Richardson: Justice Department in the Right on Wen Ho Lee

By Bob Melvin | July 7, 2008 | 8:26 PM EDT

( - Energy Secretary Bill Richardson offered support Sunday for the Justice Department's handling of the Wen Ho Lee case as he rejected a judge's claim that the department "embarrassed our nation."

Richardson, appearing on NBC's "Meet The Press," said he had been concerned about the treatment that the former scientist at the federal nuclear weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, NM received during more than nine months of solitary confinement.

However, Richardson said that he "fully" supports the Justice Department's pursuit of the main objective: to discover what happened to missing classified tapes.

"Confinement shackles. I wouldn't have done that. But there's no question that I think the deal is good because it would enable us to get (to) what happened with that very, very sensitive, classified information,'' Richardson told host Tim Russert.

Though concerned about Lee's civil rights, Richardson said, "I support the decision of the Justice Department that leads us to hopefully recover whatever happened to those tapes."

Lee faced 59 felony charges that accused the scientist of illegally downloading nuclear secrets from secured Energy Department computers. Fifty-eight of those charges were dismissed in a plea-bargaining agreement between the federal government and Lee.

The 60-year-old nuclear scientist went free on September 13 after pleading guilty to one felony count of mishandling weapons secrets, given credit by the court for nine months already served in prison.

Lee placed sensitive information on portable computer tapes, some of which are now missing. Under the plea bargain agreement, Lee agreed to tell the government what he did with the tapes.

US District Judge James Parker criticized the Justice Department for keeping Lee in custody for so long, saying Lee's detention "embarrassed our entire nation."

President Clinton said the length of detention "just can't be justified." Attorney General Janet Reno has asked for an internal review of the case, the White House said Friday.

Lee had been under investigation since 1996 after US intelligence obtained a Chinese document suggesting that China had obtained details about the W-88, a multi-warhead weapon. He was never charged with espionage.

Asked if he thought Lee was a spy, Richardson said, "That is something the legal process will determine."

Richardson added that while security has been improved at Los Alamos, "We still need to do better."

However, Richardson added that he does not want to go too far.

"There's been a little bit of morale problems there because of excessive security. We have to alter the balance now to ensure that productive science, national security work goes on at the labs," Richardson said.