December 17, 1999
Chase after 'Chinagate'
Editor's Note: A federal grand jury has indicted former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee for mishandling classified data, although the government could not show that Lee engaged in espionage for China. The case, however, has become so caught up in politics that Lee's defenders charge that the Clinton administration brought the charges to protect its flanks against soft-on-China accusations. The following story examines the political climate that has clouded this case.
By Robert Parry
On May 25, the staff of a select House committee began plopping an 872-page report, three glossy-bound volumes, into the arms of waiting Capitol Hill reporters.
The report supposedly told the sordid tale of how the Chinese government stole top-secret nuclear design and other sensitive data from the United States while the Clinton administration dragged its feet on investigating.
The report, submitted by Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., was well received by the Washington news media and quickly merged with allegations about illegal "soft money" contributions from shadowy Chinese sources to the Democrats in 1996.
Conservative Republicans and the news media spoke darkly about possibly the worst spy scandal since the Rosenbergs. Conservative operatives also spotted the fund-raising potential in the China spy charges.
Larry Klayman's Judicial Watch sent out a solicitation letter seeking $5.2 million for a special "Chinagate Task Force" that would "hold Bill Clinton, Al Gore and the Democratic Party Leadership fully accountable for election fraud, bribery and possibly treason in connection with the 'Chinagate' scandal.
"Chinagate involves actions by President Clinton and Vice President Gore which have put all Americans at risk from China's nuclear arsenal in exchange for millions of dollars in illegal campaign contributions from the Communist Chinese."
But like many other highly touted Clinton scandals, Chinagate eventually imploded over what might be called an evidence gap and a logic gap.
Chinagate burst onto the national scandal scene in March with front-page stories -- by Jeff Gerth and James Risen of The New York Times -- about possible Chinese espionage at the Los Alamos nuclear labs.
Spurred by these articles, the investigative focus quickly fell on scientist Wen Ho Lee. He was publicly identified as the chief suspect in the possible delivery of classified nuclear secrets to the Chinese and was fired for transferring sensitive classified material to his personal office computer.
In the media stampede that followed, Lee's guilt was widely assumed by pundits. In New Mexico, reporters and cameramen camped outside Wen Ho Lee's house and shoved microphones in his face whenever he ventured outside.
In Washington, TV analysts elliptically connected the alleged espionage to charges that Democratic fund-raiser Johnny Chung had illegally funneled $30,000 from a Chinese military intelligence front to the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection campaign.
Yet, despite the intensity of the media spotlight, little attention was paid to the shallowness of the Cox report. Though filling three volumes and toting up 872 pages, the report had the look of a term paper written by a student trying to stretch the length by expanding the margins and triple-spacing.
The Cox report certainly did not resemble the typical green- or beige-bound congressional report. The Cox report used 14-point type, more fitting for a first-grade reading primer than a government document. [By comparison, most congressional reports use 10-point type or smaller.]
More space was taken up by large graphics, including one page devoted to a photo of a mushroom cloud. Other pages were given over to colorful graphs and shaded boxes defining simple intelligence terms, such as what a "walk-in" is. Some pages at the start of chapters were entirely black for dramatic effect.
Some graphics also were misleading. Over one two-page spread [p.74-75], there was a chronology that packed all the boxes alleging espionage into the years of the Carter and Clinton administrations.
Nothing sinister appeared in the 12-year swath of the Reagan-Bush years, other than a 1988 test of a neutron bomb built from secrets believed stolen in the "late 1970s."
Only a careful reading of the text inside the boxes revealed that the principal security breaches under review occurred between 1984-92, during the Reagan-Bush administrations.
According to a document provided by the "walk-in" agent in 1995, Chinese intelligence stole the secrets of the W-88 miniaturized nuclear bomb "sometime between 1984 and 1992." The first test of the lighter warheads occurred in 1992, the last year of the Bush administration.
Since the W-88 data was the top concern of the espionage investigation and had allegedly been compromised before Clinton took office, some journalists might have wondered how Clinton and Gore could have swapped the secrets for campaign cash in 1996.
But the discrepancy was rarely -- if ever -- noted, as "Chinagate" became the newest Clinton scandal.
The Chinese espionage scandal picked up speed as it careened through the spring and summer, but the wheels started coming loose as early as April.
Then, a panel of intelligence officials reviewed the evidence and came away with far less certainty about the significance of Chinese espionage than the initial Times story and the Cox committee believed.
The Chinese advances "have been made on the basis of classified and unclassified information derived from espionage, contact with U.S. and other countries' scientists, conferences and publications, unauthorized media disclosures, declassified U.S. weapons information, and Chinese indigenous development," the intelligence panel reported.
The intelligence experts could not decide which sources had been most important or what the Chinese had gained from the various strategies. But the panel added that the Chinese research/espionage effort had not led to the deployment of any modernized nuclear weapons.
Chinagate encountered more trouble in June when a review by the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board -- chaired by former Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H. -- concluded that the spying probably was less than "widely publicized." Other findings judged that suspicions had unfairly settled on Wen Ho Lee because of his Chinese heritage.
Finally, on Sept. 7, The New York Times, which had stoked the scandal in March, retreated from its over-heated coverage and offered a more tempered assessment.
This article by William J. Broad noted that the evidence was much more tenuous than the Cox report had represented.
"A review of the dispute, based on months of interviews and disclosures of weapons and intelligence secrets, suggests that the congressional report went beyond the evidence in asserting that stolen secrets were the main reason for China's breakthrough," Broad wrote.
"The debate over Chinese spying has been blurred by issues that include Republican distaste for President Clinton's China policy [and] accusations of racial bias in the investigation." [For details on the Times' retreat, see Brill's Content, November 1999.]
Despite the press pull-back, the politics of Chinagate continued to resonate on Capitol Hill. House Republicans have stood by the Cox report and conservative pundits have suggested a Justice Department coverup on the fund-raising issue.
Meanwhile, right-wing organizations still see Chinagate as a kind of nuclear hot button for getting the faithful to open their wallets.