Why the Cox Report went nowhere

Democrats and Republicans basically agree on selling out to business and China, via "commercial diplomacy."

Published June 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It's always suspicious when Washingtonians start breaking into bad Latin. There may be a quid, you hear them say, and there seems to be a quo. But -- aha -- there's no smoking pro to connect the two. This pseudo-talk combines my least favorite styles: that of the overpaid attorney and that of the overpaid political obfuscator.

Thus, it is not denied that Chinese military-industrial sources managed to transfer an awful lot of money to the Democratic National Committee. Nor is it denied that many tranches of valuable information made their way from American nuclear laboratories into the computer systems of the People's Republic of China. Nor is it denied that large American corporations were eager to share missile and satellite technology with the PRC, and that they, too, were generous to the DNC. All that is denied is that these things have anything to do with one another.

But every one of the Clintonian defenses raises additional suspicions.

The White House has insisted that Chinese espionage is nothing new, and was known to occur under previous Republican administrations. In that case, they had every reason to be vigilant, when all the evidence shows they were not. But then the president claims he was not told of any espionage until March 19 of this year. Not only does this contradict the previous argument -- that Washington was aware of the long-standing problem -- but it clashes with Sandy Berger's claim to have been briefed by Department of Energy intelligence as far back as July 1997 and to have passed on the briefing to Clinton "within a day or two."

Not even Lanny Davis has been able to confect an explanation for this discrepancy. Maybe that's why Clinton finally broke down this weekend and admitted that in fact he had heard about the Chinese espionage threat a bit earlier than acknowledged.

And why exactly, when the FBI asked Justice for permission to tap the computer of Wen Ho Lee, a scientist at the Los Alamos labs, did Janet Reno's amazing subordinates three times turn down the application? The Clinton administration, though legal measures such as the Anti-Terrorism and Intelligence Authorization acts, has been treating the Fourth Amendment, which was intended to protect Americans from
government investigatory excess, as an inconvenience since at least 1996. The chief exhibit in this contempt for the Constitution is the "roving wiretap," whereby any phone to which a suspect is "reasonably proximate" can be invigilated by the FBI. We now know that in 1996 Reno's judicial review panel authorized all 839 wiretap warrants that it received. How did Wen Ho Lee escape that dragnet?

Now, was there anything else going on, between about 1996 and now, that could make the administration at all touchy about learning more about Chinese penetration? Well, there were the numerous Senate hearings at which it was established -- and not denied -- that the DNC and the Clinton-Gore 1996 campaign had shredded such distinction as existed between "hard" and "soft" political donations.

Going back a bit further, there are intimate connections between the Riady Corp. -- a front for Chinese interests -- and Clinton's original financial backers in Arkansas. The Worthen Bank, owned by Clinton's long-time backer Jackson Stephens, was the conduit for a large Riady loan in 1992 -- just in time to save the financially exhausted Clinton campaign. Only Webster Hubbell knows for sure about the provenance of some of this dough.

The more suave Clintonoids speak scornfully about the idea that anyone could buy a whole presidency with such small potatoes. Here is Jeffrey Garten, formerly Clinton's undersecretary of commerce (and a former Nixon and Kissinger underling), recalling his work for Ron Brown in an incautious Newsweek essay in March 1997:

John Huang, the suspicious DNC official, was a Commerce official first. You can't
understand the 1996 money mess without grasping the environment in which commercial
diplomacy was born. It is, after all, the major thrust of the president's foreign policy ... In our single-minded drive to help American companies, we dramatically expanded
our commercial involvement in big emerging markets like China, India and Brazil. This
push attracted a lot of foreigners who wanted to play in the new game ... there were people,
like the Riadys or Charlie Trie or Johnny Chung, who may have thought they could gear
this process to their own enrichment by buying special influence. If you open a wild
bazaar, as we did, you have to expect the occasional pickpocket.

Here is another series of admissions in the guise of excuses. (The term "commercial diplomacy" is worth having, you must admit.) A former senior official affirms that there was a revolving door between the Commerce Department and a bunch of shady businessmen, all of whom are friends and backers of the president. And as I noted in my last column, all the "pickpockets" identified as polluting this otherwise noble enterprise have Asian names. How this squares with Clinton's indignation about "Asian bashing" is more than I can say. I am, as usual, lost in sheer admiration.

John Huang gave the first lady's chief of staff a check for $50,000 to gain "access" for his Chinese military-industrial backers. Bernard Schwartz of the Loral aerospace corporation gave much more than 20 times that to the DNC, and secured his company a seat on Commerce Department plane trips to China, in the course of which satellite technology was unglued from burdensome export licensing. The Hughes Aircraft people went the same route.

Huang has now been deposed by Judicial Watch, in its landmark lawsuit against the Commerce Department, and has been asked about his role as a Chinese agent, his role at the DNC, and his role at Commerce. He has so far invoked the protection of the Fifth Amendment more than 1,000 times, which is believed to be an indoor record. (He invoked it in answer to such questions as "Do you recognize the late Ronald Brown in this photograph?") If only our Fourth Amendment rights were as secure as his Fifth Amendment ones.

Meanwhile, as the conservatives at Judicial Watch point out, the bizarre thing is the relative silence of the Republican leadership on all this. Far from being "partisan," after some initial squawking, they let the Cox Report and its implications lapse. Perhaps they, too, believe in "commercial diplomacy" and its resultant donations. If so, then the metaphor of Mutual Assured Destruction operates as smoothly between the two parties as it once did -- and may again -- between this superpower and its challengers.

By Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, the Nation and Salon News.

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