MediaWatch: May 17, 1999

Vol. Thirteen No. 10

Sex Lies Draw More News Than Policy Lies

When he was forced to respond to press conference inquiries about newspaper scoops on Chinese espionage, Bill Clinton denied any knowledge that espionage occurred on his watch. On March 19, Clinton insisted: "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 event: "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, Clinton met the press with Chinese premier Zhu Rongji and denied knowledge again: "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 with the routine exception of FNC, the network evening and morning shows often failed to follow up when evidence emerged proving his denials were hollow:

April 28: 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."

Coverage of this evidence of espionage during Clinton’s first term? ABC’s World News Tonight aired a full story, the CBS Evening News mentioned it before its own exclusive report on nuclear lab security and CNN’s The World Today aired two reports. NBC aired nothing. None pointed out how the disclosure countered Clinton’s claim.

April 30: The Washington Post front page reported that 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." Coverage? Only CNN aired a story.

May 2: The New York Times added new details about when the Clinton team learned about espionage: "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....The classified report contains numerous warnings and specific examples showing that outsiders had gained access to the computer systems at [U.S.] weapons labs as recently as June 1998."

Network coverage? Only ABC reported it, for 40 seconds, but did not note it contradicted Clinton’s claims of ignorance.

May 5: The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee heard from nuclear lab directors and probed delays in warrants for Wen Ho Lee. The next day’s New York Times story began: "Scientists at the government’s weapons laboratories can still download nuclear secrets onto computer disks and walk out without being checked, the directors of three of the labs told Congress on Wednesday." Network coverage? CBS and NBC aired nothing. ABC’s World News Tonight provided a full story on the China hearing, but Bob Woodruff honed in on FBI bungling on the Lee case and bought the Justice Department’s claim that it twice turned down warrant requests simply "because the evidence against Lee was insufficient."

May 7: 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." Network coverage? Only CNN.

May 9: On NBC’s Meet the Press, host Tim Russert forced Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to admit that espionage had occurred "during past administrations and present administrations." Russert exclaimed: "Finally, someone has acknowledged it." Network coverage? Zero, even though the admission made the front page of The Washington Times and The Boston Globe.

May 10: New York Times reporters Jeff Gerth and James Risen expanded on espionage: "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....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. CNN did a story on espionage, but not this story.