The American public first learned in 1999 that the People’s Republic of China had acquired classified data on seven U.S. nuclear warheads plus several intercontinental ballistic missiles. For many, China’s successes recalled the Soviet penetration of the World War II Manhattan Project. A former CIA spy catcher, Paul Redmond, ranked the damage above that caused by FBI agent Robert Hanssen and CIA’s Aldrich Ames, both long-time Soviet spies. Redmond argued that whereas they had severely damaged our intelligence capabilities, Chinese nuclear espionage could enable China to threaten our obliteration.
Unlike the Hanssen/Ames cases, however, the elite media have downplayed Chinese nuclear espionage. In a way, it was reminiscent of the efforts of the left to refute the evidence that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and more recently J. Robert Oppenheimer, the top scientist in the Manhattan Project, had helped the Soviet Union get what was supposed to be our most carefully guarded secret-how to build an atomic bomb. In the Chinese spying case, much of the media have downplayed the seriousness of nuclear espionage and have not demanded that those responsible be found and brought to justice.
After the Chinese nuclear espionage story broke on March 6, 1999, National Security Advisor Samuel Berger and Energy Secretary Bill Richardson repeatedly confirmed the losses on tele-vision. Berger said on Meet the Press, “There is no question that they’ve [the Chinese] benefitted from this.” Richardson said on CNN Crossfire, “Yes, we know for a fact that the missile technology secrets came from the Los Alamos nuclear lab.” The CIA published a declassified version of an assessment that confirmed that the Chinese had stolen U.S. secrets on nuclear warheads and missile reentry vehicles. And the “Cox Report” further expanded these revelations in late May 1999.
Yet, by the end of summer, the Clinton White House was celebrating the disappearance of the story from the media. The New York Times had “scooped” most other media outlets by exposing the Clinton administration’s mishandling of the investigation and the need for security reforms. The White House relied primarily on the Washington Post to knock down the espionage story. While the Times coverage has been harshly criticized, the Post’s reporting has escaped scrutiny altogether even though its reporting shifted the coverage from the spy story to allegations of racism and ethnic profiling.
Walter Pincus and Vernon Loeb covered the story for the Post. Loeb, the junior partner, was relatively new on that beat. Pincus’s career with the Post stretched back to 1975. Prior to that he had served as an investigator for Senator J. William Fulbright, D-Ark., on the Foreign Relations Committee, and then spent three years as editor of the New Republic.
Pincus is part of the “activist media,” where opinions and solutions often substitute for facts. He once said at a conference that it was his job to “cure something we find to be wrong.” Until the late 1980s, he focused on nuclear arms control; “activism” on this beat generally meant supporting arms control agreements regardless of the impact on U.S. national security. He co-wrote and helped produce anti-nuclear television documentaries in the 1980s at the height of the “nuclear freeze” campaign. His articles consistently warned of dire consequences should the U.S. abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and he has blamed the U.S. for North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Pincus has had a long relationship with the CIA. Herbert Romerstein, a veteran investigator of Soviet subversion, disinformation and espionage, says Pincus and Gloria Steinem attended a Communist International Youth Festival in Vienna in 1959, with funds provided by the CIA. The CIA financed at least one more trip for Pincus in 1960. He has said that he rejected a job offer from CIA. During the Clinton years, Pincus enjoyed access to high-ranking CIA officials. He consistently portray-ed the Agency’s leadership in the most favorable light-as long as that leadership came from within the Democratic Party. He has been particularly kind to George Tenet, a Clinton appointee who, has been held over by George W. Bush.
In mid-May 2002, in the midst of widespread criticism of the Agency’s performance before 9/11, Pincus portrayed increases to the intelligence community’s budget as indicative of the “growing confidence Congress and Bush have placed in CIA Director George J. Tenet.” During the CIA-FBI “leak war” over which agency’s mistakes were most responsible for the 9/11 disaster, Pincus repeatedly portrayed Tenet and the CIA in the most favorable light.
The Pincus-Tenet relationship probably dates back to the mid-1980s. Tenet got his start in Washington as a Capitol Hill aide to Senator John Heinz; after Heinz’s death, he moved to the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, working for the ranking member, Senator Patrick Leahy. Tenet moved up to become staff director when the Democrats regained control of the Senate and David Boren took over the chairmanship of the committee. Boren and Tenet ran many of the Senate’s Iran-Contra investigations, portrayed as a Republican scandal. Pincus wrote stories about the CIA’s involvement in the scandal, based apparently on a steady stream of leaks from the Democrats.
