How the New York Times helped railroad Wen Ho Lee

Its reporters relied on slim evidence, quick conclusions and loyalty to sources with an ax to grind. Too bad the paper of record learned nothing from its role in Whitewater.

Published September 21, 2000 8:00AM (EDT)

Don and Jean Marshall sat down to dinner with their son the night of March 8, 1999, when the phone rang. Their caller I.D. indicated the person on the other end was from the New York Times. "We just laughed and thought they were trying to sell us a subscription," recalls Don Marshall, who works at the nuclear science laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M. "If it was a reporter they'd want to talk to a lab manager, not a lowly staff worker like me. I didn't even pick up the phone."

After dinner Don and his wife, who also works at Los Alamos, headed back to work. As they turned their car around and were about to head up the hill past the house of their good friend and neighbor of 20 years, Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, they noticed, as if out of a movie, a man suddenly appear from the shadows. It was James Risen, the reporter from the New York Times. He wanted to know if they'd heard that Lee had been accused of spying for the Chinese. They talked for a while on the front lawn. "It's one of those images that's burned in my memory," says Jean.

Stunned, the Marshalls drove to the lab, where they surfed the Web in search of news articles and found the New York Times' March 6, Page 1 piece. It was coauthored by Jeff Gerth and Risen, and it had exploded like a grenade inside Washington: "Breach at Los Alamos: A Special Report: China Stole Nuclear Secrets For Bombs, U.S. Aides Say." Although it did not name Lee (that came two days later), the 4,000-word story made it clear he was the prime suspect in what the paper was calling a historic bout of Communist espionage, and one that the Clinton administration had dragged its feet on uncovering.

Out in northern New Mexico the Marshalls were not aware that the Sunday political talk shows had been awash in talk of Chinese spies. Republican Sens. Trent Lott, John McCain and Richard Shelby were among those making the rounds, calling for investigations into an alleged White House spy coverup. On "Meet the Press," Shelby described the reported Los Alamos breach as "probably the worst leak we've had in many, many years."

The Marshalls also didn't know that on that Sunday, frantic FBI investigators, unhappy the story had been printed and feeling intense pressure from Washington headquarters, had interrogated Lee at the lab. In a grueling session conducted without an attorney present, the agents urged Lee to confess to passing classified military secrets to the Chinese during his trip to Beijing in 1988. But according to FBI transcripts, Lee, 59, in his halting English, insisted he was innocent. "I believe [God] will make the final judgment for my case. And I depend on him."

"You know what?" shot back the agent. "The Rosenbergs professed their innocence. They weren't concerned either. The Rosenbergs are dead. They electrocuted them," he said, referring to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of leaking Los Alamos secrets to the Soviet Union in the 1950s.

The agents used an important prop to dramatize to Lee his dire situation: a copy of the Times' March 6 article.

"This is a big problem," stressed the FBI investigator. "I think you need to read this article, because there's some things that have been raised by Washington that we have got to get resolved."

The agent continued, "You know, Wen Ho, this, it's bad. I mean look at this newspaper article! I mean, 'China Stole Secrets For Bombs.' It all but says your name in here. Pretty soon you're going to have reporters knocking on your door. They're going to be knocking on the door of your friends. They're going to find your son at [college]. And they are going to say, 'You know your father is a spy?'"

Later in the interrogation, a bewildered Lee responded, "That reporter or whoever [in] the media [can] say that. I'm innocent, but I don't know what can I do. I'm, I'm, I'm, I tell you how I feel, I feel, how you call that? Hopeless, OK."

When Don Marshall returned Monday night to his home in White Rock, N.M, he dialed the phone number that the Times reporter had left behind. "I spoke my conviction," says Marshall. "I told him they had the wrong man. He didn't want to believe it of course. He didn't comment, but he probably thought, 'Ah-ha, Wen Ho really pulled the wool over your eyes.'"

Eighteen months after the original blockbuster exposi ran, editors at the New York Times may be wishing somebody at the paper had listened to Marshall, and to others who raised red flags about the paper's early Wen Ho Lee coverage.

Because instead of accepting congratulations for breaking the biggest spy story in a decade, editors are battling what one Timesman calls "a brewing storm" inside the paper of record.

