The FBI has obtained substantial evidence that top Chinese officials approved plans in 1995 to attempt to buy influence with American politicians, and that the scheme continued through the 1996 elections and is ongoing, according to U.S. government officials.
Secret communications between Beijing and the Chinese Embassy in Washington establish that the influence-buying plan was "government sanctioned," one official said. "There is today ongoing pressure to keep going, despite the [campaign finance] investigations and press attention," said another source familiar with the FBI intelligence.
The officials declined to name the Chinese officials who allegedly approved the plans. "It's a pretty small top," one source said, noting that the No. 1 official in China is President Jiang Zemin and the number two is Premier Li Peng.
Until recently, investigators on a special FBI task force examining the Beijing component of the campaign finance controversy had not assembled all the pieces of intelligence that would confirm direct approval by senior levels of the Chinese government. Some senior White House officials initially concluded that authorization for the Chinese effort might have gone no higher than the embassy here.
While officials said the FBI now has what one described as "amazing" detail showing the Chinese intent to buy influence, and has tracked some China-U.S. money transfers that they believe may be connected, investigators have not yet conclusively tied that information to any payment to an individual or organization.
On Wednesday, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno briefed senior members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about the establishment of a connection between the scheme and the highest levels of the Chinese government.
Although this latest FBI assessment appears to pose a major potential problem for U.S. relations with China, White House officials said Thursday that they had received no such information or update from the Justice Department or the FBI.
"We're not aware of additional information given to the White House that causes us to adjust the diplomatic approach we've already taken in meetings held by the vice president and secretary of State with Chinese officials" during visits to Beijing in recent months, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said Thursday night.
During those visits, Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reportedly warned Chinese officials that if allegations of government involvement in an influence-buying attempt were proven, it would be considered serious. Beijing has categorically denied the allegations. Coincidentally, Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen is expected to arrive in Washington this weekend for talks.
Communications difficulties between the White House and the FBI on the matter first arose in February, when the White House asked for information about a China connection to the ongoing fund-raising investigation after learning of it from news reports. But Freeh refused on grounds that the White House itself might be implicated in the criminal inquiry.
After the White House persisted, formally requesting the information as crucial to its conduct of foreign policy with Beijing, Freeh and Reno determined that President Clinton would be provided with a broad statement about possible Chinese government involvement in any illegal activities.
One White House official said such a statement eventually was received, but he described it as vague, "plain vanilla," and merely recounting press reports of an investigation.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who attended the classified briefing by Freeh and Reno on Wednesday, described the allegations regarding the Chinese government as "very, very serious. These are foreign contributions, and laundered money, and it's illegal." Initial information obtained by the FBI indicated that the Chinese planned to spend nearly $2 million on the alleged scheme.
But there still are significant gaps in the information gathered by investigators, including all the intended targets of laundered Chinese government funds, or conclusive evidence that the money ever reached any of them. A number of possible destinations for the money are being looked at by investigators, ranging from members of Congress--at least six of whom were warned of possible Chinese intentions in 1996--to the Democratic National Committee and Clinton's legal-defense fund.
The investigation involves tracking funds from the Chinese government or Chinese government-controlled businesses through a number of foreign and domestic banks, corporations and perhaps even cash transfers.
One transaction being examined, for example, involves more than $100,000 transferred in 1995 from a Chinese bank in New York to another bank in Washington, corresponding in time and amount with a questionable DNC contribution.
In another example, sources confirmed the substance of a Wall Street Journal report earlier this month that Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie, a longtime Arkansas friend of Clinton's and a DNC fund-raiser, received large bank transfers from a major Chinese state-run commercial bank. The transfers amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars in 1995 and 1996, the sources said.