Today's Papers

Bomb Prosecution Bombs

The Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times lead with the freeing of Wen Ho Lee after the former Los Alamos nuclear scientist pleaded guilty to a single felony count of illegally downloading nuclear data from a classified computer and was in return sentenced to the jail time he’d already served. Each story’s headline refers to the trial judge’s castigation of the government’s conduct in the matter. USA Today, which puts Lee on Page 3, goes instead with the planned announcement today by the FAA and Boeing that the latter will upgrade the rudder design on its widely used 737 airliners. Rudder problems, the paper says, caused two crashes in the early ‘90s that killed 157 people.

The Lee coverage focuses on the greatest singularities of the development: the dramatic reversal for both sides and the phenomenon of a trial judge repeatedly excoriating the executive branch all the way to the White House and just as often apologizing to the defendant he was in the process of finding guilty. Everybody has the judge’s comment that the “top decision-makers” rather than the local prosecutors had “embarrassed this entire nation and everyone who is a citizen of it.” The judge is quoted as feeling misled by the government about the seriousness of what Lee had done and as expressing bewilderment about why yesterday’s deal couldn’t have been reached months ago.

The WP and LAT report that as part of the deal, Lee swore that he never gave the tapes to a third party nor intended to do so. The NYT varies slightly from the others in its description of the agreement in saying that in it Lee promised to tell the government whether anyone else had seen the downloaded info. Lee also provided a sworn statement, not released by either side, describing how he disposed of the tapes. Lee will also be subject to three weeks of follow-up FBI questioning.

The NYT is alone in discussing whether or not the prosecution of Lee was an example of the racial profiling of Asian-American nuke scientists–something the judge raised from the bench. But the paper swiftly undercuts the idea with a reference to the current Albuquerque U.S. attorney as “himself a Chinese American.”

The NYT reports on its front that Department of Justice investigators are pursuing the meaning of a call sheet apparently referred to in 1995 by then DNC Chairman Donald Fowler. The sheet, apparently designed to serve as an aid for making a funds solicitation phone call to a plaintiff’s lawyer, says, “I know [you] will give $100K when the president vetoes tort reform, but we really need it now.” A few months after the sheet’s creation, President Clinton vetoed a tort reform bill. The paper says Fowler doesn’t remember the call and denies following the script, which is a good thing, since such a quid pro quo could be illegal. The WP has the story as well, only on Page 9.

The papers cover yesterday’s Senate hearings on allegations that the major media market violence to children. The testimony ranged over the terrain made suddenly familiar by this week’s Federal Trade Commission report and was tinged by presidential campaign politics because of the participation of Joseph Lieberman and Lynne Cheney. The WP account says movie lobbyist Jack Valenti, in his answers to senators’ questions, seemed like someone playing a game, one he’d played many times. The LAT story has the tidbit that John McCain, angered that no movie studio execs came to testify, unmasked one company which the FTC said had engaged in underage movie marketing but didn’t identify: It was Sony and the movie was The Fifth Element. Which raises a few questions for the papers. Is it legal for senators to unilaterally violate the confidentiality agreements entered into by the FTC? And if so, since Hollywood is fluent in the language of shame, isn’t this a powerful tool to use to bring all the studio marketeers to heel?

Both the WP and NYT report that a package of putative internal George W. Bush campaign materials relating to debate preparations was recently mailed (postmark: Austin, Texas) to former congressman Tom Downey, who has been helping Al Gore in his preparations for debates by playing the role of Bush. Downey turned the material over to the FBI after determining that it was for real. Both stories bring up the 1980 episode in which the Reagan campaign obtained Carter briefing papers and used them. The Times story explains that the Gore campaign brought the Downey story to the AP, apparently in an attempt to cut off any suspicion that it would make similar use of the material.

Back to the Lee coverage for a beat: There is much collateral opining in the papers’ op-ed spaces on the case as a reminder of the dangers of government overreaching. But students of how opinion can also be conveyed on the front page will want to attend to the LAT’s effort. There, Lee is described as “tiny.” He is said to have been arrested by “burly” FBI agents. And the FBI agent who recently recanted his original damning testimony that Lee lied to colleagues is depicted as “a beefy man with slicked-back hair.” All true no doubt, but these are virtually the only physical descriptions in the story.