Last week, Bush picked the report’s author, Rep.
Christopher Cox, R-Calif., to become chairman of the Securities and
Exchange Commission, which regulates stock trading in the United States.
Bush’s choice of Cox, a self-described “free market”
advocate, is seen as a possible retreat from a period of aggressive SEC
enforcement that followed scandals at Enron Corp., WorldCom Inc. and
other major companies.
During his 16 years in Congress, Cox’s best-known
investigation examined the politically sensitive issue of Chinese
nuclear spying. In May 1999, Cox released an 872-page report in three
glossy volumes accusing the Clinton administration of failing to protect
the nation against China’s theft of top-secret nuclear designs and other
The Cox report dovetailed with allegations that a
Chinese government front had funneled $30,000 in illegal “soft money”
donations to the Democrats in 1996. Some conservative operatives even
accused President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore of treason for
supposedly trading nuclear secrets for campaign cash.
In 2000, George W. Bush’s campaign exploited these
suspicions by running ads showing Gore meeting with saffron-robed monks
at a Buddhist temple in California. Millions of Americans surely went to
the polls thinking that Gore’s temple appearance and the Chinese nuclear
spying were somehow linked.
But the Cox report’s emphasis on the Clinton years
– and protection of the Reagan-Bush administration – looks, in
retrospect, more like a partisan cheap shot than a fair and balanced
One sleight of hand used in Cox’s report was to
leave out dates of alleged Chinese spying in the 1980s to obscure the
fact that the floodgates of U.S. nuclear secrets to China – including
how to build a miniaturized W-88 nuclear warhead – appeared to have been
open during the Reagan-Bush years.
While leaving out time elements for the Reagan-Bush
era, Cox listed the years for alleged lapses during the Carter and
For instance, the Cox report’s “Overview” states
that “the PRC (People’s Republic of China) thefts from our National
Laboratories began at least as early as the late 1970s, and significant
secrets are known to have been stolen as recently as the mid-1990s.” In
other words, Cox started with the Democratic presidency of Jimmy Carter
and then jumped over the 12 years of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush to
Bill Clinton’s administration.
In the report’s “Overview” alone, there are three
dozen references to dates from the Clinton years and only five mentions
of dates from the Reagan-Bush years, with none of those citations
related to alleged wrongdoing.
In a two-page chronology of the scandal – pages
74-75 – the Cox report puts all the boxes about Chinese espionage
suspicions into the Carter and Clinton years. Nothing sinister is
attributed specifically to the Reagan-Bush era, other than a 1988 test
of a neutron bomb built from secrets that the report says were believed
stolen in the “late 1970s,” the Carter years.
Only a careful reading of the text inside the
chronology’s boxes makes clear that many of the worst national security
breaches apparently occurred on the Reagan-Bush watch.
For instance, a box for 1995 states that a
purported Chinese defector walked into a U.S. government office in
Taiwan that year and handed over incriminating Chinese documents. While
that would seem to apply to a Clinton year, the documents actually
showed that Chinese intelligence may have stolen the W-88 secrets
“sometime between 1984 and 1992,” Reagan-Bush years.
The Chinese tested their miniaturized warhead in
1992 while George H.W. Bush was president.
Left out of the chronology also was the fact that
suspicious meetings with Chinese scientists – that made Los Alamos
scientist Wen Ho Lee an espionage suspect – took place from 1985 to
1988, while Ronald Reagan was president.
When released on May 25, 1999, the Cox report was
greeted by conservative groups and the national news media as an
indictment of the Clinton administration. By then, of course, the
Washington press corps was obsessed with “Clinton scandals” and viewed
almost any allegation through that prism.
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 didn’t resemble the typical green- or
beige-bound congressional report. In a shiny black-red-white-and-gold
cover, 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.]
Space also 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 a
“walk-in.” Some pages at the start of chapters were entirely black for
Though the Cox report fed the post-impeachment
Clinton scandal fever, cooler heads began to prevail in June 1999. A
study was issued by the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board
– chaired by former Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H. – concluding that Chinese
spying was less than had been “widely publicized.”
On Sept. 7, 1999, the New York Times weighed in
with an article stating that the evidence of Chinese spying was far more
tenuous than the Cox report had represented. “The congressional report
went beyond the evidence in asserting that stolen secrets were the main
reason for China’s breakthrough,” the article said.