Pincus has close personal links to the Clintons. His wife, Ann, is a native of Little Rock and, for a time, his son, Ward, was a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He claims an “association with Arkansans over the past 30 years,” and says that through these connections, he and his wife befriended the late Vincent Foster. They were among the “family friends” who gathered at Foster’s home on July 20, 1993 after he was found shot to death in Ft. Marcy Park. Pincus was the first to suggest that Foster had cracked under the pressure of his job as Deputy White House Counsel. None of his co-workers had seen any sign of depression, and President Clinton had said, “we will never know” why he killed himself. Six days after his death, a forged note suggesting he was depressed was allegedly found in his brief case. It had been searched previously.
That same year, Ann Pincus became a high-ranking Clinton political appointee at the U.S. Information Agency. Later, when USIA was folded into the State Department, she became a senior official in State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. His other son, Andrew, became General Counsel of the Commerce Department in 1997, just as the campaign finance scandal was unfolding. Beginning that year, Commerce came under increasing fire for liberalizing high-technology exports to China, especially satellites, allegedly in return for contributions to the Democratic National Committee. Pincus wrote a number of articles refuting those allegations that were similar to his later coverage of the Chinese nuclear espionage scandal.
An official at the Washington Post described Pincus as “a friend of Bill’s.” He said that the couple were frequent guests at Camp David and had attended formal White House dinners for visiting foreign dignitaries. In 1995,”Reliable Source,” the Post’s gossip column, reported that the Clintons had attended a dinner party at the Pincus home. Despite the obvious conflict of interest, the Post assigned Pincus to cover two of Clinton’s most damaging national security scandals. The President benefited greatly from this friendship.
Walter Pincus had written one of the earliest stories on Chinese espionage in 1999. The headline read, “U.S. Cracking Down on Chinese Designs on Nuclear Data.” The story had all the basic facts, but Pincus was careful to shield Clinton from any criticism. He would later say that he had considerable difficulty persuading his editors to publish this article. But after the New York Times picked up the story on March 6, 1999, Jackson Diehl, then the Post’s assistant managing editor for national news, pressed Pincus and Loeb to find a different angle on the story. Initially, their coverage stuck to three basic themes.
First, they consistently wrote that the Chinese espionage, if indeed any had occurred, was of little value to the PRC nuclear weapons program. Government assessments of the espionage’s contribution to the development of Chinese nuclear forces or the potential impact on U.S. national security were all based on “worse,” later changed to “worst” case scenarios.
Second, they put the blame on long-standing security vulnerabilities at the Energy Department’s nuclear labs, the scene of many of the Chinese intelligence successes. A White House report issued in mid-summer 1999 had delivered a devastating but deserved critique of the Energy Department’s security record over the past two decades. The report mildly rebuked the Clinton administration for not reacting sooner, but praised its effort to correct the security problems. Pincus and Loeb claimed that the Clinton White House had been the first to mandate reforms of Energy, which was a half-truth at best. Late in the first President Bush’s term, some measures were taken to reform security after an early Chinese espionage case had been uncovered at one of the labs. But these measures were brushed aside when Clinton took over in 1993.
Third, they portrayed this as yet another in a string of partisan Republican efforts to “get” Bill Clinton. News of the scandal began to unfold just after the Senate had failed to convict Clinton on impeachment charges. At one point, Pincus wrote that the allegations were only coming from “some members of Congress,” whom he blamed for “seriously strained U.S.-Chinese relations. This despite the recent U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, a mistake that was widely attributed to bad CIA intelligence.
Throughout, Pincus and Loeb relied almost exclusively on “anonymous sources” to debunk the Chinese espionage allegations. Loeb later claimed that he had discovered numerous “people in the Clinton administration who had first-hand knowledge of the case and at Los Alamos who had information on the case were dubious” about these allegations. Since Sandy Berger and Bill Richardson were both publicly confirming that espionage had occurred, it is not clear who Loeb was talking to, at least in official Washington.
They repeatedly cited the doubts and misgivings of “senior officials” or “senior intelligence officials,” who were never quoted on the record or identified by name. They quoted “senior U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials [who] say that they may never solve the mystery of how China learned about miniaturized warheads.” A “three-year FBI probe had produced no hard evidence of espionage,” according to unnamed officials.