Wen Ho Lee was charged in December with 59 counts of mishandling nuclear secrets and denied bail. He spent most of this year in solitary confinement. When the most recent bail hearing began in August, the government's case crumbled. The most damaging revelation came from the FBI's lead agent, Robert Messemer, who was forced to recant crucial testimony he'd given in December, when he charged that Lee had lied to investigators and colleagues.

By early this month, government prosecutors, who once claimed Lee had downloaded the "crown jewels" of the nuclear defense system, agreed to free Lee if he pleaded guilty to one count of improperly downloading classified material.

On Sept. 13, after the U.S. District Court judge lit into top government officials who had "embarrassed our entire nation" in their handling of the case, Lee was free.

The stunning public turnaround suddenly drew attention to the fact that the entire premise of the New York Times' early news reports and strident editorials -- proclaiming that a Chinese-American scientist inside Los Alamos had given away nuclear secrets that had dramatically helped China improve its arsenal, and that the Clinton administration could have stopped it but chose not to -- had turned out to be flat wrong.

To date, the paper has been strangely silent about its pivotal role in the Lee saga. Attempts to get comments from executive editor Joseph Lelyveld, managing editor Bill Keller, editorial page editor Howell Raines, Washington bureau chief Michael Oreskes and reporter Jeff Gerth, among others, were unsuccessful.

A newspaper spokesperson hinted to Salon that the paper may yet address the controversy: "Our next assessment or explanation of the Wen Ho Lee case will be addressed to our readers, not other publications."

Times watchers predict that an extended editor's note addressing the paper's coverage will run in the "Week in Review" section Sunday, and that it will argue the Times was merely being aggressive in following a criminal investigation.

Many outside the paper, however, are not waiting for its official explanation.

"They rushed into this," suggests Steve Schwartz, publisher of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. "This story was given to them and nobody else and they decided to run it without thinking through what they were doing. They created the illusion of something that just wasn't there and ignored the other evidence that painted a different picture."

"It starts out with allegations, none of which turn out to be true," notes Walter Pincus, who has covered the Lee story for the Washington Post.

"Obviously they should be embarrassed," says Robert Vrooman, retired Los Alamos counterintelligence chief. "Gerth and Risen were in over their heads and they got snookered."

"It looks like a terrible injustice was done to a guy and his name first surfaced in the New York Times," notes Don Hewitt, executive producer of CBS's "60 Minutes," which aired an interview with Lee last year. "I'll leave it to the New York Times as to what they should do about it."

Off the record, journalists at other major media outlets are teeing off on the Times, labeling its performance "utterly reckless," suggesting the paper "fell for sources that any other reporter would have said are not playing with a full deck."

The unusually loud drumbeat of fault finding is so steady even the White House feels comfortable publicly chastising the Times. Administration spokesman Jake Siewert told Salon, "The paper singled out Wen Ho Lee as the primary suspect and now it seems to have developed collective amnesia about its earlier reporting and editorializing."

While the paper's performance raises troubling questions (to borrow a favorite Times phrase when it questions the motivations and actions of others), some see an even more perplexing trend in the work of Gerth, the influential reporter who drove the original Wen Ho Lee coverage. Gerth also broke the Loral satellite transfer story two years ago (which in retrospect seems badly inflated), as well as the Whitewater allegations in 1992. That was back before Whitewater blossomed into a megastory, but instead centered around allegations of shady Clinton investments and the couple's alleged attempts to stymie federal regulators.

But on Wednesday, independent counsel Robert Ray decided to finally shut down the six-year Whitewater investigation without bringing any charges against the Clintons. And when his predecessor, Kenneth Starr, filed his final report on the Clinton probe, he included nothing on Whitewater. Thus, those early allegations in Gerth's stories turned out to be specious and unfounded, accusations that the government spent $52 million -- and the press untold hours -- chasing. ("Don't even mention Whitewater," sighs Pincus at the Post.)

For those who connect the dots between the three major Gerth stories, there's an unmistakable sense of dij` vu. Each contains ominous conclusions drawn from questionable evidence, lots of loaded language, loyalty to flawed sources with axes to grind, cheerleading from the editorial page and, most importantly, central accusations that simply never pan out. To some, the Wen Ho Lee saga reads an awful lot like Whitewater.

