The real China scandal

Was whistle-blower Notra Trulock a right-wing ideologue or a bureaucrat caught in the cross-fire between Clinton and Clinton haters?

Published September 13, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Live by the leak -- die by the leak. That might serve as the epitaph for Notra Trulock's brief jaunt across the public stage during the first half of this year. For months, Trulock, a high-ranking Energy Department counterintelligence operative, stood as a pillar of the far-flung edifice of scandals and pseudo-scandals which have buzzed around the Clinton administration's China policy since the end of 1996.

Those scandals -- in case you haven't read a newspaper in the last couple years -- ran the gamut from alleged attempts to take money from Chinese nationals and launder it into the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection campaign; to lax controls over missile technology exports to China; to espionage at the nation's prized nuclear weapons research laboratories.

Some of the country's more feverish commentators wove each of these allegations together into a single grand meta-scandal which had the Clinton administration passing the Chinese our dearest national secrets out of some uncertain mix of greed and ideological sympathy. But whatever one made of this melange of accusations, there was one thing almost everyone seemed to agree on: that Trulock had uncovered evidence that an American nuclear weapons scientist named Wen Ho Lee had passed secrets to the Chinese, and that the administration had let years go by without giving the matter any serious attention.

Trulock frequently exaggerated the magnitude of his findings. (In one outburst of self-promotion he told "Meet the Press'" Tim Russert that he believed the espionage he had uncovered was potentially "on a magnitude equal to the Rosenbergs-Fuchs compromise of the Manhattan Project information.") But even Bill Richardson, Clinton's energy secretary, rewarded Trulock with a $10,000 bonus for his doggedness and instituted a raft of measures meant to tighten up security at the nation's weapons labs.

But in recent weeks everything has changed. After an inspector general's report failed to confirm Trulock's central allegations about an administration attempt to cover up his findings about Lee, he abruptly resigned his job. But even before his resignation, the fingers of accusation, which were so recently pointing at Lee, were pointing at Trulock. A host of named and unnamed critics had begun to accuse him of focusing on Wen Ho Lee because of his ethnicity. (Lee is a Taiwan-born American citizen.)

And as more and more outside reviews failed to confirm Trulock's basic contentions, his charges and claims became more intense and dramatic. He scolded former Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., chairman of the president's National Security Review Board, which issued a report questioning the extent of any loss of secrets due to espionage and criticized Trulock's team for focusing so exclusively on Lee. Rudman shot back at Trulock, skewering him for what he called Trulock's "wildly inaccurate assertions and reckless accusations."

But the final blow to Trulock's quickly diminishing credibility came not from one of his growing chorus of detractors, but from Trulock himself. As the storm grew around him, he posted a message of thanks and support to the members of the ultra-conservative Free Republic chat site. (For those not familiar with the site's political stance, Free Republic has co-sponsored various anti-Clinton rallies, backed by the dean of Clinton conspiracy theorists, Larry Klayman.) "During some of the most trying times," he told loyal Freepers, "FR has been a source of moral support."

The denizens of Free Republic are so resolutely wacky -- even Lucianne Goldberg and Matt Drudge abandoned the site out of frustration with its extreme stands -- and so thoroughly anti-Clinton that his posting almost certainly lost Trulock his last thread of credibility as a dedicated civil servant simply trying to get at the truth. But the end of the story is not simply Trulock's exposure as some sort of right-wing nut bent on destroying the president. The reality is both more complex and more revealing.

Few observers who have watched the case closely believe that Trulock came to his work with any strong ideological or political agenda. The man himself is hard to shoehorn into the standard, but all too familiar, model of a Clinton hater. His accusations were often reckless, particularly toward the end. And he tended to see dark motives where others might simply have found inattention or laxity. But he supported Secretary Richardson's plans to toughen up security at the agency, for instance, which one would not expect from someone simply interested in doing political damage to the administration. And Trulock often qualified his allegations in ways that his more feverish congressional supporters never did.

