Poor judgment and bureaucratic infighting crippled the federal investigation into an alleged plot by the Chinese government to influence the 1996 presidential election, according to a report released yesterday by the Justice Department's inspector general.

The report found no evidence that anyone at the FBI or the Justice Department tried to protect the Clinton administration by concealing potentially damaging information, as has been alleged by some Republicans. Instead, the report blamed numerous well-intentioned failures, such as drawn-out internal disputes over how intelligence information should be shared with criminal investigators, for the mishandling of a politically charged situation.

"There was a failure by the FBI and the Justice Department to figure out what they had, a failure to make sense of what they had, a failure to communicate with each other and a failure to provide policymakers with a clear understanding of the potential significance of the intelligence information," said Inspector General Michael R. Bromwich in an interview.

Allegations that the Chinese funneled illegal campaign contributions to the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection effort prompted extensive congressional hearings, a still-ongoing Justice Department investigation and numerous calls for the appointment of an independent counsel -- all without any conclusive findings as to whether the alleged plot ever really existed.

The FBI launched its China investigation in December 1996 "after several FBI field offices began receiving intelligence information that the PRC [People's Republic of China] had embarked on a broad-based plan to influence U.S. politics," according to the report. Intercepted communications suggested that Chinese officials intended to funnel money into U.S. political campaigns, which would be a violation of U.S. law, officials said.

While the inspector general's report does not assess whether the Chinese interference actually occurred, its depiction of bureaucratic missteps helps explain why the allegations have never been resolved.

"We have concluded that no single individual or decision is responsible for the array of problems that we found," said the 22-page publicly released summary of the top-secret 569-page report. "Rather, the shortcomings in the Department's handling of the intelligence information had multiple causes spanning from the exercise of poor judgment to counterproductive institutional practices."

Similar allegations have been directed at the investigation into alleged Chinese espionage at nuclear weapons laboratories. Administration critics have argued that conflicts between the FBI and the Justice Department hampered the inquiry and that policymakers were slow to respond to apparent security breaches.

A recognition of recurring problems in both the nuclear lab and campaign finance investigations prompted the FBI to overhaul its national security division last month, according to senior officials. A key goal of the overhaul is to centralize analysis of intelligence information within the FBI while allowing more cross-fertilization with other agencies involved in intelligence-gathering.

In a statement yesterday, the FBI said it "welcomes many of the suggestions" in the inspector general's report, but that with changes already underway "the FBI is confident that those issues will be addressed expeditiously and effectively."

Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), who chaired the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee investigation of campaign finance, said in a statement that the report showed "the committee did not get important relevant information in time for us to properly utilize it."

Attorney General Janet Reno ordered the inspector general's report after one of the most embarrassing episodes of her long tenure. During a congressional briefing on the China investigation in September 1997, the CIA provided information it said had come from the FBI, but Reno and FBI Director Louis J. Freeh had to admit they knew nothing about it. A total of 10 pieces of potentially important intelligence information failed to make it through appropriate channels.

The inspector general concluded that after the mishandling of information became known internally, both the FBI and the Justice Department became so concerned about appearing to be covering up for the White House that they began to dump unverified information on congressional investigators.

"[E]xcessive concern about political taint," according to Bromwich, also caused the FBI to pull back from participating in White House briefings on the China probe.

Meanwhile, the FBI's national security division balked at passing along intelligence information to the Justice Department task force investigating 1996 campaign fund-raising. This "intransigence," according to the report, ultimately "stymied" a key criminal investigation.