"If you look at Whitewater and Wen Ho Lee there is a very disturbing pattern of not checking sources in terms of credibility and alleging wrongdoing when none exists," says Dave Leavy, who served as spokesman for the National Security Council from 1998 until earlier this year, and who responded on behalf of the government to press inquiries into Lee's case. "Lives and reputations are destroyed."

"It's clear the Times didn't learn a single thing from Whitewater," adds Gene Lyons, an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist and longtime critic of Gerth's Whitewater reporting. In his 1996 book, "Fools For Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater," Lyons detailed how much of Gerth's reporting was "provably false."

For example: In 1992, Gerth wrote about Beverly Bassett Schaffer, an Arkansas bank regulator appointed by then-Gov. Clinton and portrayed in the Times as a political crony who went easy on the Clinton-affiliated Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan. In his very first Whitewater article, Gerth told readers Schaffer "did not remember the federal examination of Madison." In truth, after reviewing her Madison file, Schaffer had faxed Gerth 20 pages of notes before he wrote his damning story. "There ought to be consequences when reporters screw up this badly," says Lyons.

So the question remains: Could the Wen Ho Lee fiasco have been averted if editors at the Times had cast a critical eye on its Whitewater coverage years ago instead of encouraging Gerth's often questionable brand of reporting?

"What happens the next time Gerth shows up with a long, impenetrable story that doesn't add up?" asks New York Daily News columnist Lars-Erik Nelson, who for the past year has been critical of the Times' China spy coverage.

Though Times editors were not available to answer that question, a Nexis database search shows that Gerth has had exactly five bylines in 2000. Earlier, Gerth had been writing approximately 40 stories each year. "He's been conspicuously silent," notes Steve Aftergood, senior analyst for the Federation of American Scientists. According to a Times spokesperson, Gerth has not taken a leave from the paper this year.

A Timesman for 23 years and one who has studiously avoided the TV talk show circuit, Gerth has been heralded as the paper's top investigative reporter. That image was reinforced when he won his first Pulitzer Prize last year for leading the paper's reporting on the alleged transfer of satellite technology to China by U.S. defense contractors Loral Space & Communications and Hughes Electronics Corp.

The guts of the story were that after a Chinese rocket carrying a Loral satellite exploded and crashed on Feb. 14, 1996, Loral engineers delivered a report on the mishap but may have given the Chinese too much sensitive information in the process. Those charges are still to be considered by a Washington grand jury.

But Gerth went further. His stories also implied that a crucial White House waiver needed by Loral to launch satellites in China may have been granted simply because Loral chairman Bernard Schwartz was a longtime contributor to the Democratic Party. Once granted that waiver, Gerth asserted, Loral leaked military secrets to the People's Republic of China.

Thanks to Gerth's stories, along with the paper's urgent unsigned editorials ("There is too much evidence of wrongdoing to be suppressed or ignored," read one) and repeated, over-the-top doomsday columns by longtime Gerth supporter William Safire (who accused Loral of "the sellout of American security"), the Department of Justice launched an investigation of Schwartz and his company, partly to quell the cries of Republican protests.

On May 23, the Los Angeles Times reported that just months after looking into the matter in 1998, Justice Department investigators became convinced the Loral chairman had done nothing wrong. A task force led by Charles Labella had been unable to turn up "a scintilla of evidence -- or information -- that the president was corruptly influenced by Bernard Schwartz." One federal investigator told the paper, "Poor Bernie Schwartz got a bad deal. There never was a whiff of a scent of a case against him."

Seventeen days later, on Page 24, the New York Times reported that Schwartz had been cleared. Gerth did not write that story.

So of the three-legged Chinese espionage story Gerth built over the past two years -- transferred satellite technology, Democratic contributor Bernie Schwartz and Wen Ho Lee -- two of the legs have been kicked out from underneath him and the paper.

"If you go back three or four years ago to the San Jose Mercury News series [on the CIA and cocaine dealing], I wrote about what an overblown bullshit story it was," says Pincus at the Washington Post. The Mercury News was widely discredited as a result of that series. "I think the series on communication satellites was of the same nature."

Nonetheless, Gerth won a Pulitzer last year for his stories on Loral. Yet there is a widespread feeling in Washington journalism circles that even though he officially won the prize for his satellite technology reporting, it was his initial March 6 story on Los Alamos, and the buzz it instantly created, that landed him the award. (There's also speculation that Safire lobbied the Pulitzer committee on Gerth's behalf, waving around the reporter's Wen Ho Lee story. Safire could not be reached for comment.)

