No-Fault Journalism at the New York Times
On March 6, 1999, the New York Times carried a report by James Risen and Jeff Gerth entitled “Breach at Los Alamos,” charging an unnamed scientist with stealing nuclear secrets from the government lab and giving them to the Chinese People’s Republic. The espionage, according to a CIA man cited by Risen and Gerth, was “going to be just as bad as the Rosenbergs.”
This front-page story played a decisive role sparking the persecution of Wen Ho Lee, his solitary confinement under threat of execution, his denial of bail, his shackling, the loss of his job, the anguish and terror endured by this scientist and his family.
Two days later Lee, an American of Taiwanese descent, was fired from his job. Ahead of him lay months of further pillorying in a racist witch-hunt led by the Times, whose news columns were replete with more mendacious bulletins from Risen and Gerth, and whose op-ed page featured William Safire using their stories to launch his own calumnies against Wen Ho Lee and the Clinton administration.
Guided by Safire, the Republicans in Congress pounced upon the Wen Ho Lee case with an ardor approaching ecstasy. By the spring of 1999 their efforts to evict Bill Clinton from office for the Lewinsky affair had collapsed. They needed a new stick with which to beat the administration and The New York Times handed it to them. In Safire’s insinuations, the Clinton White House was but an annex of the Middle Kingdom, and the transfer of U.S. nuclear secrets merely one episode in a long, dark narrative of treachery to the American flag. Former U.S. Sen. Warren Rudman went on NBC’s Meet the Press and declared flatly, “The agenda for the body politic is often set by the media. Had it not been for The New York Times breaking the story of Chinese espionage all over the front pages, I’m not sure I’d be here this morning.” The most preposterous expression of the Republican spy crusade against the Clinton administration came with the release of the 900-page report named after California Rep. Christopher Cox, filled with one demented assertion after another, including the memorable though absolutely false claim that “the stolen information includes classified information on seven U.S. thermonuclear warheads, including every currently deployed thermonuclear warhead in the U.S. ballistic missile arsenal.”
Yet Risen and Gerth’s stories had been profuse with terrible errors from the outset. Their prime source had been Notra Trulock, an embittered security official in the Dept. of Energy intent upon his own vendettas within the department. Risen and Gerth swallowed his assertions with disgraceful zeal. From him and other self-interested officials they relayed one falsehood after another: that Wen Ho Lee had failed a lie detector test; that the Los Alamos lab was the undoubted source of the security breach; that it was from Los Alamos that the Chinese had acquired the blueprint of the miniaturized W-88 nuclear warhead. Had The New York Times launched its campaign of terror against Wen Ho Lee at the height of the Cold War, it is quite likely that Wen Ho Lee would have been swept to his doom, most likely with a sentence of life imprisonment amid vain efforts by his defenders to get the scientist a fair hearing. It is doubtful that U.S. District Judge James Parker in New Mexico would have had the courage to denounce the Justice Dept. for a shabby case and to order the release of Wen Ho Lee after harshly criticizing the 59-count government indictment and the “demeaning, unnecessarily punitive conditions” in which Wen Ho Lee had been held. But we are no longer amid the fevers of the Cold War. And though the Pentagon has wanly tried to foment a budget-boosting campaign to suggest that China represents a fearsome military threat, it has not been taken with any great seriousness. The exaggerations of Chinese might are simply too egregious.
So, in these post-Cold War years, Wen Ho Lee did have his sturdy defenders. Some were government officials evidently appalled by the Times’ campaign. Some commentators, most notably Lars-Erik Nelson of the Daily News, were scathing about the case against Wen Ho Lee. In July 1999 the New York Review of Books published a long piece by Nelson that explicitly criticized the witch hunt and noted the malign role of the Times. Nelson pointed out how many of the supposedly filched “secrets” had been publicly available for years.
By September of 1999 The New York Times had evidently entertained sufficient disquiet to publish a long piece by William Broad that decorously–though without any explicit finger-pointing –undermined the premises of Risen and Gerth’s articles. None of this helped Wen Ho Lee escape terrifying FBI interrogations, in which an agent flourished the threat of execution. He was in solitary, allowed to exercise one hour a day while shackled, kept in a constantly lit cell. (Such horrible conditions and worse, it should be noted, are the lot–year after year–of thousands of prisoners in so-called Secure Housing Units in prisons across the U.S.) Even near the end, when it was plain that the government’s case was falling apart, Attorney General Janet Reno’s prosecutors successfully contested efforts to have Wen Ho Lee released on bail. And when Judge Parker finally threw out almost the entire case, the prosecutors continued to insist, as did Janet Reno, that their conduct had been appropriate throughout.
The New York Times, without whose agency Wen Ho Lee would never have spent a day in a prison cell, perhaps not even have lost his job, is now, with consummate effrontery, urging that an investigation of the bungled prosecution take place. On Sept. 16 Times columnist Anthony Lewis excoriated Reno’s Justice Dept. and proclaimed piously that “this country’s security rests in good part on having judges with the character and courage, like Judge Parker, to do their duty despite prosecutorial alarms and excursions.”
No word from Lewis about the role of his own newspaper. Lewis knows well enough, as does everyone at the Times, the infamous role played by Risen, Gerth, Safire and the editors who condoned their stories and columns. No doubt even had Anthony Lewis noted the role of the Times, an editor would have struck the tactless phrases from his column. But if ever there was an occasion for self-criticism by a newspaper, it was surely this one. In an extraordinary breach of conventional decorum the President of the United States has criticized his own attorney general for the way Wen Ho Lee has been maltreated. Yet the editors of The New York Times can admit no wrong. Risen and Gerth were not required to offer reflections on the outcome of the affair.
When the forgeries of Richard Pigott, who was described in the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica as “a needy and disreputable Irish journalist,” against Parnell were exposed, he fled to Madrid and there blew out his brains. The London Times required years to efface the shame of its gullibility. Would that The New York Times were required to admit equivalent error. But it won’t. Next year it will no doubt preen amid whatever Pulitzer awards are put its way by the jury of its friends. This is no-fault journalism, and it’s a disgrace to the Fourth Estate.
This piece is excerpted from End Times: the Death of the Fourth Estate (CounterPunch/AK Press).
Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature, Grand Theft Pentagon and Born Under a Bad Sky. His latest book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.