Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) yesterday faulted the Justice Department's 1997 prosecution of physicist Peter H. Lee for passing nuclear secrets to China, saying government attorneys accepted a lenient plea bargain in an espionage case that could have merited the death penalty.

"There are very serious questions as to why they didn't take a much tougher line," Specter said. "Here you had a case that could have been a real example and deterrent."

Specter spoke after chairing the first hearing in a series planned by the Judiciary Committee's administrative oversight subcommittee into the Justice Department's handling of Chinese espionage, campaign finance irregularities and the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex.

FBI agents first confronted Lee, a laser scientist at TRW Inc., after he failed to report a 1997 trip to China, as required under the terms of his government security clearance. Lee ultimately confessed to passing nuclear secrets to China in 1985, while working as a physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Federal prosecutors say they accepted a plea agreement in part because the information Lee passed to China in 1985 had since been declassified. Facing 10 years in prison, Lee was sentenced to 12 months in a halfway house, a $20,000 fine and 3,000 hours of community service.

Lee's attorney, James D. Henderson Sr., defended the sentence, saying his client wasn't a spy and had not passed highly sensitive nuclear weapons secrets.