Over the past two years, Robert Scheer has become the nation's leading defender of suspected spy Wen Ho Lee, whom he has lauded as "an American Dreyfus" and about whom he has written a dozen columns for the Los Angeles Times -- all proclaiming Lee's innocence while portraying him as a victim of an anti-Asian conspiracy. Scheer has now been hired as a technical consultant for an upcoming four-hour whitewash of Lee. "Suspicion Matrix" is to be produced for ABC TV by longtime "peace" activist Robert Greenwald. And a book on Wen Ho Lee by Scheer is on the way.
Although Scheer has been a leftist supporter of America's adversaries since the onset of the Cold War, when he was my boss at the New Left magazine Ramparts in the '60s, his immoderate defense of an accused spy was reckless enough to surprise me. After all, every single communist spy identified by the FBI in the half-century since the Cold War began (the Rosenbergs, Morton Sobell, Joel Barr, Judith Coplon, William Remington, Alger Hiss et al.) had been proved guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. At the same time, every one of those spies had been defended as innocent by progressives like Scheer and Greenwald. Why would Scheer want to expose himself to that kind of embarrassment? The only answer I could come up with was that Scheer had not been paying enough attention to realize his exposure.
This is a strong statement to make about a man who was for 17 years the Los Angeles Times' national correspondent and is now its featured columnist, but it is one that comes from having observed Scheer for nearly half a century, beginning with our joint arrival in Berkeley at the outset of the '60s. Later in the decade Scheer hired me as an editor at Ramparts, and later still I led a '60s-style staff rebellion that ousted him.
I had not seen Scheer in nearly 20 years when my longtime writing partner and Ramparts collaborator Peter Collier ran into him at the 1988 Republican Convention. Peter and I were both working as speechwriters for Bob and Elizabeth Dole, part of our odyssey from the ranks of the left to the other side of the political barricade. Scheer was there, too, covering the convention as national correspondent for the L.A. Times. His only words to Collier and me were "Deutscher was right."
For veterans of that decade like us, Isaac Deutscher provided the key to our continuing radical faith. A famed biographer of Trotsky and Stalin, Deutscher explained the monstrosity socialism had become in a way that made it possible for us to retain our socialist beliefs. He described the Soviet Union as still being encrusted with the tyranny of the old Russia, even though it had been transformed by socialist economics into a world power and economic giant. The scientific logic of socialism, he assured us, would soon transform the country's tyranny.
Scheer's parting taunt to Collier and me expressed his belief that the reforms of glasnost and perestroika then taking place under Mikhail Gorbachev would transform the Soviet Union into a modern, democratic socialist state. A year after our encounter with Scheer, however, the Berlin Wall came crashing down, and the Soviet empire with it. Its collapse revealed not the superpower of Deutscher's imaginings but the pathetic shell of a third world backwater, whose economic output was less than South Korea's.
Scheer was wrong too, but that didn't cause him to miss a beat. His retro Marxism had done nothing to impede his upward climb in the capitalist media world he loved to milk and despise at the same time, and he saw no reason to adjust his views to the changing facts.
It didn't hurt Scheer's path to success that he married Narda Zacchino, long an influential editor at the Los Angeles Times and now a vice president at the newspaper. Nor did it hurt that he hung out with pals like Barbra Streisand and Warren Beatty and knew some of the finest restaurateurs in town on a first-name basis.
Scheer's journalistic fronting for the Clinton White House even earned him a spot on Sidney Blumenthal's e-mail list of media friends, which was recently exposed by the Weekly Standard. Among his many perks, Scheer was appointed to a visiting professorship on the faculty of the prestigious Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California by its dean, a former Clinton official.
Along with an entire generation of New Left intellectuals, Scheer was burrowing into the institutions they had tried to burn down, and busily infiltrating the '60s into the mainstream culture. And throughout, he continued his sanctimonious attacks against the ruling class in his columns for the Times.
A recent Scheer column on the power crisis in California -- a story in his journalistic backyard -- affords a glimpse of his current style. By general consensus, the California crisis was triggered by the unexpected convergence of at least four significant factors: A) a 30 percent increase in the demand for electricity in one of the nation's fastest-growing states, B) a shortage of power sources resulting from environmental attitudes that had prevented the state from bringing on line a single new power plant in 15 years, C) an increased dependence on power from other states in which demand was also rising and D) a misguided legislative decision to half-deregulate the industry, allowing utility companies to purchase power at market rates on the supply side of the equation, but maintaining regulatory controls on consumer prices on the demand side. By 2001, the cost of power to California's utilities was more than 10 times what they were allowed to charge consumers, who -- because their price was fixed -- lacked incentive to restrict demand. This put the utility companies on the verge of bankruptcy, unable to purchase additional power.
