The collapse of the government’s case against Wen Ho Lee last week represents one of the greatest humiliations of a national newspaper in the history of journalism. One has to go back to the publication by the London Times of the Pigott forgeries in 1887 libelling Charles Stewart Parnell, the Irish nationalist hero, to find an equivalent debacle.
Yet not a whisper of contrition, not a murmur of remorse, has as yet agitated the editorial pages of the New York Times, which now righteously urge the appointment of a “politically independent person of national standing to review the entire case”.
No such review is required to determine the decisive role of the New York Times in 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.
On March 6, 1999, the 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 Peoples’ Republic. The espionage, according to a security official cited by Risen and Gerth, was “going to be just as bad as the Rosenbergs”.
Guided by Safire, the Republicans in Congress pounced upon the Wen Ho Lee case with an ardor approaching ecstasy.
Two days later Wen Ho 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 further mendacious bulletins from Risen and Gerth, and whose oped 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 ardor approaching ecstasy. By the spring of 1999 their effort 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 annexe of the Middle Kingdom, and the transfer of US nuclear secrets merely one episode in a long, dark narrative of treachery to the American flag. Former US senator 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 would 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 US thermonuclear warheads, including every currently deployed thermonuclear warhead in the US ballistic missile arsenal.”
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 Lee would have been swept to his doom.
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 Department of Energy intent upon his own vendettas within the DoE. 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 weould have been swept to his doom, most likely with a sentence of life imprisonment amid vain efforts of his defenders to get the scientist a fair hearing. It is doubtful that US District Judge James Parker in New Mexico would have had the courage to denounce the Justice Department 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 amidst the fevers of the cold war. And though the Pentagon has wanly tried to foment a budget-boosting campaign to suggest that China a 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’s campaign. Some commentators, most notably Lars-Erik Nelson of the New York Daily News, were scathing about the case against Wen Ho Lee. In July of 1999 the New York Review of Books published a long piece by Nelson which explicitly criticized the witch-hunt and noted the malign role of the New York 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 which 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 kept 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 US.)
Even near the end, when it was plain that the government’s case was falling apart, US 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 has 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 an investigation of the bungled prosecution. On September 16 New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis excoriated the Reno’s Justice Department and proclaimed piously that “this country’s security rests in good part in 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.
This is no-fault journalism, and it’s a disgrace to the Fourth Estate.
Lewis knows well enough, as does every at the Times, the infamous role played by Risen, Gerth, Safire and the editors who condoned their stories and columns. No doubt even Lewis had noted the role of the Times, an editor would have struck the tactless phrases from his column. But if ever there was an occcasion for self-criticism by a newspaper it is 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 are not required to offer reflections of the outcome of the affair.
When the forgeries of Richard Pigott, 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 was 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. CP