In late May, Congress released a declassified version of the Report of the Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People’s Republic of China, better known as the Cox Report. The Cox Report provided a devastating indictment of successive administrations for their failures to detect and deter Chinese military espionage. The report was particularly critical of the Clinton administration for failing to act decisively once it learned of Chinese nuclear espionage. Within two days of its publication, however, the Cox Report nearly disappeared from the national media. The White House had successfully employed a media strategy that almost completely deflated the report’s impact.
The White House had received a highly classified version of the report in early January. National Security Council officials chaired a series of inter-agency meetings to develop a game plan intended to limit damage to the administration once an unclassified version was released. These officials had government classification experts consume months in endless disputes with the Congress over the public release of information in the report. Meanwhile, the White House was steadily leaking selected details to the press in order to take the steam out of the Cox Report.
The White House also had the intelligence community develop its own damage assessment for publication well before the release of the Cox Report. It even issued a press release announcing the assessment without informing CIA Director Tenet. When the assessment was completed in early April, its results were revealed at the National Press Club by Robert Walpole, a CIA national intelligence officer, who spoke on background. At the press briefing, he handed out an unclassified summary that concluded, “China obtained by espionage classified U.S. nuclear weapons information that probably accelerated its program to develop future nuclear weapons. This collection program allowed China to focus successfully down critical paths and avoid less promising approaches to nuclear weapons design.” (Emphasis added)
But the Post didn’t consider the CIA’s confirmation of Chinese nuclear espionage worthy of front-page treatment. On page A4, Pincus and Loeb repeated the CIA’s judgments, but qualified them by emphasizing that Walpole had said it would be “several years” before CIA would know “whether the espionage ‘had a significant impact on [PRC] programs.'” And it continued to underscore the “partisan” nature of the controversy by quoting Senator Bob Kerry (D-Neb.) saying that the White House “has not got a bad track record in responding to this problem. They’ve done things to reduce the risk.”
Bill Gertz of the Washington Times has written that the White House warned reporters not to be too hard on the administration once the Cox Report was released. The White House promised to leak classified data that would discredit any coverage it considered overly critical. Rep. Chris Cox later claimed that 70% of the classified information in the original report had been released to the public, but Pincus and Loeb still dismissed the report as being based on “worse-case (sic) con-clusions.” They cited a “senior official” who said the Cox “panel accepted opinions not shared by the U.S. intelligence community about the use of U.S. designs in a new Chinese warhead.”
They also reported that the Cox Committee had relied on a single document obtained from the Chinese that came to be known as the “walk-in report.” “Senior officials” told them that the whole case had been predicated on that document. They wrote that “senior intelligence officials” said that the document had been deliberately leaked to the U.S. by the Chinese. That “debate raged” on Capitol Hill as “intelligence professionals voiced concern” over the supposed reliance on one document.
Predictably, Pincus and Loeb cited former CIA officers, like Ambassadors Donald Gregg and James Lilley, who questioned the reliability of the walk-in document. Neither had reviewed it nor knew anything about its origins. By asserting that the Cox Report had been based on that single intelligence document, they cast suspicions on the overall credibility of the report.
Rep. Chris Cox (R-CA) and Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), the chairman and ranking member of the select committee, protest-ed the Post’s coverage in a letter to the editor of the Post. In particular, they questioned Pincus and Loeb’s reliance on “unnamed” sources to challenge the credibility of their report. The congressmen wrote, “There is no question about the authenticity of the U.S. nuclear weapons design data” in the Chinese “walk-in report.” They emphasized that other classified sources supported claims of Chinese acquisitions of U.S. design information. Cox and Dicks concluded, “The People’s Liberation Army has successfully tested its knock-off version of the world’s most sophisticated nuclear design. And it got it right virtually immediately. The debate over whether the PRC stole design information for the W88 is over: it did.” The Post published the letter on Memorial Day.
Post columnist Jim Hoagland agreed with Cox and Dicks. He had no trouble comprehending China’s intent in providing the document to the U.S. He wrote, “China wants to deter Washington in the event of a Taiwan Straits crisis.” Hoagland said, “That may be why China has been so obvious in the way it conducted its nuclear espionage, even as it publicly insists the spying never happened. The Cox report shows it did.”
