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The Times and Wen Ho Lee | The Nation

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The Times and Wen Ho Lee

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A writer in Slate, commenting on the New York Times's recent two-part recap of the Wen Ho Lee case, observed that "Robert Scheer, who seeks full exoneration for Lee, will probably be disappointed because the Times concludes that Lee's behavior, while not demonstrably criminal, remains suspicious." This must be a reference to my October 23 Nation article and my numerous Op-Ed pieces in the Los Angeles Times questioning the presumption of the New York Times that former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee was guilty of the most nefarious of spy charges.

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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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Since Lee was never charged with spying and the case ended with a plea bargain to a relatively minor charge of mishandling classified data, it would seem that Lee does not require exoneration. To my mind, it is the New York Times that should seek forgiveness for smearing Lee as a dangerous spy by continuing to presume him guilty until he is proven innocent beyond the shadow of the Times's doubt.

In its two-part series, reported in the main by the same reporters responsible for the original stories, the Times never once critically examines its reliance on government leaks and sources. Much of its reporting seems to rely on one former Energy Department official, Notra Trulock, who now does PR for the right-wing Free Congress Foundation, and who was the subject of much controversy within his department, including allegedly spitting on an African-American colleague who dared differ with him. While the Times recap finally admits that Trulock was just about alone in the entire defense establishment in believing that China stole plans for the W-88 warhead and/or has manufactured such a weapon, he is still treated gingerly by the Times. Is it possible that Trulock, who is writing a book about the case, could embarrass the newspaper by disclosing the details of his relationship with the Times as it puffed so much smoke suggesting a national security fire?

There is, of course, no fire. China still has a puny nuclear force of twenty liquid-fueled nuclear-armed rockets, and if it wanted to bankrupt its society by engaging in a nuclear arms race with the United States, there are plenty of former Soviet scientists now on the job market. The Russians mastered the secrets of weapons miniaturization, much ballyhooed by the Times, three decades ago.

Unfortunately, instead of seriously examining its own culpability in this case, the Times's recap is another smear based on what the paper defines as Lee's odd behavior. The two main instances the paper offers of suspicious actions are so ludicrous as to raise questions about the acuity of its top editors. The main one is that a Chinese nuclear scientist whom Lee had met during a lab-approved visit to China publicly embraced and thanked Lee when the Chinese scientist later visited the Los Alamos lab. If Lee were a spy for China, why would that Chinese scientist so dramatically blow Lee's cover by publicly embracing him?

The bigger problem for the Times is that its journalists have spent the better part of two years trying to convince readers that Lee was a spy for Communist China who turned over our top nuclear secrets--"the crown jewels''--and that as a result, the balance of power between the United States and China fundamentally changed. The purpose, often stated by those pushing the hard anti-China line, was to allow China to threaten Taiwan without fear of US retaliation because of China's nuclear weapons strength.

However, the latest twist in the Lee case, laid out in the Times epilogue, is that the FBI and other intelligence agencies no longer believe that Lee was a spy for the Chinese Communists. Instead they have come up with the theory that he was possibly working for his native Taiwan all along, as did the Washington Post, based on the fact that he has a bank account there (never mind that it contains only $200 and that Lee visits relatives there). That the Times can pass along this new theory with a straight face attests to the newspaper's institutional arrogance. In the government's case against the Taiwan-born Lee, it was always a matter of once a Han, always a Han. Even the Times in its recap concedes that the government went awry in focusing on Lee because of his ethnicity, but it refuses to admit that the newspaper, in a major way, was complicit in railroading Lee.

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