The Pulitzer committee itself seemed slightly unsure of why it was honoring Gerth. In its official release, the organization singled out Gerth "for a series of articles that disclosed the corporate sales of American technology to China, with U.S. government approval despite national security risks." (The Times used that language verbatim in its own news account of the award.) Actually Gerth and the Times accused Loral, after landing its waiver, of giving technology to China free of charge and without U.S. government approval.

The Loral stories resulted in something besides a Pulitzer: the creation of the Cox Committee, named after Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif. Cox was chosen by then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to investigate Chinese espionage in hopes of embarrassing the Clinton administration.

Since its release one year ago, the 900-page Cox Report has been widely ridiculed for being long on conspiracy theory and short on facts. An independent analysis done by a research team at Stanford University's Center for International Security concluded, "There is no credible evidence presented or instances described of actual theft of U.S. missile technology." The Times has never reported on Stanford's findings.

It was all very reminiscent of Whitewater, where an independent counsel was named to investigate the Clintons based almost entirely on the reporting of Gerth and the New York Times. And as with independent counsel Kenneth Starr and the Whitewater investigation, Gerth enjoyed friendly Republican sources inside the Cox probe.

It's likely these sources tipped Gerth off to Notra Trulock, the renegade Department of Energy investigator who had been waging something of a one-man war against Lee and his supposed spy ring. In 1996, Trulock resurrected concern over China's alleged 1988 theft of an advanced warhead design named the W-88, which was developed at Los Alamos. Trulock singled out Lee for suspicion, since he was the only Los Alamos scientist who traveled to China in the '80s.

With his warnings dismissed by the CIA, which reasoned China obtained the W-88 data elsewhere, Trulock was welcomed with open arms by the Cox Committee staffers. And by the New York Times.

"There was a lot of gasoline on the floor and they lit a match," says Vrooman, referring to certain Republicans, Trulock and the New York Times during the political upheaval of early 1999. "The GOP lost [Monica] Lewinsky as an issue and impeachment. Now they were looking at the Chinese fundraising scandal and here comes Notra with this great story."

One former Washington bureau chief at a major daily newspaper recalls the sense of hysteria the March 6, 1999, Times story, along with Republican cries, created in the capital. "I got to Washington in the aftermath of the McCarthy era and I haven't seen anything that matches what's gone on during the last year with China."

While Gerth and his partner, Risen, never identified Trulock as their source for their story, close readers of their articles could, if they assumed the Times reporters were following an old journalism rule of thumb: Always make your sources look good. Here's what Gerth and Risen wrote March 6: "In personal terms, the handling of this case is very much the story of the Energy Department intelligence official who first raised questions about the Los Alamos case, Notra Trulock."

Illustrating the influence of the Times, "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert quickly did his best to turn Trulock into a hero, too, inviting him to appear on his May 23, 1999, show. There, Russert gave Trulock an open forum to spin his conspiracy theories about widespread Chinese espionage at the labs and the Clinton coverup. "I think the potential is on a magnitude equal to the Rosenbergs-Fuchs compromise of the Manhattan Project information," Trulock told Russert.

At the end of the interview Russert turned to his other guest, Cox, and wondered gravely, "Would the country have ever heard of the magnitude of this issue without the work and efforts of Notra Trulock?"

But critics suggest Trulock is prisoner of his own agenda. "He takes a grain of truth and distorts the hell out of it," says Vrooman, who worked with Trulock at Los Alamos for many years.

At Lee's recent bail hearing, attorneys introduced an affidavit from Charles E. Washington, who worked for Trulock as acting director of counterintelligence and is now a senior policy analyst at the Energy Department. Washington, who is black and who told the Los Angeles Times he was once spat on by Trulock, testified that Trulock "acts vindictively and opportunistically, that he improperly uses security issues to punish and discredit others and that he has racist views toward minority groups."

Fed up with Trulock's increasingly outlandish accusations, Warren Rudman, the former Republican senator and chairman of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, struck back. In a scathing letter to Trulock last year, Rudman wrote that he had "misread professional disagreements as personal affronts," and had twisted an obligation to be straightforward into "a license for calumny." This summer the FBI began investigating whether Trulock had disclosed classified information about the government's spy case when he tried to sell a magazine article.

