William Safire Doesn’t Apologize


The New York Times still hasn’t heeded Chatterbox’s Sept. 14 suggestion that it apologize to Wen Ho Lee for creating the media stampede that helped put Lee behind bars. (Reportedly, the editors are working on something, but rumors that the mea culpa would appear in yesterday’s “Week in Review” section proved premature.) Meanwhile, William Safire today launched a counterattack against “apologists for Clinton’s China policy” who “are trying to turn the lawbreaking scientist Wen Ho Lee into a hero.” The goal is “to use sympathy for Lee, who was harshly treated in jail while awaiting trial, to discredit all evidence of the interrelated Clinton ‘Asian connections.’ ” This is pretty nutty. In fact, since no one besides Safire (and maybe Christopher Cox) ever suggested there was any connection between the Lee case and the 1996 fund-raising scandals, no one is bothering to discredit that hypothesis now. To the extent that Lee’s case is being appropriated for extraneous partisan causes, it’s mostly to rehash arguments about Whitewater. (That’s because the same Times reporter, Jeff Gerth, wrote about both. The Gerth connection is a bit of a reach, because the lead reporter on the Times’ disastrously error-laden Page One “special report” of March 6, 1999, which kicked off the anti-Lee hysteria, wasn’t Gerth, but James Risen.)

The reason to complain about Lee’s treatment isn’t that Lee’s a hero. Rather, it’s that there doesn’t seem to be any hard evidence that Lee ever spied for the Chinese. Even Safire admits that Lee was a “scapegoat,” though he manages to hold that conviction while simultaneously remaining furious that Janet Reno’s Justice Department never wiretapped Lee. Safire clearly still thinks Lee is a spy. He approvingly cites the Washington Post (which beat the Times on the Lee story while covering the accusations with greater skepticism) for reporting on Sept. 24 that Lee’s lawyers used a “graymail” strategy to get Lee off. If the trial proceeded, Lee’s lawyers threatened, they would subpoena nuclear secrets. This isn’t the sort of strategy one would normally expect from an innocent defendant. “If Jonathan Pollard had graymailed his prosecutors,” Safire concludes, “he’d be a free man today.”

But Safire doesn’t mention that this same Post story reported that government prosecutors were blindsided when the defense came up with expert witnesses who questioned the secrecy and importance of the information Lee had downloaded. … “We wouldn’t have [sought the indictment] if we thought it would come down to a battle of experts,” said one government official.

Safire steers clear of this because it’s totally at odds with his own previous claim that the data constituted “the nation’s most secret codes” (May 10, 1999) or, if you prefer, “our most vital national-security secrets” (March 15, 1999); that they would “enable foreign scientists to simulate our explosions and erase our lead”; and that they would make U.S. cities “less safe in two years than they were at the height of the cold war” (April 29, 1999).

Although there remain reasons to be suspicious of Lee’s motive for downloading the data, there doesn’t seem to be much agreement about how secret that data really was. Also, it remains unclear whether the alleged Chinese theft of miniaturized U.S. nuclear-warhead technology–which set off the spy hunt to begin with–ever occurred. (“It is my belief that there was no espionage,” Warren Rudman, the Republican chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, told the Post Sept. 17. “What they did, they did on their own.”) In other words, Lee’s “graymail” may have worked not because the U.S. government feared that crucial secrets would be revealed, but because it feared that crucial secrets wouldn’t be revealed.

If you missed the Sept. 14 Chatterbox, “Why Won’t the Times Apologize to Wen Ho Lee,” click here.

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