This article is adapted by permission from Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century (O'Reilly).
China Spying Story: All the Excuses Fit to Print
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
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
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
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
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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