It may have looked like just another worthy offering from the paper of record, but ‘The New York Times”s page-one, column-one story on September 7 caused a huge stir in city newsrooms last week. ‘Spies vs. Sweat: The Debate Over China’s Nuclear Advance,’ by science reporter William J. Broad, jumped to two full pages, with photos and diagrams of nuclear bombs that somewhat obscured its main theme: the Cox report on China’s nuclear advances, released by Congress last May, was not all it was initially cracked up to be.
While the story made no reference to previous reporting, journalists at other papers were stunned by what is being called a “5000-word correction” to the Times‘s front-pager of March 6, 1999, in which Jeff Gerth and James Risen broke the news of China’s ill-gotten nuclear gains. The turnabout was especially notable given the players involved: Gerth is the investigative reporter who broke the Whitewater story for the Times in 1992 and helped win a Pulitzer last spring with his series on the sale of U.S. technology to China. Risen is an intelligence reporter who previously worked for the Los Angeles Times, where he broke the story that the Clinton administration had approved arms shipments from Iran to Bosnia. The two work out of the Times‘s Washington bureau.
But reporters are only as good as their sources, and the Cox report’s central thesis— that China leaped ahead to build a miniature nuclear warhead, thanks to secrets stolen from the Los Alamos lab in New Mexico — has turned out to be a leap in itself. According to Broad, there is a consensus among intelligence experts that no “smoking gun” exists to support the stolen-
secrets scenario. Instead, Broad concluded that (1) the Cox report overstated the link between alleged espionage and China’s advances, and (2) the FBI rushed to judgment when it fingered Wen Ho Lee, a Los Alamos employee, as its main spy suspect. Lee has denied spying and has yet to be charged with any crime.
Gerth and Risen’s stories on the Cox report tended to play up the impact of the nuclear heist (“as bad as the Rosenbergs,” said one source), Lee’s culpability (he “stuck out like a sore thumb,” said another), and the scandal of the alleged cover-up, especially the Justice Department’s refusal to authorize an FBI wiretap on Lee. On March 24, the Times ran a Risen story that laid out the case against Lee, who came to be known in right-wing circles as “Dr. I Bring Dough.”
To be sure, Times reporters are in a double bind, with their competing mandates to create buzz and to get it right. It’s tricky enough to cover partisan congressional investigations, let alone a subject as murky as Chinese nuclear espionage. But it appears the Times‘s editorial team ignored reliable sources who felt the Cox allegations were overblown and politically motivated. Now, according to one Washington insider,”everyone is running for cover.”
It’s not as if there weren’t early warning signs. On May 26, the same day the Times fronted the release of the Cox report, a contrarian piece ran inside, headlined: “How Right Is Report? Caveats by Experts.” In it, Times Washington reporter Tim Weiner noted that congressional and intelligence sources were calling the Cox report a worst-case scenario whose conclusions exceeded the facts. No one at the Times seemed to be listening to Weiner; indeed, he had recently been taken off his long-time intelligence beat and assigned to cover Capitol Hill. Weiner declined to comment.
But when the official narrative began shifting, the Times was forced to stand up to The Washington Post. In an August 17 story, former Los Alamos counterintelligence chief Robert Vrooman told the Post‘s Vernon Loeb the explosive news that he felt Wen Ho Lee had been singled out because he was Chinese American. William Broad had the Vrooman story the next day, and suddenly the Times began to show deference to Lee. On August 20, a Times editorial called for a “careful review” of the Lee case and acknowledged (perhaps for the first time) that “virtually everyone involved in this . . . investigation has some motive to twist the facts.”
On August 23, the Times‘s James Risen got the scoop on the resignation of Notra Trulock, the crusading intelligence chief at the Energy Department who had become the Cox committee’s star witness (and, apparently, Risen’s favorite source). Risen’s piece was a love letter compared to the Post‘s story the next day, in which Loeb and Walter Pincus invited Trulock’s critics to open fire. Loeb and Pincus scored again August 26, citing extensive details from a Senate report that found the evidence against Lee to be “largely circumstantial.” On August 28, a Post editorial questioned Trulock’s reliability— which must have left the Times no alternative but to publish the Broad story.
Stephen Engelberg, assistant to the managing editor of the Times and the editor of the Broad story, told Press Clips, “The mystery isn’t, why did we do this story? It’s, why didn’t anyone else beat us to it?”
Engelberg, who has edited the Times‘s China coverage since 1998, says Broad was the first to pull together the scientific evidence upon which the Cox committee based its conclusions. One of the key exhibits was a document sent to U.S. officials by a Chinese official in 1995, describing the W-88, a missile used on the U.S. Trident submarine. “Was is it a blueprint? No, but the characteristics were helpful for someone trying to make their own bomb.”
The Times editor says the March 6 and September 7 stories are not “at odds” and denies that the latter is a repudiation of the former.”Broad’s story reaffirms the original reporting in every key particular,” he insists. “Was there espionage? Absolutely. Was it significant? Many experts suspect it was, but want more evidence before making the kind of sweeping judgments at the heart” of the Cox report.
After the Cox report was released, the Times felt it had the leverage to investigate several skeptics’ claims, including those published by Richard L. Garwin in Arms Control Today and by Lars-Erik Nelson in The New York Review of Books. Engelberg recalls, “I said to [Gerth], send me a note on this. I want to dig up the source materials on this.” Engelberg discussed the matter with Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld, who had also read the critiques, and then asked the Times‘s science editor to put Broad on the story.
In August, around the time Broad progressed from interviewing skeptical scientists to interviewing government officials about the basis of the allegations, some Times staffers grew nervous about the fallout on the Wen Ho Lee case. In the meantime, according to sources outside the Times, Gerth became miffed by Broad’s attempt to “set the record straight.” Engelberg denies any friction, saying that Gerth and Risen had a chance to weigh in on Broad’s story. Gerth and Risen declined to comment. Times Washington editor Jill Abramson, who oversaw the Cox stories last spring but was on vacation during the gestation and writing of the Broad story, also declined to comment.
Despite his unusual candor about the editorial process, Engelberg doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. He says the “real scoop” would be if the Times had decided not to run the Broad story because the paper didn’t want to “rain on” its first story. On the contrary, he says, “We publish a newspaper where, when new information comes to light, we report it.”