Weinberger's staff and cleared by Lehman. It was issued by the defense secretary without comment from Lehman "to show who's in control here," according to one official. "It reflects a management need."
"To question the plea bargain," he said, "is to question the leadership here. Cap is very much a team player. What John did is not what he expects of his subordinates."
Sources said Weinberger felt that Lehman had his chance to protest the plea-bargain arrangement in Pentagon councils and should have remained silent after being overruled. He participated in last week's meeting with Justice Department officials and was consulted by Weinberger before the secretary gave his approval, they said.
In his one-page statement yesterday, Weinberger said he and Lehman have "reviewed completely the facts and circumstances" that led to the plea agreement.
"Secretary Lehman now understands that he did not have all the facts concerning the matter before he made several injudicious and incorrect statements with respect to the agreement," Weinberger said.
The statement by Weinberger, a former lawyer, reads like a legal document in which he twice notes that Lehman "further understands" other benefits of the plea bargain, including John Walker's agreement to give details of secrets he passed to the Soviet Union over 18 years.
In his Tuesday interview, Lehman said that while the details are "nice to know," investigators "know the bounds" of Walker's espionage. He said Walker's promise of full disclosure was not worth the price.
Weinberger said Lehman also acknowledged that the agreement produced penalties "fully as severe as could have been obtained without an agreement" if the Walkers had been convicted by trial, that it avoided the risk of acquittal based on technicalities, that it facilitates prosecution of another spy case defendant and that it prevented disclosure of classified materials at a trial.
"Both of us conclude that this agreement is in the best interest of justice," Weinberger said.