Wen Ho Lee
Anatomy of a Scandal
ERIK STOWERS / Pressing Times v.4, n.1, Spring02
No event of the last decade has illustrated the decline of American journalism more vividly than the persecution of Wen Ho Lee, the Taiwanese-American scientist accused of selling nuclear secrets to China. But the Wen Ho Lee affair has implications far beyond those of one case of shoddy journalism. The scandal demonstrates how an increasingly profit-driven news media has not only failed to fulfill its role as public watchdog but has itself become a destabilizing force in American politics.
Illustration: Jennifer Poon
The spy scare began on March 6, 1999, when The New York Times ran a lengthy, front-page article under the headline: "Breach at Los Alamos: A Special Report; China Stole Nuclear Secrets for Bombs, U.S. Aides Say." In the story that followed, The New York Times reporters Jeff Gerth and James Risen reported that China had made a "breakthrough" in nuclear warhead technology "working with secrets stolen from an American government laboratory." Although the "main suspect" wasn't named, he was described as "a Los Alamos computer scientist who is Chinese-American." In what amounted to a scathing attack on the Clinton administration and a demand to "get tough," the Times claimed that "throughout the Government, the response to the nuclear theft was plagued by delays, inaction and skepticism" and complained that "no arrests have been made."
Two days later, Lee was revealed to be the main suspect. He was questioned rigorously for three days, fired from his job and eventually placed in jail under solitary confinement.
What the Times had failed to mention was that there was no evidence that a "nuclear theft" had actually occurred. The primary thesis of the article - that China had stolen secrets to the W-88 warhead - was a charge that had first been made a decade before, in 1988, but had been discounted after an investigation concluded that it was most likely the result of a Chinese bluff. By the time of Gerth and Risen's article it had long been consensus among U.S. experts that Chinese intelligence worked by piecing together leaks and declassified information rather than paying spies. Moreover, a June 1999 report by the Republican-led President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board concluded that Chinese espionage, if it occurred, had not been decisive to China's nuclear program. There were thus plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the espionage charges that Gerth and Risen presented as facts.
The March 6 article was based heavily on unnamed sources and one named source, Notra Trulock. In 1995 Trulock, then Director of Intelligence for the Energy Department, had resurrected the theory that China had stolen the W-88 technology. Dismissed by the CIA and other experts, Trulock's charges were largely ignored until three years later, when they came to the attention of the Cox Congressional Hearings, a highly politicized, Republican-controlled investigation that was then searching for links between donations to the 1996 Clinton re-election campaign and Chinese espionage. According to Gerth and Risen, Trulock was the Cox investigation's "star witness."
Amazingly, the Cox investigation had itself been triggered by an earlier series of Jeff Gerth articles (now considered highly flawed) alleging the transfer of U.S. satellite technology to China. In other words, questionable allegations by Gerth had spurred a political investigation which had then provided the material for another series of allegations which proved to be false. If Gerth at least had personal reasons to be less than critical about his sources, the Times had no motivation other than the profit and prestige to be gained from "breaking" another scandal. Most shocking of all, however, was the behavior of the rest of the media. Instead of poking holes in the Times' paper-thin story, the other news organizations took it up as their own.
As days and weeks and months went by, the scandal continued to grow, fueled by unsubstantiated and illegal leaks that almost certainly came from the Cox investigation. CNN's Lou Dobbs called the Lee case "the most alarming nuclear espionage scandal in nearly fifty years." Republican Senator Richard Lugar claimed that Lee had placed the United States "at significantly greater risk from a Chinese ballistic missile attack." Meanwhile, a Clinton administration already under investigation for links to China and eager to prove it was "tough on Beijing" pressed its case against Lee.
But there was no case against Lee. After six months of intensive investigation and ever-heightening hysteria the prosecutor's case collapsed. A mere week after claiming that Lee's release would endanger "hundreds of millions of lives," the government dropped 58 of the 59 charges against him and let Lee go for time served. Upon Lee's acquittal, Judge Parker, a conservative Reagan appointee, told him: "I sincerely apologize to you, Dr. Lee, for the unfair manner [in which] you were held in custody" under "demeaning, unnecessarily punitive conditions." The Times' allegations had damaged much more than one man's health and reputation. The anti-China hysteria that followed the Gerth-Risen article strengthened right-wing elements within the United States and seriously damaged US-China relations. During the height of the scandal, Republicans resurrected two missile defense bills that had been voted down the year before. The Clinton administration and key Democrats, fearful of being labeled soft on China, dropped their opposition and the bills passed. The Republicans also took advantage of the spy scare to press their attacks against the Clinton administration. The Cox investigation, which had itself been the primary source for the Gerth-Risen article and the charges against Lee, gained a new lease on life, leaking ever more implausible tales of Chinese espionage and government cover-up to a hungry press. Yet when the investigation finally released its report after Lee's acquittal, the scientist's name wasn't even mentioned. The Lee case also led to a backlash against Chinese-Americans and Asian-Americans in general. During the scandal the news media was filled with analyses of the culture of loyalty that supposedly makes Chinese-Americans likely to spy for China. It was never mentioned that whereas no Asian-American has ever been convicted of spying on this country, numerous white Americans have. During the Cold War, citizens of America betrayed their country for money at an astonishing rate that far outstripped that of any other nation. Is it possible that this predilection for spying on the part of Americans is related to our culture of selfishness, egoism and greed? Two years after the Gerth-Risen article, a poll found that 32 percent of Americans think that Chinese-Americans are more loyal to China, 46 percent believe that Chinese-Americans are passing national secrets to China and 68 percent feel negative about Chinese-Americans.