Still, the fallout from the spy hysteria continued.
The 60-year-old Wen Ho Lee was imprisoned on a 59-count indictment for
mishandling classified material. The Taiwanese-born naturalized U.S.
citizen was put in solitary confinement with his cell light on at all
times. He was allowed out of his cell only one hour a day, when he
shuffled around a prison courtyard in leg shackles.
Nine months later, the case against Wen Ho Lee
began to collapse and the government accepted a plea bargain on Sept.
13, 2000. The scientist pled guilty to a single count of mishandling
A furious U.S. District Judge James A. Parker
complained that he had been “led astray” by government prosecutors and
apologized to Lee for the “demeaning, unnecessarily punitive conditions”
under which Lee had been held. Parker ordered Lee released with no
further jail time.
New evidence also pointed
to the fact that the hemorrhage of secrets to China traced back to the
Reagan-Bush years. After translating more documents from the Chinese
defector who had approached U.S. officials in 1995, federal
investigators found that the exposure of nuclear secrets in the 1980s
had been worse than previously thought.
“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,” according to an article in the Washington Post on
Oct. 19, 2000.
Still, the Cox report’s suspicions about
Clinton-Gore treachery lingered. During
Campaign 2000, a pro-Bush conservative group aired an ad modeled after
Lyndon Johnson’s infamous 1964 commercial that showed a girl picking a
daisy before the screen dissolved into a nuclear explosion.
The ad remake accused the
Clinton-Gore administration of selling vital nuclear secrets to
communist China, in exchange for campaign donations in 1996. These
nuclear secrets, the ad stated, gave communist China “the ability to
threaten our homes with long-range nuclear warheads.”
“Chinagate” helped George W. Bush keep Election
2000 close enough so the intervention by five Republicans on the U.S.
Supreme Court, stopping a Florida recount, could give Bush the victory.
On Feb. 4-5, 2001, two weeks after George W. Bush
took office, the New York Times published a fuller retrospective on the
Wen Ho Lee case. A detailed chronology of
events again demonstrated that the suspected loss of nuclear secrets
dated back to the Reagan-Bush administration.
The Times reported that
limited exchanges between nuclear scientists from the United States and
China began after President Carter officially recognized China in 1978,
but those meetings grew far more expansive and less controlled during
“With the Reagan
administration eager to isolate the Soviet Union, hundreds of scientists
traveled between the United States and China, and the cooperation
expanded to the development of torpedoes, artillery shells and jet
fighters,” the Times wrote. “The exchanges were spying opportunities as
But the full story of the
Republican-Chinese collaboration was even darker than the Times
By 1984, Ronald Reagan’s
White House had decided to share sensitive national security secrets
with the Chinese communists as it drew Beijing into the inner circle of
illicit arms shipments to the Nicaraguan contra rebels.
Reagan’s White House
turned to the Chinese for surface-to-air missiles for the contras
because the U.S. Congress had banned military assistance to the rebel
force and the contras were suffering heavy losses from attack
helicopters deployed by Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government.
Some of the private U.S.
operatives working with White House aide Oliver North had settled on
China as a source for SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles. In testimony at his
1989 Iran-Contra trial, North called the securing of these weapons a
“very sensitive delivery.”
For the Chinese missile
deal in 1984, North said he received help from the CIA in arranging
false end-user certificates from the right-wing government of Guatemala.
North testified that he “had made arrangements with the Guatemalan
government, using the people [CIA] Director [William] Casey had given
But China balked at
selling missiles to the Guatemalan military, which was then engaged in a
scorched-earth war against its own leftist guerrillas. To resolve this
problem, North was dispatched to a
clandestine meeting with a Chinese military official.
The idea was to bring
the Chinese communists in on what was
then one of the most sensitive secrets of the U.S. government: the
missiles were not going to Guatemala, but rather into a clandestine
pipeline arranged by the White House to funnel military supplies to the
contras in defiance of U.S. law.
This was a secret so
sensitive that not even the U.S. Congress could be informed, but it was
to be shared with communist China.
In fall 1984, North
enlisted Gaston J. Sigur, the NSC’s expert on East Asia, to make the
arrangements for a meeting with a communist Chinese representative,
according to Sigur’s testimony at North’s 1989 trial. “I arranged a
luncheon and brought together Colonel North and this individual from the
Chinese embassy” responsible for military affairs, Sigur testified.