In other words, Trulock, a contributor to the rabidly anti-Clinton chat site Free Republic, was hardly the most reliable source of information. Then again, neither were the Clintons' former business partner and congenital liar Jim McDougal or convicted felon and Arkansas con man David Hale. But Gerth and the Times relied on them both during their lengthy and influential Whitewater investigation. (Once Gerth even called an FBI agent on behalf of Hale, to let the him know Hale felt he was being silenced by Clinton-friendly prosecutors in Little Rock.)

Despite the now-obvious flaws in the Times' March 6 story on Los Alamos, at the time it made believers out of most readers. "I assumed maybe I had been overly critical of the Times," recalls Steven Aftergood, a senior analyst at the Federation of American Scientists. "Because now they had nailed the story down and here's the guy I figured they found transferring codes to China."

As he began to read the paper's steady stream of follow-up reports though, Aftergood's fear of widespread Chinese espionage quickly faded. "The coverage was so breathless in its speculation that China was now a nuclear power thanks to U.S. espionage. That was objectively false."

The Times told its readers as much on Sept. 7, 1999, in the form of a 5,000-word, Page 1 piece by science writer William Broad. The story seriously questioned, in a gentlemanly way, much of Gerth's and Risen's reporting. "It was what we call 'The Retraction,'" says Henry Tang of the Committee of 100, a Chinese-American group that believes Lee was singled out because of his ethnicity.

Ever since the Broad article appeared one year ago, the Times has covered the Lee story with an even hand. Risen and Gerth no longer write about the case. "I give the Times a lot of credit" for its subsequent Lee coverage, says former National Security Council spokesman Leavy. "They let another reporter with fresh eyes really challenge the conclusions of Gerth and Risen."

With Broad's story, observers might have concluded the Times was backing away from Gerth's and Risen's earlier reports. But instead of acknowledging its errors, the Times seemed to go into a bunker. In its November 1999 issue, Brill's Content ran a critical piece examining the newspaper's initial reporting on Lee. Times investigative editor Stephen Engelberg (who teamed up with Gerth to write Whitewater stories in the early '90s) promptly responded with a 2,500-word letter to the editor, adamantly denying Broad's piece was in any way a retraction. By protesting so loudly, the Times was once again seen as defending its original, and now widely ridiculed, Wen Ho Lee stories.

But finally the Lee case, already seen by many observers as weak, collapsed in spectacular fashion inside an Albuquerque, N.M., courtroom this month, leading to the obvious question: How did this all happen?

So far, the Times has refused to openly concede its role in the saga. That has made for some peculiar reading, as when concerned, unsigned editorials began calling this month for an independent body to determine whether Wen Ho Lee was fingered by investigators simply because he was Chinese-American. Compare that to the spring of 1999, when the Times editorial page had no such reservations as it lustily cheered the paper's investigative reporting. "The United States might as well have dumped its most sensitive defense secrets on Pennsylvania Avenue for Chinese spies to pick up," fulminated a May 16 editorial.

The Times' selective memory was on further display in Gail Collins' Aug. 29 column belittling the Lee prosecution, suggesting the case was "brought to you courtesy of the FBI and the Department of Energy." Collins delicately overlooked the Times' own glaring role in the rush to judge Wen Ho Lee. Reached at the paper, Collins declined to comment. Times columnist Anthony Lewis, who has also written critically of the Lee prosecution without mentioning the paper, also declined to comment, other than to agree that the Times' involvement in the Lee case "is a very good subject for exploration."

So far the Times disagrees. Despite the uproar over the unjust treatment of Lee, the Times has not published a single editorial, op-ed column or letter to the editor about the paper's Lee coverage.

"There's nothing wrong with making an error, we all make mistakes," says Aftergood. "What's scary is the paper's unwillingness to admit fault. I think the Times is doing a real disservice to its own interest. But it seems they've dug in so deep they can't get out."

At the height of the Lee story last year, Vrooman recalls receiving a request from the Times, asking for a photograph of himself. "I asked them what for and they said, 'You're a part of the story.' I said, 'Well, so are you.'" He half-jokingly suggested the paper run photographs of Gerth in its news reports about Lee.

Says Vrooman, "Nobody is going to write a history of this case without mentioning the New York Times."

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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