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China Spying Story: All the Excuses Fit to Print | The Nation

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China Spying Story: All the Excuses Fit to Print

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Robert Scheer
Robert Scheer, a contributing editor to The Nation, is editor of Truthdig.com and author of The Great American Stickup...

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The words of the FBI inquisitor concerning his treatment of Wen Ho Lee couldn't have been more chilling: "It seemed like the more times you hit him upside the head, the more truth comes out; it's like a little kid."

That totalitarian sentiment was cited uncritically by the New York Times as the summation of the first part of a lengthy examination of the two-year case, in which the newspaper's reporting played a driving role. Both the government and the Times acted as if Wen Ho Lee was presumed guilty of spying until proved innocent.

The "little kid" in question, is a 61-year-old PhD and a highly regarded ex-Los Alamos scientist. A Taiwanese-born US citizen, Lee never was charged with actually spying or passing secrets to any government, but he was held for nine months under what the judge in the case came to define as "extraordinarily onerous conditions of confinement."

Those conditions, dictated over the judge's objections by the Justice Department under its power in such cases, included solitary confinement in a constantly lit cell and full-chain shackles even during brief moments of exercise or meetings with his attorneys. That barbaric treatment ended only after nine months, when Reagan-appointed conservative Chief US District Judge James A. Parker released Lee for time served, severely rebuked the prosecutors for deceiving him with their flimsy case and, in an unprecedented gesture, added "I sincerely apologize to you, Dr. Lee, for the unfair manner you were held in custody by the executive branch." Lee was exonerated of fifty-eight charges and pleaded guilty to unlawful retention of classified documents.

As the New York Times now concedes, government prosecutors had only the weakest case against Lee but hoped that the threat of life imprisonment and the harsh jail conditions could be used to break the man and obtain a confession to a crime of spying for China, of which there was not a shred of solid evidence.

Although the government case "collapsed of its own light weight," as the Times put it, employing curious physics, the newspaper has only feebly touched on its own role in this case.

Particularly onerous was the newspaper's original hoary front-page headline: "Breach at Los Alamos...China Stole Nuclear Secrets for Bombs, U.S. Aides Say." The story went further: "Working with nuclear secrets stolen from an American government laboratory, China has made a leap in the development of nuclear weapons: the miniaturization of its bombs."

That was a reference to the W-88 warhead, but in the conclusion of its recap, the Times concedes that many of the top scientists in the Energy Department and the FBI since 1995 have "disagreed with the conclusion that China, using stolen secrets, had built a weapon like the W-88." At the same time, the newspaper conceded that there was nothing in the files downloaded by Lee that would actually allow China to build such a weapon and that "secrets" concerning its development are widely dispersed throughout the defense industry.

The techniques for miniaturization are also well understood by former scientists for the Soviet Union, who long ago developed such weapons and whose talents are for sale on the world job market. Despite having destroyed Lee's reputation with its uncritical ventilation of government leaks, the Times seems bent on continuing the process. Its recent series is larded with such references as: "According to a secret FBI report recently obtained by the Times, Dr. Lee told agents . . . "

Isn't the government committing a more egregious violation of national security by leaking information about secret computer codes--as it apparently did to buttress its claims against Lee in the current New York Times account?

In the landmark 1971 Pentagon Papers case won by the New York Times before the US Supreme Court, the Times asserted that it was merely exercising rights guaranteed by the free press clause of the 1st Amendment to print in toto a lengthy secret government study of US actions in Vietnam. The same principle of fully sharing information with the reader should apply to so-called secret documents obtained by the Times in the Lee case so that we can make our own judgments.

But in its two years of reporting on the Wen Ho Lee case, the New York Times has relied extensively on selected references to secret government documents that smeared Lee, documents that Lee and the newspaper's readers were not permitted to examine. Freedom of the press is presumably for the benefit of the readers in general and of victims of government abuse in particular. Yet the Times, as with many media outlets these days, has perverted that freedom to justify its willful participation in government manipulation of the news.

The New York Times has not yet come to grips with the enormity of its betrayal of the principles of fairness that should govern a great newspaper. What could be more basic to that obligation than the vigorous protection of the right of any citizen, Taiwanese immigrants included, to the presumption of innocence?

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