“At lunch, they sat and
they discussed the situation in Central America,” Sigur said. “Colonel
North raised the issue of the need for weaponry by the contras, and the
possibility of a Chinese sale of weapons, either to the contras or, as I
recall, I think it was more to countries in the region but clear for the
use of the contras.”
North described the same
meeting in his autobiography, Under Fire. To avoid coming under
suspicion of being a Chinese spy, North said he first told the FBI that
the meeting had been sanctioned by national security adviser Robert C.
McFarlane. Then, North went ahead with the meeting to gain the help of
“Back in Washington, I
met with a Chinese military officer assigned to their embassy to
encourage their cooperation,” North wrote. “We enjoyed a fine lunch at
the exclusive Cosmos Club in downtown Washington.”
North said, in part, the
Chinese communists saw the collaboration as a way to develop “better
relations with the United States.” Possession of this knowledge also put
Beijing in position to leverage U.S. policy in the future.
It was in this climate of
cooperation that other secrets, including how to make miniaturized
hydrogen bombs, allegedly reached communist China.
Though the evidence of
North’s secret contacts with Chinese intelligence had been public
knowledge since the late 1980s, the Cox report in 1999 made no reference
to this secret collaboration between Reagan’s White House and China.
Enter Wen Ho Lee
Wen Ho Lee first came to
the FBI’s attention in 1982 when he called another scientist who was
under investigation for espionage, according to the Times chronology.
But Lee’s contacts with China – along with trips there by other U.S.
nuclear scientists – increased in the mid-1980s as relations warmed
between Washington and Beijing.
In March 1985, Lee was
seen talking with Chinese scientists during a scientific conference in
Hilton Head, S.C. The next year, with approval of Los Alamos, Lee and
another scientist attended a conference in Beijing. In 1988, Wen Ho Lee
attended another conference in Beijing.
“On Sept. 25, 1992, a
nuclear blast shook China’s western desert,” the Times wrote. “From
spies and electronic surveillance, American intelligence officials
determined that the test was a breakthrough in China’s long quest to
match American technology for smaller, more sophisticated hydrogen
In September 1992, George
H.W. Bush was still president.
In the early years of the
Clinton administration, U.S. intelligence experts began to suspect that
the Chinese nuclear breakthrough most likely came from purloined U.S.
“It’s like they were
driving a Model T and went around the corner and suddenly had a
Corvette,” said Robert M. Hanson, a Los Alamos intelligence analyst, in
early 1995, the Times reported.
Looking for possible
espionage, investigators began examining the years of the mid-1980s when
the Reagan-Bush administration had authorized U.S. nuclear scientists to
hold a number of meeting with their Chinese counterparts.
Though the American
scientists were under restrictions about
what information could be shared, it was
never clear exactly why these meetings were held in the first place –
given the risk that a U.S. scientist might willfully or accidentally
divulge nuclear secrets.
But the Chinese-espionage
story didn’t gain national attention until March 1999 when the New York
Times published several imprecise front-page stories fingering Lee as an
espionage suspect. This “Chinagate” story broke just weeks after
Clinton’s impeachment and Senate trial for lying about sex with Monica
With Clinton acquitted by
the Senate, the Republicans and the news media were eager for another
“Clinton scandal.” To get this fix, they brushed aside the inconvenient
timing of the lost secrets from the 1980s and mixed together the
suspicions about Chinese spying and allegations of Chinese campaign
donations in 1996.
During those chaotic
first weeks of “Chinagate,” pundits virtually never noted the logical
impossibility of Democrats selling secrets to China in 1996 when China
apparently had obtained those secrets a decade or so earlier during a
Conservative groups also
grasped the political and fund-raising potential.
right-wing 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
actions by President Clinton and Vice President Gore which have put all
Americans at risk from China’s nuclear arsenal in exchange for million
of dollars in illegal campaign contributions from the Communist
Chinese,” Klayman’s letter said.
But the ultimate payoff
for this twisting of history may have come in November 2000, when
possibly millions of Americans went to the polls determined to throw out
the Clinton-Gore crowd for selling nuclear secrets to communist China.
That impression was
anchored in the public mind by Cox’s three-volume report, which had
selectively presented the case and steered away from evidence that
implicated the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
confirmation, Cox now will bring these investigative talents – and
George W. Bush’s gratitude – to the chairmanship of the Securities and