What If Clinton Knew of Espionage in '95?

A Suddenly Irrelevant Question: What Did the President Know and When Did He Know It?

The night before the House and Senate Iran-Contra committees released their final report in 1987, ABC's Ted Koppel noted "the central question has been that echo from Watergate: how much did the President know and when did he know it?" That question has been anything but central in media accounts of the Chinese espionage scandal as Clinton's line has evolved:

March 19: Clinton was first forced to respond to press conference inquiries about Chinese espionage, and he denied having any knowledge that espionage occurred on his watch. [See box.]

April 8: Clinton met the press with Chinese premier Zhu Rongji and again denied hearing of recent espionage: "You know, China is a big country with a big government, and I can only say that America is a big country with a big government, and occasionally things happen in this government that I don't know about. And so I think it's important that we continue the investigation and do our best to find out what happened, and I asked for his cooperation." That night, ABC and NBC ran clips of Clinton's March 19 denial, but then failed to follow up when his denials became more obviously hollow.

May 2: The New York Times undercut Clinton's March claims of not hearing about espionage on his watch: "A secret report to top Clinton administration officials last November warned that China posed an 'acute intelligence threat' to the government's nuclear weapons laboratories and that computer systems at the labs were being constantly penetrated by outsiders... The classified report contains numerous warnings and specific examples showing that outsiders had gained access to the computer systems at United States weapons labs as recently as June 1998." But only ABC noted it for 40 seconds, and failed to say a word about how it contradicted Clinton's denials.

May 9: On NBC's Meet the Press, moderator Tim Russert prodded Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to admit that contrary to Clinton's press conference claims on March 19, espionage did take place in the Clinton years. Despite a heated exchange, NBC and the other networks failed to report the admission.

June 25: Fox News Channel's Wendell Goler, who asked about Clinton's knowledge on March 19, returned to the subject. Clinton admitted "my choice of wording was poor." [See box.] Other coverage? NBC's Claire Shipman gave18 seconds to the matter.

June 27: Contradicting White House claims they first learned of espionage in April 1996, The New York Times reported the White House was told about Chinese thefts in July 1995, "soon after it was detected by the Energy Department and the Central Intelligence Agency....interviews with current and former officials show that warnings about possible Chinese nuclear espionage received high-level attention within the Clinton administra-tion early in the government's investigation of the matter." TV coverage? NBC Nightly News noted it for 19 seconds.

Imagine the "appearance of a conflict of interest" the baying hounds of Iran-Contra coverage would find if they had a mere suggestion that a Republican President had learned of Chinese espionage in 1995 and then knowingly accepted Chinese donations in 1996? - Tim Graham