Yet by the end of his tenure at the Energy Department, Trulock was painting an ever-widening picture of conspiracy and coverup. Close observers say he got caught up in the intense cross-fire between the Clinton administration and congressional Republicans. "People underestimate what happens when you get attacked like that," says Walter Pincus, the Washington Post reporter who's written extensively on the Trulock story. "He became radicalized. It's the way this city works. Once he gets attacked then he gets defended by the hard right. It happens to all sorts of people. He's not the first guy to get caught up in the media hype. He was a decent bureaucrat. But he got caught up in the politics."

Most observers contacted by Salon News agreed with some variant of Pincus' account -- that Trulock found himself ignored or attacked by the administration and its defenders, embraced by the far right, and was grateful for its "moral support," as he wrote in Free Republic. And all agreed that the process was circular and self-reinforcing. The administration's congressional opponents latched on to Trulock's most damaging and dramatic claims and hurled them at the White House. This led to counter-blasts from the administration, which in turn drove Trulock even further into the arms of the right-wingers who had flocked to his cause.

Yet whatever we make of Trulock, the heart of this story is really about the culpability of congressional Republicans and much of the national media in turning this story into a political firestorm. The firestorm did not ignite out of thin air; it was carefully cultivated. Ever since the end of the last decade, when the Republican political coalition began to crumble in response to the end of the Cold War, the party's older, ultra-conservative and isolationist impulses have reasserted themselves with a vengeance. And nowhere has this been more apparent than in the increasingly shrill and angry rhetoric the party aims at China. With China's mix of communism, resistance to missionary Christianity and widespread use of abortion, the China issue strokes all the exposed nerve endings of the conservative body politic.

This impulse from the right has been joined by many members of the GOP's foreign policy establishment who see U.S.-China confrontation as a way to resurrect the Republican-friendly Cold War politics that prevailed before 1989. It's not that there is nothing about China to be criticized or that our relations with the Chinese do not present a significant foreign policy challenge for the United States. But the larger context of these dark impulses has remained largely unexplored in the various China-related stories filling newspapers in recent years.

There is an odd symmetry at work here, because a similar set of circumstances afflicted our politics in the early years of the Cold War when congressional Republicans made hay with the notorious rallying cry of "who lost China?" Then as now, congressional Republicans were not content with disagreements over policy but rather indulged their appetite for wild-eyed charges about a Democratic administration selling out the United States to the communists or foolishly leaving the country vulnerable to some imminent Chinese attack. What is so disappointing is that the Washington political press broadcast the charges with so little sense of these rather transparent parallels.

The reality behind the scandal turns out to be both less sinister and more complex than the comic-book version that blanketed the airwaves last spring. Few doubt that the Chinese made some use of American technological specifications in making a breakthrough in the miniaturization of their warheads. What is less clear is whether they got that information from a spy, or whether they got it from artfully gleaning from information sources in the public domain.

One of the most telling ironies is that perhaps the best article written to date on this whole complex subject was by William Broad in the New York Times Sept. 7. What makes this ironic, and not simply praiseworthy, is that Broad covered much of the same ground Times reporter Jeff Gerth did in "breaking" the Trulock-Wen Ho Lee story earlier this year -- but without all the breathless detail and implication of scandal and national-security disaster.

Broad's article reported that experts are not at all certain whether the Chinese achieved their success in warhead miniaturization by espionage, hard work or some mix of the two; that the common wisdom of a few months ago alleging "espionage" probably placed far too much emphasis on the Los Alamos Laboratory and on Wen Ho Lee in particular; and that even the extent of the damage to national security may have been greatly overstated. It put the Times in the odd position of correcting the mistakes, rushes-to-judgment and misapprehensions that the paper itself disseminated in the first place.

That hasn't been missed by observers who questioned Gerth's reporting on the Trulock story from the outset. "Broad reinterviewed all of [Gerth's] sources," New York Daily News columnist Lars-Erik Nelson says. "You don't do that to a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter unless you have real doubts, unless you think he's made a major mistake."

The unraveling Chinese spy scandal has revealed once again that too many members of our elite political press have ferocity and doggedness in abundance without the historical consciousness or political acumen to make sense of what they report. From start to finish, the Trulock-Wen Ho Lee affair now looks like a case wherein last year's Lewinsky-style "print it first, think it through later" reporting got applied to the real-life world of foreign policy and national security. Only in this case the stakes are much higher.

By Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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