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Lawmakers soften demands on spy scandal

Leading members of Congress scaled back their demands for a freeze on aid to Russia but said they still wanted to reassess the $2.5-billion program in the wake of the espionage scandal that erupted last week.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., who called for an aid freeze after a veteran CIA officer was arrested on charges of spying for the Kremlin, said he now merely wants a new look at the issue.

"There's no question nations are going to spy on each other," DeConcini said on NBC's Meet the Press. "We're going to continue to do it, and Israel may still be doing it with the United States . . . and we are a big donor to Israel."

"I'm not saying stop aid," he added. "Reassess our aid and look . . . (at) what aid is really in our best interest."

Members of Congress reacted with outrage after federal authorities arrested CIA official Aldrich Ames and charged him with spying for the former Soviet Union and then Russia for as long as 10 years.

Many legislators demanded that Russia be punished for spying on the U.S. government at a time when the United States is sending aid to help reform Russia's economy.

Some, like DeConcini, suggested that the U.S. aid program, which President Clinton has cited as one of his major foreign policy accomplishments, be suspended.

Former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who is expected to seek the Republican nomination for the White House, accused Clinton of being too soft on Russia in response to the Ames incident.

"I think a traditional kind of response, that we've had in the past when we've caught them involved in espionage, would have been appropriate _ to send a lot of them home," said Cheney, also on Meet the Press.

Clinton reacted by ordering the expulsion of the man U.S. officials say is the chief intelligence officer at the Russian Embassy in Washington but also by defending the administration's aid program as founded on "clear American interests."

Sources said that CIA officials privately told members of Congress that they did not consider Russian espionage activities in the United States a violation of the law of the jungle that still prevails in intelligence.

Statements by DeConcini and other senators over the weekend indicated that the administration's arguments are making some headway.

_ Information from Reuters was used in this report.