But to Scheer, such complexity was only a distraction from ideological clarity. This is how Scheer distilled the situation in a Dec. 26 column mixing metaphors of Santa, Mickey and Frank Baum, in a hallmark style that might be described as Beverly Hills kitsch:
Capitalism is falling apart. Yes, Virginia, we do need government regulation ... because the market mechanism left to its own devices inevitably spirals out of control. Recognition of that reality has guided this country to prosperity ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt pulled us out of the Great Depression. But in recent decades, conservative economists and their fat-cat corporate sponsors have led us down the yellow brick road of deregulation. Getting government out of the market would free creativity and investment, leading us to the magic kingdom of Oz, where all would prosper. If anything went wrong, the wizard of Oz -- a.k.a. Alan Greenspan -- would make it all better.
Like the inscrutable reference to Federal Reserve head Greenspan, Scheer's column never actually got around to the facts of the case. (Nor did Roosevelt's New Deal pull us out of the Depression.) Instead his column provided a cook's tour of the author's anti-corporate prejudices along with many arcane irrelevancies off the top of the author's head, including the AOL Time Warner merger and Europe's mad cow epidemic. Scheer's column concluded with a plea for "passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform" and "the revival of the consumer movement" to achieve "more, not less, regulation," which was Scheer's ideological solution to the problem.
But nothing represents Scheer's intellectual laziness better than his reckless and continuing defense of Wen Ho Lee.
The immediate context of the Lee case had been set by a report released in May 1999 by the so-called Cox Committee on the theft of nuclear secrets. The report, approved by a bipartisan committee led by Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., concluded: "The espionage inquiry found Beijing has stolen U.S. design data for nearly all elements needed for a major nuclear attack on the U.S., such as advanced warheads, missiles and guidance systems."
On May 11, Scheer answered the findings of the bipartisan committee on the theft of nuclear secrets with the following ludicrous dismissals: "Let's as those Apple Computer ads implore, think different. There are no nuclear weapons secrets or, indeed, nuclear 'weapons' for China to have stolen," he wrote.
Scheer did not actually try to substantiate the absurd claim that the United States has no nuclear weapons secrets. (He just left it floating in the ether.) But he did take a stab at the idea that there are no nuclear weapons: "Nuclear bombs are not actually weapons because, in today's world, they cannot be employed to win battles but can serve only as instruments of mass terror." The statement -- and the entire column -- showed an ignorance of deterrence theory astounding for a man whose personal Web site boasts that "from 1976 to 1993, he served as a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, where he wrote articles on such diverse topics as the Soviet Union, arms control, national politics and the military."
Having established, albeit only in words, that there were no nuclear weapons secrets to steal, Scheer found it relatively easy to reach the conclusion that Lee was innocent of the suspicions the FBI had focused on him, notwithstanding the fact that he had removed thousands of pages of classified files from the Los Alamos nuclear weapons lab (in and of itself a violation of the Espionage Act). Drawing on years of training in the left, Scheer went on the offensive, identifying Lee as the hapless target of a racial witch hunt. Two months later, on Aug. 3, Scheer wrote his first Wen Ho Lee column. It began with Scheer's usual subtlety:
The 'Chinaman' did it. The diabolical Asian has long been a staple of American racism, and it's not surprising that the folks attempting to whip up a new red espionage scare would focus on Wen Ho Lee.
In making these bizarre accusations, Scheer was obviously aware that any such witch hunt against Lee would have to have been orchestrated by Lee's prosecutors -- Attorney General Janet Reno, FBI Director Louis Freeh and the local U.S. attorney on the case, who happened to be a former college roommate and close political friend of Bill Clinton's. To make the persecution of Lee seamless, there would also have to be collusion on the part of the acting deputy attorney general for civil rights, Bill Lann Lee -- himself an American of Chinese lineage and a hypersensitive opponent of racial profiling.
All this did not cause Scheer any second thoughts. Instead, he just plucked two more supposed culprits out of his magician's hat: the Republican head of the bipartisan nuclear secrets committee (to please radical fans) and the chief media rival to his own paper (to please editors at the Times). Wrote Scheer:
Facts evidently don't matter to those in Congress, led by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), and in the media, where the august New York Times has acted as head cheerleader for those sounding the alarm of a Chinese nuclear threat.
The following day, Cox responded. In a letter to the editor, he pointed out that Lee's name had not appeared in his committee report, and that "neither I nor any member of the Select Committee had even heard of Wen Ho Lee when we completed our report in January." Cox further pointed out that when Energy Secretary Bill Richardson fired Lee, calling him a man who had "massively violated our security system," Cox had issued a widely publicized statement criticizing the media's spotlight on Lee and saying that it was wrong, without proof, "to juxtapose him with some of the most serious crimes that have ever been committed against our military secrets."
The fact that the man whom Scheer falsely accused of persecuting Lee had actually defended the scientist did not prevent Scheer from repeating the slander in a column the next month. "It's time to pronounce the Chinese nuclear weapons spy story a hoax," he wrote. Scheer said the rationale for the investigation was "led by an outraged Cox, who represents the more right-wing fringes of Southern California, eager to find a new evil empire as justification of a military buildup, once the staple of that region's economy."
