Chinese take-out

Accusing the New York Times of a hit piece, Brill's Content does one of its own.

By Sean Elder
Published November 1, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Taking potshots at the New York Times is a favored sport among journalists. For a magazine like Brill's Content, which fancies itself the conscience of contemporary journalism (even as most contemporary journalists demur), the
"paper of record" is an obvious target. But an article in the November issue criticizing the Times' handling of a major spy story hasn't made a ripple. Yet.

Robert Schmidt's story, "Crash
alleges that the paper has flip-flopped on its coverage of Chinese nuclear-missile espionage, contradicting itself within a six-month period. In a March 6 story headlined "Breach at Los Alamos: China Stole Nuclear Secrets for Bombs, U.S. Aides Say" and a number of follow-up reports, Times investigative reporters Jeff Gerth and James Risen reported that "China has made a leap in the development of nuclear weapons: the miniaturization of its bombs" and that it made that leap with information supplied by a scientist working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Wen Ho Lee. One source even invoked Julius and Ethel Rosenberg -- executed in 1953 for sending secrets to the Soviets.

In the wake of the Times report, the Clinton administration was accused of turning a deaf ear on complaints against the Chinese, congressional committees considered the fallibility of national security and Lee lost his job. Such, it seems, is the power of the Times.

But on Sept. 7, the Times ran a front-page story by science writer William Broad that seemed to call Gerth and Risen's assertions into doubt. After months of going over some of the same ground the investigative reporters had covered (as well as material not previously available), Broad wrote of "an emerging agreement among feuding experts: that the Federal investigation focused too soon on the Los Alamos National Laboratory and one worker there, Wen Ho Lee, who was fired for security violations. The lost secrets, it now appears, were available to hundreds and perhaps thousands of individuals scattered throughout the nation's arms complex."

According to Brill's, the front-page play and significant length (5,400 words) of Broad's story added up to a retraction of mind-boggling dimensions. The magazine also contended that Gerth and Risen's reporting encompassed a number of journalistic sins, including a rush to judgment in pursuit of a scoop and favoring the point of view of one source over another.

But the Times stands by its story -- or stories, rather. The paper says Brill's Content has made the same mistakes and, in trying to nail the paper of record, has done its own take-out job. The Times' Stephen Engelberg, editor of all the stories in question, read me the following statement Tuesday: "We will be responding in detail to the story in Brill's Content. In brief, we find [Schmidt's] article guilty of every journalistic crime he has accused us of committing. It is one-sided and full of omissions and inaccuracies that we intend to specifically identify."

When I first contacted Engelberg he was wary of speaking about the matter on the record, and clearly smarting from his dealings with Schmidt and Brill's Content -- to say nothing of the story itself. For though the tale as told in the magazine is one of two egos (Gerth and Risen), two cities (Washington and New York) and even two disciplines (science and political reporting), there is really only one fall guy. As editor in chief Steven Brill himself told me, "The job of the editor is to say [to his reporters], 'Are you really sure you have that? How do you know that?' And it struck me that if you call someone the Rosenbergs on the front page of the New York Times you really ought to know that."

Indeed, the Rosenbergs reference was one of the flash points of Schmidt's article. In the Times' defense, the paper itself did not make the comparison, but rather used it in a quote. In addition, it was not on the front page, but deep within a 4,000-word story -- and the source was not an anonymous sniper but rather Paul Redmond, the CIA's foremost spy catcher and the man in charge of the agency's handling of the Lee case.

Setting the quote up that way certainly seems defensible, much less of a smear than the way Brill's portrays it. The Times' Engelberg claims that the issue is symptomatic of how Schmidt and Brill's were selective in their reporting. "There's an awful lot of stuff we told him that, had he used it, would have made his story much more nuanced and less entertaining," says the Times veteran.

In fact, the real story behind the stories is one of journalism of the old-fashioned sand-sifting sort -- interesting perhaps to members of the press and fans of insider baseball, but not the stuff that sells magazines.

The espionage Gerth and Risen were originally investigating allegedly began as early as the mid-'80s, with intelligence reports on it going back to 1988. It was not until 1995 that similarities between miniature Chinese nuclear weapons and the United States' most advanced miniature nuclear warhead, the W-88, prompted concern about possible security leaks -- although there was no consensus about the source, origin and importance of those leaks. Indeed, Gerth and Risen's initial story was not so much about spying as it was about dissent among the various government agencies (including the Department of Energy, the FBI and the CIA) and their inability to act on their suspicions.

While most of the sources quoted in the March 6 story were anonymous, the point of view of one was clearly identified -- and, according to Brill's and other critics, adopted by the Times. A former Energy Department investigator with the James Bondian name of Notra Trulock was one of the first to raise questions about Los Alamos and Lee (who was not named in Gerth and Risen's initial story). Trulock was a favored witness on several Republican-run congressional committees, even though, as the Times' revisionist September
piece pointed out, "He has a bachelor's degree in political science and no formal technical training." And according to the Brill's story, the Times' original coverage smacked of politics and faulty science.

Jeff Gerth, the senior reporter on the stories, has been attacked for his stories in the past. His seemingly endless coverage of Whitewater kept it on the forefront of the national agenda; Schmidt implies Gerth has it out for President Clinton. Even his Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on another tale of Chinese espionage had political implications. In 1988, he reported on two American companies, Loral and Hughes, that shared rocket expertise with the Chinese and unintentionally "advanced Beijing's ballistic missile program." Gerth focused on the contributions of Loral chairman Bernard Schwartz to the Democratic Party and the Clinton administration's hands-off policy vis-`-vis China in general. (The Cox Committee, named for its chairman, Republican Rep. Christopher Cox, issued an exhaustive and much-disputed 872-page report that accused the companies of putting their interests above those of the nation.) Gerth has been accused of anti-Clinton bias by many of the president's supporters. His co-writer on the espionage stories, James Risen, who came to the Times from the Los Angeles Times, is famous for breaking the news that the Clinton administration approved of arms shipments from Iran to Muslims in Bosnia.

