The Justice Department has declined to prosecute a CIA official for tipping off a U.S. defense contractor to a Senate investigation of missile technology transfers to China.
The department notified the Senate Intelligence Committee two weeks ago that it would not bring obstruction charges against the official who alerted Hughes Space and Communications International Inc. about a secret Senate panel inquiry two years ago.
The identity of the CIA official, a woman who was once a Los Angeles-based agent in the domestic intelligence collection unit, could not be learned.
U.S. government officials familiar with the probe said the official was the key target of the investigation over accusations she improperly alerted Hughes’ officials in El Segundo, Calif., to the Senate investigation of the company.
Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican and the committee chairman, said the panel was notified two weeks ago by the Justice Department of the decision and plans to question officials about why there will be no prosecution of the official for obstructing a Senate investigation, a federal crime.
“All we know is their conclusion,” he said. “We haven’t examined how they reached it.”
Mr. Shelby said in an interview that he requested the criminal probe together with Sen. Bob Kerrey, Nebraska Democrat and at the time the panel’s vice chairman, after learning in September 1998 that CIA officials contacted Hughes about the investigation.
Committee investigators had directed two CIA officials not to alert Hughes to their inquiry, congressional aides said. The investigators hoped to surprise Hughes’ officials and sought access to a company report on rocket technology transfers.
Investigators feared that if the company was tipped off, it might take steps to prevent them from finding out about possible illegal exports.
Asked his view of the CIA official’s notification of Hughes, Mr. Shelby said: “I thought it was highly improper highly.”
Mr. Shelby expressed frustration with the department’s refusal to pursue the charges against the CIA. “This isn’t anything new about this Justice Department,” he said.
Mr. Shelby and Mr. Kerrey telephoned Attorney General Janet Reno and asked that the criminal investigation be carried out after obtaining an internal CIA cable of Sept. 23, 1998, indicating the CIA planned to tell Hughes about Senate probe.
Mr. Shelby said he “named some names” of CIA officials suspected of subverting the Senate inquiry during the conversation.
A CIA spokesman said the “heads up” notification given to Hughes was meant to urge the company to cooperate. No one at CIA recalled being told by Senate investigators that the existence of the Senate probe should be kept secret from the company, the spokesman said.
The committee began its investigation after CIA analyst Ronald Pandolfi, a weapons specialist, was told by a Hughes engineer in El Segundo that the company had provided rocket technology to China. Mr. Pandolfi recognized that the technology transfer could improve China’s long-range missiles.
Hughes was working with China’s missile and space launch company under a U.S. government-approved contract to build the Apstar 2 communications satellite for the Chinese. The satellite was destroyed in a January 1995 failure of a Chinese booster.
The action on the CIA-Hughes connection is a sign that the Justice Department may be close to ending its four-year investigation of Hughes and Loral Space & Communications for selling missile-related technology to China.
Hughes and Loral are under investigation for improperly providing technology that improved China’s missiles.
The Hughes missile technology was contained in a company report given to the Chinese that included information on how to prevent vibrations from causing failures during launch technology that is useful in improving the reliability of both commercial rocket launchers and nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.
A 1999 report by a special House panel on U.S. missile technology transfers to China stated that China’s Apstar program provided $100,000 to President Clinton’s friend, Charlie Yah Lin Trie, in May 1996 during Trie’s fund-raising efforts for Mr. Clinton’s re-election. Trie pleaded guilty to making illegal campaign contributions in 1999.
The Apstar contribution was the closest congressional investigators had came to linking illegal campaign finance contributions from China to the administration’s policy of relaxing export controls that benefited U.S. satellite makers.
A Justice Department spokesman said the decision not to prosecute the CIA official was made by James K. Robinson, chief of the criminal division.