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The Case of Wen Ho Lee

No-Fault Journalism at the New York Times

by ALEXANDER COCKBURN and JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

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 NatureGrand 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: sitka@comcast.net

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.