Please Ignore Warnings of Dire Nuclear Peril

Aside from embarrassing the Justice Department and the F.B.I., the release of Wen Ho Lee marks the conclusion of yet another once-horrifying scandal now relegated to a fat file under the heading of “Oh, Never Mind.” There the voluminous clippings about what not long ago was deemed the “worst national security breach since the Rosenberg case”-by knowledgeable unnamed sources-will rest for eternity next to such other recent classics as Waco, Travelgate, Filegate and, of course, the soon-to-be-completed Whitewater case.

In all of these instances, the public was persistently misled by sloppy reporting and idiotic commentary in the national media, but the Wen Ho Lee and Whitewater episodes are strikingly similar. Each began with an overblown investigative report on the front page of The New York Times that later turned out to be wrong about critical facts, and each was then hyped into hysteria by editorials and columns on that paper’s opinion pages, notably in essays by the influential William (“Old Unreliable”) Safire.

Amnesia is epidemic in the news business, but readers of this space are probably familiar with the awful record of the Times editorial page and of Mr. Safire in their handling of Whitewater and related topics. The presumption of guilt that suffused Times commentary on that subject violated the paper’s venerated standards, with the worst examples to be found in Mr. Safire’s fantasies of wide-ranging felonious conspiracies that never existed and predictions of imminent criminal indictments that never materialized.

Any day now, the independent counsel will file a final report on Whitewater which will have to concede, amid any partisan insinuations of wrongdoing, that Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton committed no crimes. That same concession already has appeared in the independent counsel’s final reports on Travelgate and Filegate, as Mr. Safire dubbed the two subsidiary non-scandals.

Meanwhile, The Times left Whitewater behind like a bad memory and moved on to a story considerably more disturbing than the alleged concealment of an ancient rural-development scheme: the supposed sale of defense secrets to China in exchange for contributions to the Democratic Party and the Clinton Presidential campaign.

The original investigative stories about “Chinagate” that appeared in The Times were not quite that blunt, but the implication was clear. First came a series that suggested (wrongly, as it turned out) a major Democratic contributor had been willfully permitted to breach security in assisting Chinese rocket launches. (Those stories garnered a Pulitzer Prize.) Then came the saga of Wen Ho Lee, which brought forth a Congressional investigation and an outpouring of calumnies from Mr. Safire about a White House that had sold out American security for the sake of Chinese gold.

“Our nuclear genie is out of the bottle,” wrote the Times columnist in his usual ominous and pseudo-authoritative voice, urging that Americans “keep in mind Beijing’s grand design: Use Asian fund-raisers to influence White House policy to sell China advanced computer and missile technology…Thanks to the downloading of our secrets, American cities will be less safe in two years than they were at the height of the cold war.”

In that column and several which followed, as well as in his appearances on NBC’s Meet the Press , Mr. Safire continued to draw a frightening connection between campaign contributions and lax protection of bomb and missile technologies. He stopped just short of accusing the administration of outright treason, while clearly suggesting that Wen Ho Lee had been treated with excessive leniency because of the President’s desire to maintain a “strategic partnership” with China.

Fortunately, there came a point where the analogy between the Whitewater and Wen Ho Lee stories broke down. Times news editors conscientiously published a front-page investigation which showed that the premises of Mr. Safire’s columns (and its earlier articles on Mr. Lee) were false. While the Chinese military has somewhat improved its nuclear capability, little or none of that improvement was likely a consequence of espionage. Security in the national laboratories may have been too lax, but that is an endemic problem in atomic research that can be traced at least as far back as the Reagan administration.

Just as important, no evidence has been discovered that shows a connection between Clinton administration policies toward China and campaign contributions from Chinese-Americans or foreign nationals from Asia. The proven illegal donations and the poor screening of donors who entered the White House were bad enough. Prosecutions have ensued where they were warranted. But the ill-founded innuendo about “Chinagate” and the selling of national secrets has no foundation in fact.

Which is why, during an election year when Republicans are desperately seeking issues with which to denigrate the Democrats, you don’t hear much about what was touted not so long ago as the worst national-security scandal of the late 20th century. It turns out that Wen Ho Lee is just about as comparable to the Rosenbergs as Whitewater is to Watergate.