The Times Revisits Wen Ho Lee

How does the New York Timesrevisionist series on Wen Ho Lee stack up? (Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2.) Robert Scheer, who seeks full exoneration for Lee, will probably be disappointed because the Times concludes that Lee’s behavior, while not demonstrably criminal, remains suspicious. The late Lars Erik Nelson would likely concede that the Times managed to show troubling ambiguities in Lee’s case, but probably it would rankle him that the Times failed to explain precisely how it botched the story the first time out. (The participation of James Risen and Jeff Gerth, the authors of the original faulty Times story on Lee, in reporting this new series probably makes institutional self-examination impossible.) The Web site maintained by Wen Ho Lee’s friends and supporters seems pleased enough with the new Times stories to link to them without comment, even though these stories are hard to square with its campaign for a presidential pardon.

[Update, 2/8: Wen Ho Lee’s friends and supporters have now posted a rebuttal by L. Ling-chi Wang, director of Berkeley’s Asian American Studies program. Click here  to read it.]

And what does Chatterbox think? Previously, this column criticized the Times for its Lee coverage, raised several objections to its quasi-apology for that coverage, and raised a few additional objections to the Times editorial page’s separate quasi-apology for its earlier belligerent editorials on Lee. In general, the new series does a good job of addressing Chatterbox’s criticisms.

Does the Times admit its central role in whipping up anti-Lee hysteria?

It does. Although we learn nothing about what caused Risen, Gerth, and their Times editors to be taken in by government investigators–especially the Energy Department’s Notra Trulock III (who, we now learn, is an expert neither on China nor on spying nor on bomb-building)–the Times now acknowledges that its initial Page One story on Lee “prompted a flood of press attention” and, according to FBI Director Louis Freeh, forced FBI agents to confront Lee before they were ready. At that interview, the Times acknowledges, an FBI agent used the initial Times piece’s reference to the Rosenbergs to threaten Lee with execution. Regrettably, however, this latest Times series doesn’t examine the impact of the Times’ noisy Lee editorials. The omission is in keeping with the Times news staff’s usual policy of steering clear of the Times editorial-page staff, an imperative likely exaggerated by anxiety that Times editorial-page editor Howell Raines will succeed Joe Lelyveld as executive editor.

The Times is a tad disingenuous about its role in encouraging a House committee chaired by Republican Christopher Cox to make irresponsible charges. It notes that it originally reported that China possessed “nuclear secrets stolen from an American government laboratory” and that American experts thought miniaturized nuclear weapon technology developed by the Chinese was “configured remarkably like” the American version. But it tut-tuts Cox for paraphrasing the Times by saying China had a “knockoff version of the world’s most sophisticated nuclear design.” Cox’s true mistake was not that he exaggerated the Times’ findings, but that he believed them too readily.

Does the Times concede that evidence is weak that the miniaturized nuclear weapon information alleged to be stolen by the Chinese was the result of any superspy passing along key documents?

It does. It reports that among a panel of 20 experts assembled by Trulock to examine the possible Chinese theft, Los Alamos scientist Robert Henson was “virtually alone in arguing angrily that the magnitude of China’s advancement implied the existence of a major spy.” The other experts tended to believe either that the Chinese figured out the miniaturization technology on their own or that that they “benefited from a slow drip of secrets.” Eventually a slimmed-down panel agreed to a compromise between Henson’s views and those of the others. Whereupon, the Times piece strongly suggests, Trulock misrepresented the panel’s finding to make it sound like it endorsed Henson’s views more forcefully than it really did.

The new Times pieces don’t address at all the Washington Post’s contention, in a story that appeared on Nov. 19, 1999, that tell-tale errors in an intercepted Chinese document suggest that if there was a major spy, that spy was much likelier to have been at the Sandia weapons lab, at Lockheed Martin Corp., or in the Navy than at Los Alamos where Lee worked.

Does the Times admit that it screwed up in reporting that Lee flunked a lie detector test?

No, but this one’s a little complicated. There were two lie detector tests. Lee passed the first one (administered by the Energy Department) and flunked the second one (administered by the FBI). Chatterbox (shame on me!) previously conflated the two. However, it’s hard to know how trustworthy that second lie detector test was because the FBI also took the position that Lee had really flunked the first lie detector test. The Times doesn’t drill down on this question.

Does the Times graciously admit that its original Page One story on Lee was not a scoop at all but rather a follow-on to an earlier story by Carla Robbins in the Wall Street Journal?

Yeah, way down in Part One. Rather than implicitly criticize the Journal for lacking “the details provided by the Times in a painstaking narrative” as the Times did in its earlier quasi-apology, now the Times merely asserts that investigators saw no evidence that the Journal piece alerted Lee that he was under suspicion.

Should the busy reader plow through this new Lee series?

Probably not. If you’ve been following the Lee story in other papers (or even in the Times), you’ve already been exposed to its thesis: That the case against Lee was weak, but that in the course of being investigated, Lee failed to provide a persuasive accounting for why he worked so hard to download secret files, or what he did with those files, and that on balance one should probably be glad Lee doesn’t work at Los Alamos anymore even though, based on what we know now, he didn’t deserve his nine months in jail. Chatterbox sees no reason to contest this view, which has been the conventional wisdom for some time.