Why Won’t the Times Apologize to Wen Ho Lee?


Hopping mad about the legal persecution of former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was just released from jail (and suspicion that he is a Chinese spy), the New York Times is busy finding witch hunters to condemn. Topping the list is Janet Reno, who’s excoriated in a news story for defending the government’s failed attempt to prosecute Lee even as President Clinton concedes that “the whole thing was quite troubling.” The Times is also quite censorious of Notra Trulock III, the Energy Department whistleblower who first charged that Los Alamos harbored a spy and developed a list of 70 suspects that, the Times says, “includes people with no access to classified or weapons information”—among them, a woman who traveled to China with her high-school band. (Trulock is himself now under investigation for committing an alleged security breach in an unpublished article about the case.) A Times editorial demands that Clinton appoint “a politically independent person of national standing to review the entire case,” and “[I]f racial profiling is found, investigators and prosecutors should be called to account for their conduct.” Heads will roll!

But what about the Times’ own culpability? Nowhere in the Times’ voluminous coverage of Lee’s release has there been the slightest acknowledgement, much less expression of regret, that the Times helped put Lee behind bars. A few commentators (Lars Erik Nelson, Robert Scheer, Joshua Micah Marshall) have chastised the Times for whipping up anti-Lee hysteria, but most readers are probably unaware of it. And though Lee is newly released, the weakness of the case against him is not a new story; the basics were outlined by Nelson more than a year ago in the New York Review of Books.

Let’s review how the world learned about Wen Ho Lee, Alleged Atom Spy.

The Times launched its campaign against Lee on March 6, 1999, when it published a Page One “special report” by James Risen and Jeff Gerth headlined “Breach at Los Alamos.” The story detailed espionage allegations concerning an unnamed Los Alamos spy—it soon came out this was Lee—and slammed the Clinton administration for “delays, inaction, and skepticism,” which were attributed to the White House’s craven desire to improve diplomatic relations with China. The story’s hero and obvious key source was Trulock, the Energy Department whistleblower whom the Times now distances itself from.

Interestingly, this first Times story wasn’t really a scoop. The basic elements had already been reported, somewhat more responsibly, by Carla Anne Robbins of the Wall Street Journal on Jan. 7, 1999. But the Times story unquestionably put Lee on the map—so much so that Chatterbox ended up taking the Washington Post to task when, two days after the Times story appeared, Lee was fired from his job and the Post neglected to mention the Times’ role. As Chatterbox noted at the time, the Times piece had immediately propelled Sen. Richard Shelby, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, onto Meet the Press, where he’d screamed bloody murder about the alleged security breach. From that point, it was only a matter of time before the feds came down on Lee with everything they had (which turned out not to be much).

The Times story makes for embarrassing reading today. Its basic premise—that China had obtained crucial miniaturized atom-bomb technology via a security breach at Los Alamos—turned out to be wrong. Although China did obtain information about this technology, Los Alamos has since been ruled out as the likely source. (In any event, much of the information had already been made public.) The Times reported that the as-yet-unnamed Lee had flunked a lie-detector test. That turned out to be wrong, too. The Times quoted an Energy Department official [correction, Sept. 15: whoops, it was a CIA official] saying that this latest incident was “going to be just as bad as the Rosenbergs,” and strongly hinted that he was right. It has since distanced itself from this sentiment. The Times, citing unnamed government officials, reported that the suspect (Lee) had “traveled to Hong Kong without reporting the trip as required.” That turned out to be wrong, too.

The Times editorial page took up Lee’s perfidy as a crusade. It first weighed in on March 30, 1999, calling Energy and Justice Department officials “amazingly careless in their handling of a scientist suspected of stealing nuclear secrets for China.” On May 16, 1999, it wanted to know why Lee was dismissed “only this year,” why the Justice Department “inexplicably turned down a Federal Bureau of Investigation request to put a covert wiretap on Mr. Lee,” and why the hell Lee “has not been charged” with committing a crime. On May 26, release of a somewhat hysterical House committee report on Chinese nuclear espionage prompted the Times editorial page to opine, about national security adviser Samuel Berger, that “his fitness [to remain in office] is in question and must be carefully weighed in the days ahead.” Janet Reno’s failure to wiretap Lee was also decried once more and identified as “but the latest in a series of law-enforcement lapses or political blunders that would have led to Ms. Reno’s removal in any recent Administration other than this one.” This is the same Janet Reno whom the Times is now denouncing for prosecuting Lee!

Lee’s case is obviously a murky one. He has been found guilty of downloading lots of classified information onto his own computer for reasons that remain unclear. (As part of his plea agreement, he’s promised to explain.) But if the system wronged Lee, it did so under heavy pressure from the Times. It’s time the Times admitted that.

[Update, Sept. 15: A reader just alerted Chatterbox to an excellent November 1999 Brill’s Content piece about the Times and Wen Ho Lee. Click here to read it.]

[Update, Sept. 18: Stephen Engelberg, investigations editor of the New York Times, responded to the Brill’s Content piece, in the Feb. 2000 Brill’s Content: “What is clear is that Gerth and Risen accurately described what investigators knew and what they were speculating.” Click here and scroll down to read Engelberg’s very long rebuttal, and Robert Schmidt’s very long rebuttal to Engelberg’s rebuttal.]

[Also, click here to read Cynthia Cotts’ take in the Village Voice in September 1999.]

For a Sept. 25 followup on William Safire’s non-apology in the New York Times, click here.

For Chatterbox’s assessment of the Times’ Sept. 26 non-apology apology, click here.