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

4. Clinton's Denials Exposed

When he was forced to respond to press conference inquiries about the newspaper scoops on Chinese espionage, Clinton denied any knowledge that espionage occurred on his watch. At a March 19 press conference, Clinton said: "Can I tell you there has been no espionage at the labs since I’ve been President? I can tell you that no one has reported to me that they suspect such a thing has occurred." He repeated later in the same news conference: "To the best of my knowledge, no one has said anything to me about any espionage which occurred by the Chinese against the labs, during my presidency."

On April 8, the day The New York Times reported the theft of neutron bomb secrets in 1995, Clinton met the press with Chinese premier Zhu Rongji and again denied knowledge 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.

• April 28: "Huge Amounts" Improperly Transferred. The New York Times reported "A scientist suspected of spying for China improperly transferred huge amounts of secret data from a computer system at a government laboratory, compromising virtually every nuclear weapon in the United States arsenal, government and lab officials say. The data — millions of lines of computer code that approximate how this country’s atomic warheads work — were downloaded from a computer system at the Los Alamos, N.M., weapons lab that is open only to those with top-level security clearances, according to the officials. The scientist, Wen Ho Lee, then transferred the files to a widely accessible computer network at the lab, where they were stored under other file names, the officials said. The Taiwan-born scientist transferred most of the secret data in 1994 and 1995, officials said."

Network coverage? Nothing on the ABC and CBS morning shows while NBC’s Today gave it 15 seconds. ABC’s World News Tonight aired a full story. CBS Evening News mentioned it before its own exclusive report on lax nuclear lab security. NBC Nightly News referred to it in one sentence in a story broadcast nearly two weeks later, on May 11. But none of the network reports pointed out how the story undermined Clinton’s claim there was no espionage during his administration.

• May 2, 1999: What Did They Know and When Did They Know It? The New York Times added new details about how and when the Clinton team learned about ongoing espionage last year: "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. Yet investigators waited until March to search the computer of a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who had been under investigation for nearly three years, suspected of spying for China. And it was not until April that the Energy Department shut down its classified computer systems to impose tighter security over their data. Meanwhile, in February, the scientist, Wen Ho Lee, tried to delete evidence that he had improperly transferred more than 1,000 files containing nuclear secrets, officials said. 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."

Network coverage? Only ABC’s World News Tonight noted it, for 40 seconds, but failed to say a word about how it contradicted Clinton’s denials.

• May 9: Richardson Admits Clinton-Era Espionage. On NBC’s Meet the Press, moderator Tim Russert prodded Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to admit that contrary to Clinton’s press-conference claims, espionage did take place in the Clinton years: "In November of ‘98, you received, the President received a report saying exactly something contrary. Senator Kerrey, Senator Shelby of the Intelligence Committee said they were aware and the President was aware. Why would he tell the American people in March that he wasn’t aware?" 
     Richardson: "Tim, what the President was referring to — and I was with him — he was referring to [how] this individual had not been charged with espionage." 
     Russert: "That’s not what he said. It’s not what he said, Mr. Richardson." 
     Richardson: "The President has been fully, fully briefed. The President has been..."
     Russert: "He said, ‘Can I tell you that there’s no espionage at the lab since I’ve been President? I can tell you that no one has reported to me they suspect such a thing. To the best of my knowledge, no one has said anything to me about espionage.’" 
     Richardson: "Tim, it was the President..." 
     Russert: "...which occurred by the Chinese against the labs during my presidency." 
     Richardson: "Tim, it was the President that vigorously pushed for a decision memorandum, a PDD, in February. He set dramatic   counter-intelligence measures at the labs. We moved ahead a month later and hired Mr. Curran, the best counter-intelligence person." 
     Russert: "But let’s clear up the record."
     Richardson: "And when I came in, Tim, we have taken dramatic steps." 
     Russert: "Right. Let’s clear up the record. Let’s clear up the record. Did, in fact, espionage occur by the Chinese against the nuclear labs during the Clinton presidency?" 
     Richardson: "Tim, this is what’s happened."
     Russert: "It’s a simple question." 
     Richardson: "No, no, no, this is what happened." 
     Russert: "Was there Chinese espionage..." 
     Richardson: "There has been damaging security leaks, number one."
     Russert: "...during the Clinton administration?" 
     Richardson: "The Chinese did get W-88 information that is damaging. It started in the ‘80s, it’s gone into the ‘90s. The Chinese have obtained damaging information. We are..." 
     Russert: "During the Clinton presidency?" 
     Richardson: "We are addressing the problem." 
     Russert: "During the Clinton presidency?" 
     Richardson: "During past administrations and present administrations." 
     Russert: "Finally, someone has acknowledged it."

     Network coverage? Despite this heated exchange, NBC and the other networks failed to report Richardson’s admission on their morning or evening shows, even though it made the front page in the next day’s Washington Times, and even The Boston Globe.