WASHINGTON - President Clinton will not contact Attorney General Janet Reno to discuss his concerns about the government's handling of the case of scientist Wen Ho Lee, presidential spokesman Joe Lockhart said Friday.
Lockhart said Clinton's staff already has been in touch with officials at the Justice Department and would continue the discussions to clear up questions raised by the president.
''But I don't expect the president to reach out to the attorney general personally,'' Lockhart said. ''There is a fine tradition that the Justice Departments operates independently.''
In a rare public disagreement, Clinton said Thursday that Lee's long detention ''just can't be justified,'' but Reno refused to apologize and said the confinement was the nuclear scientist's own fault.
The 60-year-old Lee, a former Los Alamos laboratory scientist, went free Wednesday after pleading guilty to one felony of mishandling weapons secrets.
Reno, at her weekly news conference, said Lee could have avoided nine months of detention by agreeing earlier to plead guilty and tell the government what he did with the secrets.
FBI Director Louis J. Freeh said ''the safety of the nation demands that we take this important step'' under which Lee was sentenced to the 278 days he had served. The government dropped 58 other counts.
Hours after Reno spoke, Clinton expressed an opinion far closer to that of U.S. District Judge James Parker, who said Lee's detention ''embarrassed our entire nation.''
Clinton, who met with Justice officials at the White House before Lee's indictment last Dec. 10, said he found it difficult in retrospect to reconcile how the government could ''keep someone in jail without bail, argue right up to the 11th hour that they're a terrible risk, and then turn around and make that sort of plea agreement.''
''It just can't be justified. ... I, too, am quite troubled by it,'' Clinton said. Reno did not respond.
''We are heartened that the president of the United States appears to share some of the concerns that Judge Parker expressed in his eloquent order yesterday,'' Lee attorney Mark Holscher said.
Later, White House press secretary Joe Lockhart told reporters Clinton's comments should not be read ''as a blanket criticism of anyone'' and added that Reno and Energy Secretary Bill Richardson retain Clinton's support.
Also, on David Letterman's show, Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic presidential nominee, refused to say whether the Justice Department should apologize, saying he did not want to comment on an ongoing legal proceeding. But he did note ''the underlying problem was very serious because nuclear secrets have to be protected absolutely and completely.''
Republicans who have spent months calling Reno too timid in investigating leaks from Los Alamos slammed her for being too aggressive with Lee.