In the years since Wen Ho Lee was first accused in the media, some fair, well-researched articles have been written about various aspects of the affair. But in contrast to the charges of Chinese espionage and government cover-up, these have received little public attention. Those who profited from the scandal politically and monetarily have never been forced to admit culpability and we live today with the consequences of their actions. Any thorough treatment of the affair must therefore address the larger context in which this travesty occurred.
SOMETHING MORE SYSTEMIC AT WORK
The Wen Ho Lee scandal provides a breathtaking example of the "decline of journalistic integrity" that has been much written about in recent years. Let's assume for the moment that Gerth and Risen were ignorant rather than intentionally dishonest. No one else was working on the story. There was no need to rush to publication. They could have taken the time to check Trulock's background, research the history of the W-88 theft accusations and balance clearly biased sources with neutral ones. But they didn't.
Jeff Gerth and The New York Times have a long history of manufacturing inaccurate, sensationalistic stories. Gerth and the Times first broke the "Whitewater" scandal (which came to nothing), "Interngate," the "Chinagate" satellite technology scandal (which was highly questionable) and the Wen Ho Lee scare (which was false). In each of these cases the Times editorial board could have stopped the story had they wished. Similarly, the rest of the media could have acted as a check against the Times by deflating sham scandals instead of hyping them. But they didn't.
The completeness, the consistency and the sheer scale of the media's failure to attain fairness and accuracy in recent years suggests that something far larger, more systemic is at work than a failure of personal ethics.
Robert McChesney of the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois has described the three major trends in today's media as "corporate concentration, conglomeration, and hypercommercialism." According to another expert, by 1997 ten vast media conglomerates and a dozen smaller ones controlled almost all of U.S. mass media from newspapers, books and magazines to film, radio, television, cable, and recorded music. Since then, the rate of media consolidation has increased rapidly.
The process of consolidation has had two major effects on the news media. First, there is far less diversity, internal criticism and competition because there are far fewer independent news outlets. Second, the news media has itself become an appendage of the massive entertainment industry and is now subject to the same corporate ethic and market demands as the recording industry or Hollywood. The effects of these changes on the news we see have been striking and vast. In an attempt to save money, investigative research budgets have been slashed and reporters have been encouraged to focus on easily produced human interest stories and sensationalistic scandals that can be endlessly repeated and varied at little cost. While there are still good reporters out there, they are much less likely to get funded, hired or promoted than the Jeff Gerths of this world and we are much less likely to hear what they have to say.
The Wen Ho Lee affair provides an excellent example of how the new, hyper-commercial, megaconglomerate news media works to destabilize American politics and undermine the public interest.
The Chinese espionage scare that eventually came to scapegoat Lee began with an earlier series of Gerth articles. That investigation started with allegations that the Chinese had acquired sensitive technology after a Chinese rocket carrying an American satellite exploded and crashed. As he would do later in the Lee series, Gerth went on to paint a picture of vast conspiracy and cover-up within the government. Although the articles won Gerth a 1998 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting, detailed analyses of the series by other journalists have shown them to be plagued by misinformation and bias.
In 1996, a Chinese rocket carrying a Loral aerospace satellite exploded shortly after takeoff. During the subsequent investigation to find out what went wrong, Loral, an American company, may have leaked sensitive data to Chinese scientists. Through selective use of information and heavy innuendo Gerth converts these basic facts into a sinister conspiracy. He points out that Loral's chief executive was a generous contributor to the Democratic National Committee, implies that Loral's irresponsible "mindset" caused the leaks and suggests that Clinton purposely undermined an investigation of Loral by approving subsequent exports to China of the same technology that was leaked.
On the other hand, Gerth downplays evidence that shows that the leaks were almost certainly a freak accident (an engineer's secretary faxed the report and the company's lawyers immediately tried to block the transmission). He fails to mention a CIA study concluding that the leaks did not harm national security and omits the fact that the Pentagon, Loral's initial accuser, itself recommended approval of the technology exports that Clinton supposedly used to undermine the investigation. Worst of all, Gerth gives a skewed picture of how the U.S. government and American companies interact. In Gerth's articles, Clinton's financial ties to corporations investing in China and his approval of launches by and exports to China are made to appear unusual and suspicious. In reality, all of the high-tech firms investing in China give money to the major parties. At the same time, Democrats and Republicans alike have pushed for the transfer of sensitive technology to China.
