All The News That's Fit to Skip: Network Apathy Toward Chinese Contributions and Espionage

3. China Acquires U.S. Warhead Technology

Then the newspapers began to piece together another story, of China stealing the technology to miniaturize their nuclear warheads. Put the two together — miniaturized nuclear warheads on improved ballistic missiles — and you have an American security nightmare. So did the networks leap at this horrendous security breach? No.

• March 6, 1999: Miniaturized Multiple Warheads. The New York Times landed another shocking scoop: "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." The Times emphasized: "The White House was told of the full extent of China’s spying in the summer of 1997, on the eve of the first U.S.-Chinese summit meeting in eight years — a meeting intended to dramatize the success of President Clinton’s efforts to improve relations with Beijing....a reconstruction by The New York Times reveals that throughout the government, the response to the nuclear theft was marked by delays, inaction and skepticism — even though senior intelligence officials regarded it as one of the most damaging spy cases in recent history."

Network coverage? In the first ten days of the story, the Big Three aired only 11 evening stories. The morning shows were worse, airing only six full news reports and one interview. As administration spokesmen went uninterviewed and unchallenged by the morning shows, ABC’s Good Morning America had time for a half-hour on weight loss. CBS’s This Morning asked O.J. Simpson lawyer Johnnie Cochran about his upcoming appearance on the CBS soap Guiding Light. Two networks urgently discussed the 40th anniversary of the Barbie doll. When the networks did touch the story, it came flattened by skepticism. Only NBC’s Today aired an interview. On March 9, Katie Couric helped Energy Secretary Bill Richardson make excuses: "Isn’t there a possibility that China could have done this on its own?" Through May 13, this stands as the only interview segment about espionage on any of the morning shows since the New York Times broke the story. Since the first ten days, the Big Three have ignored several subsequent significant revelations:

• March 24, 1999: Hand the Spy a Better Job? New York Times reporter James Risen revealed: "In spring 1997, Los Alamos National Laboratory chose a scientist who was already under investigation as a suspected spy for China to run a sensitive new nuclear weapons program, several senior government officials say. The scientist, Wen Ho Lee, asked that he be allowed to hire a research assistant, the officials said. Once in the new position, in charge of updating computer software for nuclear weapons, Lee hired a post-doctoral researcher who was a citizen of China, intelligence and law-enforcement officials said....the research assistant has disappeared."

Network coverage? Zero.

• March 29, 1999: "The Penetration is Total." Submerged across the bottom of two pages of the March 29 issue, Newsweek correspondents John Barry and Gregory L. Vistica reported on a CIA probe of the compromised nuclear labs. Top nuclear experts "practically fainted" at how Chinese scientists routinely used U.S. lab phrases and concepts. One official announced: "The penetration is total...they are deep, deep into the labs’ black programs." They also learned "Beijing recently got hold of two U.S. cruise missiles that failed to detonate during last fall’s retaliatory attack on Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan," and officials want to know if the Chinese are copying that sophisticated technology.

Network coverage? Zero.

• March 31, 1999: Only Lee’s Wiretap Rejected. After several investigative news reports on the China connection by the Washington bureau of Investor’s Business Daily, the newspaper’s lead editorial on March 31 revealed: "As part of the probe, the [FBI] requested a wiretap on Lee. Justice denied it, arguing it did not have sufficient grounds to take to a federal court to get the tap approved. But a look at the Justice Department’s record on wiretaps calls that argument into serious question. From 1993 to 1997, federal officials requested 2,686 wiretaps. For all its concern for probable cause and legal standards, the Justice Department turned down one request in those four years — Lee’s in 1996."

Network coverage? Zero.

• April 8, 1999: New Neutron Theft. New York Times reporters Jeff Gerth and James Risen began: "In early 1996, the United States received a startling report from one of its Chinese spies. Officials inside China’s intelligence service, the spy said, were boasting that they had just stolen secrets from the United States and had used them to improve Beijing’s neutron bomb, according to American officials." After repeated administration claims that all nuclear-weapons espionage happened in the mid-80s, the Times found espionage happening in 1995.

Network coverage? In a press conference that day with visiting Chinese premier Zhu Rongji, both the AP and Reuters reporters on hand asked about the Times charges. Still, the CBS Evening News ignored the story, except for one vague reference by Bill Plante: "Did China steal U.S. nuclear technology? Zhu Rongji said he didn’t know a thing about it." ABC and NBC covered the subject, though NBC did not give credit to the newspaper and concluded by stressing the White House spin that "there’s no evidence China’s neutron bomb was improved as a result."

The next morning, CBS’s This Morning ignored it. ABC’s Good Morning America gave the Times story two updates totaling 30 seconds, and NBC’s Today awarded one 38-second brief. But NBC spent two minutes and 43 seconds on beavers gnawing down cherry trees on Washington’s Tidal Basin.

• April 30: Communist China vs. Keystone Kops. The Washington Post front page reported Congress "erupted" with criticism against the FBI and the Justice Department. "After grilling FBI Director Louis J. Freeh for nearly three hours in a closed-door hearing, members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from both parties appeared equally outraged at what they depicted as lax handling of past and present investigations into suspected leaks of classified data. Their concern was aroused in particular by Freeh’s testimony that the suspect, Wen Ho Lee, had been cited for suspicious actions going back almost 20 years."

Network coverage? Zero.

• May 7, 1999: The Senate Reports. Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz summarized a bipartisan congressional finding of damage that was released later that day: "U.S. satellite technology transferred to China in 1995 and 1996 has improved Beijing’s rockets and missiles, according to a report to be released May 7 by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The bipartisan committee report sets out that the Chinese government is engaged in a covert operation aimed at influencing U.S. policies. ‘Technical analyses and methodologies provided by American satellite companies to the [People’s Republic of China] during various satellite-launch campaigns result in the transfer to the PRC of technical knowhow,’ the report says. ‘Such transfer enables the PRC to improve its present and future space launch vehicles and intercontinental ballistic missiles.’"

Network coverage? ABC, CBS, and NBC ignored it, although ABC’s World News Tonight aired a story on Wen Ho Lee’s claims of innocence.

• May 10, 1999: Scott-Free Peter Lee. New York Times reporters Jeff Gerth and James Risen expanded the espionage story: "A scientist working on a classified Pentagon project in 1997 provided China with secrets about advanced radar technology being developed to track submarines, according to court records and government documents. Submarine detection technology is jealously guarded by the Pentagon because the Navy’s ability to conceal submarines is a crucial military advantage."

The reporters added context: "The information about the radar technology, which is considered promising and has been in development for two decades, was divulged to Chinese nuclear-weapons experts during a two-hour lecture in Beijing in May 1997 by Peter Lee, an American scientist, court records show....Despite the failure to prosecute Lee over the radar technology [due to Navy and Justice Department objections], the case shows that the scope of Chinese espionage is broader than the assertions of nuclear thefts at the Los Alamos National Laboratory....The Peter Lee case is also significant because it clearly demonstrates that the American government believed that China was successfully engaged in espionage — obtaining American defense secrets — during President Clinton’s second term."

Network coverage? Zero.