Still, it's hard to go along with the Brill's thesis. The paper's decision to go with the Los Alamos story was based on a live (and long-standing) federal investigation, as documents -- many declassified since the initial report -- reveal. In an August 1999 "Special Statement on the Wen-Ho Lee Espionage Investigation" by a Senate committee chaired by Sens. Fred Thompson and Joseph Lieberman, "the story of the mishandled Lee investigation" comes to contentious life.

As the FBI's repeated application for a search or electronic-surveillance warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is repeatedly denied, the bureau returns again and again to the question of "probable cause" for investigating Lee.

But while the question of his guilt or innocence remains undecided, the paper's belief that there was a story there -- a story of national import -- seems more than defensible. Engelberg says that science reporters vetted the Gerth and Risen pieces early on and that future reports -- including Broad's -- merely advanced the story using new information that the publication of the first article had brought to light. "We were struggling on this thing, trying to understand a very classified secret story," he says. "The reporters didn't always have on the first day what they had on the 10th day or the 100th day. A story like this evolves."

When I called him, Schmidt said he stood by his story but would not otherwise comment.

Was the Brill's piece a fair hit? Daily News columnist Lars-Erik Nelson had questioned the Times' handling of the Lee case both in his column and in a lengthy article in the New York Review of Books. Indeed, Nelson is given several defining quotes in Schmidt's piece, noting at the end "that Gerth has been involved in three long stories that don't hold water."
But why didn't Schmidt call any conservative columnists for balance, like George Will or William Safire? Both have touched on the subject, with Safire in particular cheering the ever-widening investigation on. Not to carry Engelberg's water, but this seems to me
evidence of the same sort of bias that Schmidt accuses the Times of.

"It was kind of a tough story to do in any kind of a narrative, magaziney form without getting bogged down in a lot of details," Brill said, "but a lot of details are necessary in something like this." A lot of opinions, too, I would add. And points of view. For while Schmidt and his editors may have tried to avoid being "magaziney," the story has a shape that reveals its own favored point of view. Beginning with the recollections of Wen Ho's daughter, Alberta Lee, reading the March 6 story ("They had all these incredible things -- so many lies," she says in the story's first quote) and ending with images of her aged father (losing weight, unable to tend his garden), Schmidt's story makes a case of a man wronged by an uncaring newspaper. "Whether or not Wen Ho Lee is ever charged of any crime," Schmidt solemnly writes, "his life has been changed forever."

But what if those who suspect him were right? What if Lee does turn out to be a spy and the Times' line of reporting is exonerated? The Energy Department's Trulock was not the only one who thinks he's a spy: The FBI is on record describing Lee and his wife as "agents of a foreign power." And the evidence against him (including trips to mainland China and downloading of files related to the W-88) fit the profile the DOE was looking for. Schmidt mentions only in passing the fact that Lee failed a polygraph, but the Thompson-Lieberman report actually quotes the exam. "Specifically he was asked, 'Have you ever given any [particular type of classified computer code related to nuclear weapons testing] to any unauthorized person?' and then 'Have you ever passed W-88 information to any unauthorized person?' Wen Ho Lee failed this polygraph test."

Perhaps the Times should have involved a science reporter earlier. Gerth and Risen are in the Washington bureau, Broad is New York. Schmidt floats rumors about a turf war over stories like this. But Engelberg has worked in both bureaus and it was he who brought the various reporters together. He insists that Broad's story ("Spies vs. Sweat: The Debate Over China's Nuclear Advance") only advanced the case that espionage had occurred, right down to identifying "a document where five crucial elements of the W-88 were specified correctly, including two measurements down to the millimeter." (The contending theory, included in Broad's piece, is that similar miniature warheads were arrived at simultaneously, or at least independently -- a variation on the 1,000-monkeys-with-typewriters idea.)

In fairness to Schmidt and Brill's Content, the prominent placement of
Broad's story was the talk of journalists and media watchers across the
country (see Cynthia Cotts'
thorough reporting
in the Sept. 15 Village Voice). And there would have been an interesting story in tracking the varying coverage of the Los Alamos intrigue as it played out in different papers (particularly the Washington Post, the L.A. Times and the Wall Street Journal). But Schmidt only touches on that; to pursue that tack might have seemed too unwieldy. To portray these two pieces as the result of a major flip-flop -- as if the New York Times had discovered one continent and then gone off to discover another -- seems like a simplification.

"These two guys worked on this for three months and every single person they talked to said, 'I'm not going to go into that with you because it's classified,'" says Engelberg. "I was the CIA reporter for three or four years at the Times, I covered Iran-Contra. It's like squeezing blood out of a turnip. Every day you irritate the same people over and over again by asking increasingly accurate questions. Or making guesses or bluffing them or whatever it takes -- it's not all waiting for you.

"If you look at the Iran-Contra process, we obviously had a deeper understanding of those events over time," he continues. "If you were to take our first stories and compare them to our last stories you would say, 'Look at how incomplete they were. There was so much we didn't know.'"

And then, some believed, the paper was just out to get Reagan.

Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Sean Elder

Related Topics ------------------------------------------