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James Risen, the New York Times and the Sliming of Wen Ho Lee

Photo by DAVID HOLT | CC BY 2.0


In an extraordinary essay for The Intercept, former New York Times reporter James Risen discloses how the nation’s most self-aggrandizing newspaper suppressed numerous stories on illegal government activities at the behest of the Bush Administration, including the CIA’s use of secret prisons for torture, the faulty intelligence linking Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to al-Qaeda and the NSA’s domestic spying operations.

Risen also offers a limited, modified mea culpa for his stories falsely fingering Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese-American scientist who worked at Los Alamos, as a spy. Risen’s dubious reports, which destroyed Lee’s career and nearly ruined his life, were largely based on false information fed to him by anonymous sources in the government. Risen describes his own experience as a “painful lesson” (though surely his suffering was nothing compared to the torments his reports inflicted on Lee), but he fails to name the government sources who led him astray and wrongly vilified Lee. What’s he waiting for?

Here’s a piece that Alexander Cockburn and I wrote for CounterPunch in September 2000, soon after the case against Lee fell apart, about the hell the scientist endured at the hands of the Times and the FBI. — JSC.

The collapse of the government’s case against Wen Ho Lee  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”.

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.”

Yet Risen and Gerth’s stories had been profuse with terrible errors from the outset. One prime source had been Notra Trulock, an embittered security official in the Department of Energy intent upon his own vendettas within the Department of Energy. 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.

This article is excerpted from End Times: the Death of the Fourth Estate.

Up on Salvation Mountain

Booked Up

What I’m reading this week…

One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli and the Great Stink of 1858 by by Rosemary Ashton

Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left by Gareth Dale

Gaza: an Inquest Into Its Martyrdom by Norman Finklestein

Sound Grammar

What I’m listening to this week…

Secrets: French Songs by Marianne Crebassa and Fazil Say

Electric Looneyland by Serpent Power

Petite Afrique by Somi

So It Is by Preservation Hall Band

Rasta Mission and Animal Rights by Tenastalen & King Alpha

A Hanging Dream

William Butler Yeats: “Any fool can fight a winning battle, but it needs character to fight a losing one, and that should inspire us; which reminds me that I dreamed the other night that I was being hanged, but was the life and soul of the party.”

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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