The launch of American satellites by Chinese rockets, which requires a presidential waiver, actually began under President Reagan. Bush, Sr. routinely signed the waiver applications and so did Clinton. Late in the series of articles, Gerth turns his attention to Hughes Electronics Corp., another aerospace firm accused of giving secrets to China. Gerth concentrates on Hughes' lobbying of Clinton and notes that Clinton approved Hughes' launches. But he barely mentions the fact that Hughes supported Bush in the 1992 elections and that Bush also approved Hughes' launches.
Gerth's determination to implicate Clinton in Chinese espionage eventually led him to discover indirect donations from government-owned Chinese companies to the Democratic party. While the revelation rightly caused a scandal, there was never any evidence linking the donations to Chinese espionage and their purpose was almost certainly commercial. Moreover, Gerth failed to note that Republicans had equal if not stronger ties to China. George Bush Sr. worked as a highly-paid lobbyist for the CP Group, a Thai-based
company that the Cox commission and others accused of funneling Chinese money to the Democratic National Committee. Only months before the conservative American Spectator suggested that CP was one of a series of "front companies for Communist China" that were "actively buying up (and spying on) the U.S.," Neil Bush, George Bush's son, founded a "joint venture capital company" with the group.
Throughout his investigations of the "Chinagate" scandal, Gerth never found hard evidence of Chinese espionage, much less of government complicity. Placed within a larger context, Gerth's articles suggest that American companies working in China and the Chinese companies they worked with, acted like any other corporate lobbyists during the Clinton years. If technology leaks occurred, they were the predictable result of close economic interaction, an interaction that Republicans were just as keen to push as Democrats.
Yet there was an important story buried beneath the wild accusations of the Chinagate series. Gerth's reports showed that under the current campaign finance laws Presidents and legislators are certain to make foreign policy and national security decisions affecting companies to whom they are beholden. Uncovering the influence of special interests within government is one of the basic responsibilities of a free press. Yet instead of bringing this influence to light where it could be debated in a democratic manner, Gerth and The Times whitewashed the story. The corruption of democratic institutions by corporate cash is no longer an acceptable story to the media. This is because the media has itself become a powerful corporate interest.
The great media conglomerates are some of the top contributors to the Democratic and Republican parties. Their money has bought massive deregulation (most notably the 1996 Telecommunications Act) that has profoundly transformed the media, allowing news organizations to function as profit-driven entertainment companies rather than as caretakers of the public interest.
The story of how corporate lobbyists and wealthy individuals decide American policy and preclude public debate wasn't good enough for Gerth and The New York Times. That story would never have won Gerth a Pulitzer or made The Times the leading scandalmonger of the 90's. Instead, Gerth continued his reckless accusations, the Times printed them, the media embraced them, and there was nothing to stop the coming disaster. The Cox hearings began amidst a frenzy of China-bashing, nationalism and political finger-pointing. By the time the commission finally released its report - a report which contained nothing to justify its actions - an entire community had been stigmatized, one man had been cruelly persecuted, American democracy had been compromised by a series of McCarthyite investigations, two dangerous missile defense bills had passed into law, and America's relations with China had been seriously damaged.
Upon Lee's acquittal, the media instantly forgot its own role in the affair. His release was treated as a feel-good story, a lesson in how American democracy works in the end. One of the few major stumbling blocks to Lee's rehabilitation has been The New York Times, which along with the government has continued to harass Lee, suggesting most recently that his upcoming memoir may comprise a breach of national security. Lee's accusers, on the other hand, have prospered. Notra Trulock, a man who once said that ethnic Chinese should not be allowed to work on classified projects, received a $10,000 Special Act Award from the Clinton administration for "service to the country that needs to be recognized." Jeff Gerth won a Pulitzer and Christopher Cox became George W. Bush's China specialist.
On September 6, 2001 the Senate voted overwhelmingly to ease restrictions on the export of high technology products to China. Just a few years before, the Cox commission had strongly criticized Clinton for his 1996 decision to ease restrictions on similar items. The legislation passed after a massive lobbying effort by the computer, aerospace, and electronics industries, and had the support of the Bush administration and top Republican lawmakers.
Whatever the fate of Lee and his accusers, the fundamental flaws in our system that caused his ordeal persist. Maintaining a healthy media is a far more basic concern than any of the issues that divide Democrats and Republicans on foreign policy, trade, or defense. Without a pluralistic, free, and professional media to expose abuses of power and foster public debate, we can't even begin to address particular issues in a truly democratic manner. In the final analysis, the Wen Ho Lee affair is merely a minor footnote in a far greater story, the story of the betrayal of American democracy by those who are supposed to protect it.
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