It’s an Outrage (Never Mind What)

Wen Ho Lee and the Amazing Flexible Senators.

Schieffer: You said at one point that this was maybe the biggest security breach of—of our lifetime.Sen. Lott: Yeah, yeah.

That was host Bob Schieffer and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott on CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday.

By now Republican criticism of the Clinton administration, and Attorney General Janet Reno in particular, is beyond political calculation and beyond cynicism. They do it by rote, like a ritual incantation of the faith. You would think that even a politician’s vestigial sense of irony would give a U.S. senator pause before piling on about the injustice done to Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was kept in solitary confinement for nine months on lurid charges of spying and then released after pleading guilty to something like pocketing paper clips. There is, after all, plenty of other material available if you wake up one morning and say to yourself, “Y’know, I feel like denouncing the Justice Department today.” And if you’ve run out, someone at Louis Freeh’s FBI will be happy to leak you some more. Of all the reasons one might attack the administration, many of them justified, why choose one that puts you at the mercy of any hack columnist with access to Nexis (the news media database)? To do so suggests an unhealthy compulsion, if not severe short-term memory loss.

It was only last June, after all, that Lott was promising to make the Wen Ho Lee case an issue in the election campaign. Way back then—three months ago—the case was said to illustrate the administration’s disregard for American national security, not the railroading of a basically innocent man because of his race. “What I want to know is what actions are we going to take to stop this kind of misconduct,” Lott huffed, referring to Lee’s alleged spying, not the administration’s prosecution of him.

Now Lott says the question of Lee’s guilt is “not clear,” but “there’s a real dichotomy” between the way Lee was treated and the wrist-slap for former CIA Director John Deutch, who “apparently did the same thing.” No one has ever suggested that Deutch was a superspy for a foreign government, so “the same thing” apparently means that Lott now no longer believes that Lee was a superspy either. “What is the difference?” According to Lott, it’s that Deutch is “a buddy of the White House,” whereas Lee is Asian-American. (That’s actually two differences. But who’s counting?) “It’s unsettling,” Lott piously concluded, though not so unsettling that he had ever bothered to mention it in his many calls for Reno’s resignation during the past year.

The day Wen Ho Lee was arrested, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Shelby said, “I think they’ve been too late, or at least very tardy, in doing this.” For the next year—while Wen Ho Lee languished in solitary—Chairman Shelby had other concerns. He bounced from talk show to hearing to press conference denouncing administration laxness in cracking down on Chinese spies. “This problem could be more serious, more widespread, and potentially more dangerous than most Americans realize,” he foretold.

And now? A modest mea culpa, perhaps? A morsel of apology? Not quite. “All I can say is I thought from the beginning that that was a botched investigation,” Shelby said last week, like a man who warned that the Titanic was burdened by too many lifeboats.

Sen. Arlen Specter is not a person who brakes for ironies on his way to a microphone. “You have the grandest case of grand larceny in the history of the world on the espionage and the theft of vital American secrets” was his summary of the situation during a “Media Availability” (actual name of the event) last year. Specter accused the administration of “incredible bungling” that “put millions of Americans at risk.” Everyone thought at the time that the “bungling” charge referred to the Clinton administration’s failure to arrest Wen Ho Lee, or at least wiretap him, earlier. This might have been a convenient time for Specter to mention his real concern that the only person arrested in this grandest of grand larcenies was an innocent man being railroaded because of his race. If he happened to think so.

But Specter modestly suppressed his civil libertarian concerns until the case against Lee collapsed. Maybe he was waiting for an appropriate occasion. At a recent ceremony for the 213th anniversary of the Constitution, no less, Specter said, “It’s hard to understand how a man can be a major threat to national security one day and walk free the next.” And lest you think it’s the walking free part he objects to now, he added that the Justice Department “threw the book at Dr. Lee to make up for their own failings.” Specter promises hearings on this outrage, needless to say.

A year ago Sen. Phil Gramm thought Janet Reno ought to resign because the belated nabbing of the arch-spy Wen Ho Lee added to “the cumulative weight of all her failures.” Now Gramm’s well-known passion for racial justice makes him even more adamant. “I don’t understand an administration that stands up and damns racial profiling and yet engages in it when it suits,” he said last week. Reno ought to resign “if she had any honor and any shame,” observed this expert on those qualities.

In short, the porridge is too hot. No, wait, it’s too cold. Whatever. The important thing is, it’s Clinton’s fault. Oh yeah, and Reno should resign.