With that column Scheer managed to start a witch hunt of his own, tarring Cox, a respected congressional leader, as a member of the farthest-right fringe. Scheer's subsequent column provoked a joint rebuttal from Cox and the ranking Democrat on the committee, Norm Dix, a liberal from Washington: Scheer's "column asserted four main 'facts,'" their letter asserted, and "each of them is false."
Five days before Scheer's column appeared, the National Intelligence Estimate, representing the consensus of the entire U.S. intelligence community, released a report predicting that China was ready to test a new, longer-range intercontinental missile that could travel farther than anything it had previously developed. The technology had been developed from secrets that had been passed to the Chinese. This missile technology had been shared with Kim Il Sung's loony police state in North Korea. The letter also stated that the missile would be fitted with "smaller nuclear warheads -- in part influenced by U.S. technology gained through espionage." It was a warhead, the W-88, small enough to fit a missile, that Lee was suspected of stealing information about. (Editor's note: It was later learned that Lee never worked on or had access to data relating to that warhead.)
In the midst of Scheer's false claims and accusations (his articles continued into the following year), he got a break. On Sept. 13, 2000, the government announced that it was dropping 58 of its 59 charges against Lee. President Clinton even volunteered an apology, as though some kind of injustice had been done. However, this didn't prevent Clinton from flying to New Mexico the very next week to raise campaign money for Lee's prosecutor. The New York Times also apologized. Reno and Freeh did not. Freeh told a congressional committee: "The Department of Justice and the FBI stand by each and every one of the 59 counts in the indictment of Dr. Lee. Each of those counts could be proved in December 1999 [when Lee was formally indicted], and each of them could be proven today."
At the time Freeh defended the decision, I recalled events of the past that I believe motivated Scheer's continual defense of Lee and the Chinese communists -- it was a bedrock of conviction that hadn't changed in 40 years.
I submitted a column to Salon on Wen Ho Lee with the following reference to Scheer's politics: "While we were divulging the secrets of America's electronic intelligence agency in the pages of Ramparts back in the '60s, Scheer was joining the Red Sun Rising Commune [in Berkeley] and becoming an acolyte of North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung." A Salon editor contacted Scheer to ask him about the veracity of the claims about his dalliance with Kim Il Sung that I had intended to include in the column. He stated flatly that they were untrue. I let the denial pass at the time, and the mention was not included in my column.
When I called Collier, my old Ramparts co-editor, he reminded me that Scheer had taken a delegation from the Red Family Commune to visit Ramparts editor and Black Panther minister of information Eldridge Cleaver, who was a fugitive in North Korea, having ambushed two San Francisco police officers and fled the country in 1968. The Red Family was a "guerrilla foco" that Scheer and Tom Hayden had formed. A member of the Scheer delegation named Jan Austin was a copy editor at Ramparts, and she came back with glowing tales about North Korean communism, Kim Il Sung's "Palace of the Children" and the gourmet spreads the government had laid out for them. Subsequently, a carton of the "Collected News Conferences of Kim Il Sung" arrived, by mail, in the Ramparts office, and Collier and I amused ourselves by opening one volume that began with a question to Kim, and was followed with a 300-page answer.
Thirty years is a long time, however, and even though I was familiar with Scheer's brazenness, I could not help being shaken by the absolute character of his denial to Salon. Maybe Austin's opinions were hers and hers alone. So what was at stake? Why would Scheer lie? What would he have to hide but the embarrassment of youth?
Collier recently became the publisher of Encounter Books, and a week ago he sent me the manuscript of one of his upcoming titles. The book, "Commies: The Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left," is the autobiography of another old friend, Ronald Radosh. I had not discussed these incidents with Radosh because he had been an East Coast radical, and I had no reason to think he had spent time with Scheer in his Red Family days. As I read the manuscript, I came across the following passage:
At the time [circa 1969], my friend Louis Menashe and I had a regular radio program on the Pacifica Network, a weekly political discussion show in which we interviewed movement figures and engaged in political and theoretic discussion. Since Scheer was still considered an important figure on the Left ... I got out my trusty, top-of-the-line SONY that WBAI had recommended we purchase, and began the interview. Scheer, however, said that he would talk on the record about only one topic -- the only topic that mattered -- the realization of the socialist utopia in Kim Il Sung's North Korea.
For over two hours, Scheer talked and talked about the paradise he had seen during a recent visit to North Korea, about the greatness of Kim Il Sung, about the correct nature of his so-called juche ideology -- evidently a word embodying Kim's redefinition of Marxism-Leninism in building Communism against all obstacles and with the entire world in opposition. At one point, I asked him incredulously: "Bob, do you really believe this crap?" Scheer responded with complete earnestness that he did -- that Kim had charted out a path that other nations could and should take as an example of the art of the possible.