The uproar over the 900-page Cox report on Chinese espionage already has started to subside, but Republican efforts to exploit its findings for political advantage are sure to continue. Representative Christopher Cox, the very conservative Republican of California who chaired the special committee, has remained comparatively cool in his approach to this thorny topic, but others have not. Representative Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania, another Republican committee member, can hardly contain his frustration at the failure to tie counterintelligence errors to money secretly funneled by Chinese agents into the Democratic Party. Mr. Weldon can’t prove the “China connection” but fervently believes in it. Less restrained ideologues already are shouting “Treason!”
These eager heirs of Joe McCarthy should be very, very careful. Many of them are depending on George W. Bush, Governor of Texas-a champion whose appeal rests upon his inheritance of a famous name-to lead them back into the White House. If coddling China was “treason,” then the Governor’s family and friends have a lot of explaining to do.
This week marks the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, an event whose aftermath I covered for another publication. Having seen firsthand the decaying corpses of protesters slaughtered by the Chinese dictatorship amid the imposition of martial law in Beijing, I have little affection for that fascistic regime.
Yet the current attempt to foment hysteria over Chinese spying strikes me as utterly ridiculous. We have been conducting espionage against the Chinese Communists since the late 1940′s, when the Central Intelligence Agency set up Civil Air Transport, a notorious front company in Taiwan. That effort has expanded ever since, from the signals intelligence-gathering arrangement we made with the British and Australians in 1948 to the vast array of human agents and communications intercepts we now employ. Has anyone stopped to consider how we know whatever we do know about Chinese nuclear advances?
Actually, in the present instance, we learned about their apparent thefts of nuclear technology from a “walk-in” defector, who brought a huge cache of documents to our spies. According to the Cox report that helpful turncoat may well have been a “directed walk-in,” or double agent, which further complicates the entire problem. Why would they have sent him? We still don’t know.
What the Cox report does make perfectly obvious is that easy opportunities for weapons espionage, at he national laboratories and through high-technology commerce, have existed not for years but for decades. And on May 27, the Associated Press revealed that the Defense Intelligence Agency warned the Reagan Administration in 1984 about China’s “covert acquisition of U.S. [nuclear] technology.” It went on to predict that “increased access to this technology and continued Chinese efforts will in the 1980′s and early 1990′s show up as qualitative warhead improvements.” The following year, the C.I.A. finally nabbed Larry Wu-Tai Chin, the most successful mole in its history, who had been secretly working for Beijing since the 1950′s. Problems with security at the national laboratories was the subject of repeated alarms during those years, to no avail.
So if financial ties to the Chinese Government are “evidence” of treasonous laxity toward Chinese espionage, then what of the Bushes and their friends? Only weeks after the Tiananmen incident, President Bush went out of his way to placate China, quietly dispatching top aides Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger to drink a toast to the Beijing butchers. On three occasions, President Bush signed waivers for satellite deals by U.S. corporations with Beijing. (Those same firms gave nearly $800,000 to the G.O.P. during the Bush years.) One of those waivers benefited a company that had hired Prescott Bush as a $250,000-a-year consultant. Prescott Bush visited Beijing in the fall of 1989, three months after the massacre; a few months later, his brother the President signed the desired waiver.
As Prescott Bush assured reporters at the time, “There’s no conflict of interest,” adding slyly: “It doesn’t hurt that my brother is President of the United States.” The first brother later became chairman of the U.S.-China Chamber of Commerce, and an ardent advocate of easy trade and technology terms with those terrible Commies. Meanwhile, Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, Mr. Eagleburger and Mr. Scowcroft went on to do a lucrative business as advisers to American and other Western companies seeking commerce with the Chinese. Does anyone believe they didn’t know about China’s nuclear espionage when they hopped over to Beijing for a handshake and a glass of mao-tai?
Democrats as well as Republicans can play connect-the-dots with China policy. It is a stupid, hypocritical and pointless game for both sides, and one that may prove especially perilous for the Republican Presidential front-runner.
Follow Joe Conason via RSS.