After the Cox Report’s publication, Pincus and Loeb returned to the CIA’s mid-April damage assessment report to underscore supposed differences in the two reports. Pincus wrote in mid-June that, in contrast to the Cox Report, the CIA believed that “China’s technical advances could have come not just from espionage, but from a wide range of other unclassified sources and ‘the relative contribution of each cannot be determined.'” But Pincus’ assertions were specious. No one involved in the investigations, including the authors of the Cox Report, had argued that China’s advances had come about solely from espionage. All understood that the Chinese collected information from many different sources, all of which were components of PRC intelligence operations. The first paragraph of the Cox Report chapter dealing with PRC nuclear espionage echoed the intelligence community damage assessment. It said, “The PRC intelligence collection program includes espionage, review of unclassified publications and extensive interactions with scientists from the Department of Energy’s national weapons laboratories.”
By mid-summer, Congress and the administration began to issue reports documenting the results of several investigations into the scandal. On August 5, for example, Senators Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) of the Government Affairs Committee issued a statement on the administration’s handling of the espionage investigation. In his write-up, Pincus claimed that the statement “notes that it is still unclear whether any secrets really were stolen.” Pincus’s August 6 article was titled “China Spy Probe Bungled, Panel Finds, Senators Say U.S. May Never Know if Atomic Secrets Were Lost.”
Twenty days later, the Post published a letter to the editor from the two Senators rebutting Pincus’s characterization of their conclusions. They rejected his claim that they were uncertain “whether any secrets were really stolen.” They wrote, “We did not say this,” and “We treated it as a given that U.S. intelligence officials had correctly concluded that Chinese intelligence stole design information on the W-88 warhead.” Printing this letter was the only correction or retraction made by the Washington Post.
In early August, Pincus and Loeb switched tactics. While continuing to denounce the Cox Report and ignore the evidence of Chinese nuclear espionage, they now reported that racism and ethnic profiling had been behind the espionage allegations all along. In short, they launched a good, old-fashioned Washington smear campaign.
Pincus became the first reporter in the elite media to allege that ethnicity had played the decisive role in the identification of Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee as an espionage suspect. Pincus reported that the Thompson/Lieberman statement, cited above, had concluded that Lee’s race and ethnicity had led investigators to single him out in 1996.
Senators Thompson and Lieberman had identified three factors that had led investigators to Lee. In their letter to the Post, however, they charged that Pincus had “invented” a fourth: “that the Lees ‘were Chinese American.'” They wrote: “Let the record be clear: The evidence we have seen and heard provides no basis for the claim that the initial DOE-FBI inquiry focused on the Lees because of their race. Only much later in the process, once Mr. Lee had already been identified as the chief suspect, did the investigation consider the Lees’ ethnicity-and then only because, according to the FBI’s counterintelligence experts, Beijing’s intelligence actively tries to recruit Chinese American scientists working in sensitive U.S. facilities.” Once again the Washington Post printed the letter, but did not make any other effort to correct the misleading article.
Now the smear campaign was in full bloom. During the month of August, Pincus and Loeb hammered away on the supposed role of racism and ethnic profiling in the case. The Post published two editorials and six Pincus and Loeb articles, all with the same message: Wen Ho Lee was singled out solely because he was of “Chinese descent” and, consequently, this whole case had been driven by racism and ethnicity.
To further the campaign, they repeatedly cited two Energy Department “insiders,” whose credentials and credibility were highly questionable. One had been disciplined for his failures in the case and told reporters he was trying to clear his reputation. The Post quoted this “source” in at least twenty different articles in 1999 and 2000. The other passed a classified memo to the Post. Pincus and Loeb misquoted the memo, deliberately or otherwise, in an effort to show that there had been no basis for investigating Wen Ho Lee.
The Post succeeded in burying the Chinese espionage allegations in a flurry of “revelations” about racism and ethnic profiling. Pincus and Loeb had “reframed” the story and, henceforth, the national media followed their lead and never seriously addressed the espionage allegations again.
The White House game plan had worked brilliantly. By this time, even the leftist media had figured out their strategy. Writing for Salon.com, Jake Tapper described it as “spoon-feeding information to the press and controlling which parts of the story get the most ink and air time.” But the strategy can’t work without sympathetic, compliant reporters and editors. President Clinton had a ready-made ally in Walter Pincus and the Washington Post.
Send the enclosed cards or your own cards or letters to Bo Jones, Publisher of the Washington Post, and FBI Director Robert Mueller , and to Ms. Sibel Edmonds, another FBI employee who has been fired for having the courage to call attention to serious wrongdoing by FBI employees with whom she worked.