October 27, 2000
`Daisy' Ad Disinformation
By Robert Parry
An obscure conservative group is airing an ad modeled after the infamous 1964 commercial that showed a girl picking a daisy before the screen dissolved into a nuclear explosion.
The ad remake attacks the Clinton-Gore administration for allegedly selling vital nuclear secrets to communist China, in exchange for campaign donations in 1996. The compromised nuclear secrets, the ad states, gave communist China “the ability to threaten our homes with long-range nuclear warheads.”
But the new ad is disinformation. The evidence is now clear that any breaches of national security that contributed to the modernization of China’s nuclear arsenal occurred in the 1980s, not the 1990s.
The new ad flips the responsibility for these compromised secrets from the Reagan-Bush administration to the Clinton-Gore administration -- and uses this distortion to scare voters in key swing states into voting Republican.
The key compromised U.S. secret that apparently helped China's nuclear weapons program was the blueprint for the W-88 miniaturized nuclear warhead. It was given to the communist Chinese in 1988, the last year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, according to documents given to U.S. authorities by a Chinese defector.
The communist Chinese tested their W-88-style warhead in 1992, the last year of the Bush administration. The secrets were lost before Bill Clinton and Al Gore took office.
The Chinese defector turned over the documents about the espionage in 1995. A few years later, when the American public first learned of the documents, the Republicans used fuzzy logic and heated rhetoric to turn the lost nuclear secrets into an attack theme against the Democratic administration.
Some prominent conservatives accused President Clinton and Vice President Gore of "appeasement" and even treason. The furor overwhelmed any careful examination of the evidence.
But the evidence continues to build that the hemorrhage of nuclear secrets occurred on the Reagan-Bush watch. Recently, federal investigators have begun translating other documents from the Chinese defector and have learned that the exposure of nuclear secrets in the 1980s was worse than previously thought.
According to an article in The Washington Post on Oct. 19, “the documents provided by the defector show that during the 1980s, Beijing had gathered a large amount of classified information about U.S. ballistic missiles and reentry vehicles.”
Other evidence suggests that conscious decisions by senior Reagan-Bush officials may have put the communist Chinese in a position to glean the secrets.
As we reported on Sept. 18, the rupture of U.S. nuclear secrets to China followed a secret decision by Reagan’s White House to collaborate with communist China on a highly sensitive intelligence operation in 1984. The project was the clandestine shipment of weapons to the Nicaraguan contras, in defiance of U.S. law and while the administration was denying to Congress that such shipments were occurring.
The point man for enlisting communist China in the contra operation was Oliver North, then an official on Reagan’s National Security Council staff and now a conservative icon as a talk show host.
It has never been explained what communist China got in return for its cooperation, although other nations that joined the secret contra supply line extracted lucrative quid pro quos from the Reagan-Bush administration.
While the details of a possible U.S.-China tradeoff are unknown, the Reagan administration did authorize exchange programs between U.S. and Chinese nuclear physicists. The Chinese even were given access to the Los Alamos nuclear facility.
Investigations, including this year’s prosecution of physicist Wen Ho Lee for mishandling secrets, focused on possible leaks from these exchange programs in the 1980s as an explanation for the Chinese success in learning how to build the W-88 warhead and obtaining other highly classified information.
Yet, when the evidence of Chinese nuclear espionage surfaced in the late 1990s, around the time of the congressional impeachment of President Clinton, the Republicans tried to pin the blame for the lost secrets on the Clinton-Gore administration.
The national news media contributed to the confusion by failing to explain clearly to the American public that the security breaches represented a Reagan-Bush scandal, not a Clinton-Gore scandal.
Those failures now are playing back into Campaign 2000.
A pro-Republican group from Texas, called Aretino Industries is exploiting the confusion and again is trying to blame the Clinton-Gore administration for the loss of nuclear secrets in the 1980s. The group is running the highly emotional "daisy" ad in battleground states, including Ohio, Michigan, Missouri and Pennsylvania. [NYT, Oct. 27, 2000]
The closing message from the remade “daisy” commercial is blunt and unintentionally ironic: “Don’t take a chance," it says. "Please vote Republican.”
Robert Parry is an investigative reporter who broke many of the Iran-contra stories in the 1980s for The Associated Press and Newsweek.