A Trial by Newsprint: The Times’ Suspect Coverage


Country Versus Me: The First-Hand Account by the Los Alamos Scientist Who Was

Falsely Accused of Being a Spy , by Wen Ho Lee, with Helen Zia. Hyperion,

332 pages, $23.95.

The title of this gripping memoir of one scientist’s battle with the system gone awry-which included a torturous

nine months in solitary confinement-could also have been called The New York Times Versus Me .

It was the presumed newspaper of record that ran the lurid

headline on March 6, 1999, announcing that a Chinese spy had stolen America’s

most precious nuclear secrets,  and it

was The Times again, three days later, that named Wen Ho Lee as that spy

based on unnamed sources. Mr. Lee would never actually be charged with spying,

however, and the slander of treason still sticks to him in freedom.

As Ed Curran, the ex–F.B.I. agent and Department of Energy

officer who for a time led the prosecution of Mr. Lee, put it: “One of the

worst things that happened in this whole affair was the press feeding frenzy about Wen Ho Lee, triggered mainly by the

coverage in The New York Times .”

Mr. Lee and Helen Zia, who collaborated on this understated,

well-documented account, don’t go that far. And certainly The Times , while a major

player, did not author this travesty on its own. But as this book reminds us,

the newspaper brought the often erroneous and almost always unsubstantiated

claims of Congressional and administration officials who found it extremely

useful to single out the Taiwan-born Mr. Lee as a spy for Red China.

The Republican hawks in

Congress, led by Representative Christopher Cox, were determined to prove that

the Clinton administration traded the nation’s nuclear secrets to the Chinese

in return for secret campaign contributions. This patently absurd charge was

advanced because it was a much more meaningful basis for impeaching a President

than his sex life or a dubious decade-old land investment. (It also played to

the racist notion that Asian-Americans are disloyal.)

Whatever the source of its information, The Times failed to do the most elementary checking of the “facts”

they had been fed. For example, The Times

made Mr. Lee’s infrequent trips to China appear suspicious-forming, in fact,

most of the circumstantial case against him. “The suspect had traveled to Hong

Kong without reporting the trip as required,” wrote The Times , mistakenly.

“In Hong Kong … the [F.B.I.] found records showing that the scientist had

obtained $700 from the American Express offices. Investigators suspect that he

used it to buy an airline ticket to Shanghai.”

In fact, Mr. Lee’s

trips-including this one-were authorized by officials of the Los Alamos

National Laboratory, where he worked. “I never made a secret trip to Hong

Kong,” writes Mr. Lee in his book. “My trip to the conference in Hong Kong in

1992 had full LANL and D.O.E. approval. I paid the $700 for my hotel room and a

tour for [my daughter] Alberta with my credit card-there was no secret trip to

Shanghai or anywhere else! New York Times

Pulitzer Prize–winning reporters who wrote these lies could have found the

facts, had they bothered to question any of the information leaked to them by

the lab, the D.O.E. and the F.B.I.” Mr. Lee complains in particular of the

“hatchet job” done by Times reporters

James Risen and Jeff Gerth.

Mr. Lee writes: “I could not understand how such a powerful and

influential newspaper could be so one-sided …. The case against me was built on

misleading sensationalism, and this newspaper let itself become a conduit for

those lies and leaks about me. Maybe that is how they sell newspapers, but it

came at the expense of my family and me. The

New York Times ought to have apologized to us, because their article pushed

Congress, the D.O.E., the F.B.I. and LANL over the edge. According to their

article and the people quoted in it, there was no room for doubt: China got its

nuclear technology by spying on America, the spy was from Los Alamos, and I was

it. Yet not a single one of those assertions has been proven true.”

The initial fear was that data about the W-88, the most advanced

U.S. nuclear warhead, had been pilfered. The scare was apparently based on a

crude design drawing of a missile received from a Chinese double agent. (It

turns out that this drawing had been distributed to a mailing list of thousands

of defense contractors, National Guardsmen and scientists.)

The case against Mr. Lee

began to fall apart when leading weapons scientists-including Harold Agnew, a former Los Alamos director

who ran the lab until the early 1980’s,

when the W-88 was designed-challenged The Times ‘ and the government’s wild claims

about the significance of the codes that Mr. Lee had downloaded to an unsecured

computer. No nation would be likely to use those codes, Mr. Agnew pointed

out: Most of them were antiquated and nearly

worthless without the specific computers and operating systems of the U.S.

national laboratories.

But by the time of Mr. Lee’s imprisonment, the government was no

longer talking much about W-88 secrets, the focus of those first Times reports. The Justice Department

actually admitted late in the day that the original charge leveled by The Times

was not even significant to the case the government eventually brought against

Mr. Lee.

Mr. Lee faced 59 counts, including 39 violations of the Atomic

Energy Act, which carried a life sentence (Mr. Lee was the first person ever to

be charged under that act). But he was not charged with espionage or spying-and,

when pressed, the government conceded that it had no evidence he had passed

secret information to any nation.

Unable to make a case against Mr. Lee-and after the glaring

admission in court by Robert Messemer, the lead F.B.I. agent on the case, that

he lied in his testimony concerning Mr. Lee’s conversations with another

scientist-the feds were left with nothing more serious than the mishandling of

coded data, which Mr. Lee had full authority to work on and which was not even

classified as secret when he downloaded it.

In fact, the codes-which The

Times had described as containing the “crown jewels” of the U.S.

nuclear-weapons program-had a lower classification of “Protect as Restricted

Data,” or PARD. Lab regulations did not even require locking PARD data in

safes-reams of PARD printouts were even used by lab scientists as doorstops-and

it could legally be sent to colleagues through the mail.

Mr. Lee writes, ” Newsweek magazine described my situation

accurately: ‘Though the case against Mr. Lee may be crumbling, the Feds appear

determined to get him on something. “I think the case will just linger and keep

spiraling down,” says one top F.B.I. official. “Then we’ll find that he spit on

the sidewalk, and we’ll charge him with that.”‘” The government attempted to

squeeze Mr. Lee into some sort of confession by subjecting him to truly abysmal

jail conditions-an abuse denounced by virtually every major scientific

organization as well as Amnesty International.

In the end, the quite frail 60-year-old Mr. Lee, a colon-cancer

survivor, was willing to accept a plea bargain on the most minor charge leveled

against him-improperly handling secret data-and went home free for time served.

After evaluating the government’s case, most of it still secret,

Judge James Parker (a conservative Reagan appointee) took the unprecedented

step of apologizing to Mr. Lee for the way he’d been treated. “What was the

government’s motive,” Judge Parker asked, “in insisting on your being jailed

pretrial under extraordinarily onerous conditions of confinement, when the

Executive Branch agrees that you may be set free essentially unrestricted?”

For its part, The Times

ran lengthy re-evaluations of its coverage on both its news and editorial

pages, and yet never came close to an apology (in large measure, the same

people who had written and edited the original stories produced the evaluation

of the paper’s coverage). Evidently, being an investigative reporter for The Times means never having to say

you’re sorry.

Robert Scheer, a contributing editor for The Nation ,

is a syndicated columnist based at the Los Angeles Times and has written over 20 columns on the Wen

Ho Lee case. A Trial by Newsprint: The Times’ Suspect Coverage