It’s been a media circus since Wen Ho Lee was set free last week, with every accountable party pointing a finger at someone else. While Lee is suing the FBI and the Justice and Energy departments for using the press to accuse him of being a Chinese spy, Janet Reno refuses to apologize for anything, insisting the nuclear scientist sealed his own fate when he refused to “cooperate” with investigators. Notra Trulock, the Energy official who fingered Lee in the first place, is now suing the man whose name he ruined, for defamation. Yeah, right.
This would be a farce if the Clinton Justice Department hadn’t put an innocent man in solitary confinement for nine months pending trial. The vilest dodge came from the president himself, who apparently will now say anything to cover his ass. Clinton summoned reporters twice last week, first blaming Reno (“You have to meet a pretty high bar” for pre-trial detention, said the born-again legal scholar) and then allowing his press secretary to blame the media for its “near hysterical investigative reporting” on the case. Another White House flack singled out The New York Times for a story that ran March 6, 1999.
The March 6 story, a now legendary front-pager by James Risen and Jeff Gerth, quoted sources who claimed that a Chinese American nuclear scientist “stood out like a sore thumb” in a case that looked “as bad as the Rosenbergs.” (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were electrocuted in 1953, denying they were spies to the end.)
As always, there was a back story: Editors at the Times had been ready to publish on March 4, but when they called the FBI for a response, agents asked them to hold off because of a planned interview with Lee on March 5. When the FBI requested another delay, Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld said he would wait only if he got a phone call from FBI director Louis Freeh—but Freeh never rang. The Times ran the story March 6. On March 7, FBI agents again questioned Lee, waving the Times in front of him and threatening that he would fry like the Rosenbergs if he didn’t confess. But Lee maintained his innocence, and on March 8, upon firing Lee, the Clinton administration released his name to the press.
It’s tempting to pile on the Times for overhyping the case. Gerth has never been a Clinton fan (see his Whitewater coverage), and there’s no question the Times lacked the evidence to call Lee a spy. But as Times managing editor Bill Keller told a reporter last week, “We didn’t launch an investigation [of Lee]. We reported aggressively on an investigation . . . launched by the administration.” Times investigations editor Stephen Engelberg acknowledges that the FBI “attempted to use our story to intimidate Lee,” but says he doesn’t believe the story was “planted by them or anybody else to further that goal.” Engelberg told me, “We’re not done reporting this story.”
Some people think the Times should apologize to Wen Ho Lee. But I hope they sic Jeff Gerth on Clinton instead, giving him the green light to retaliate for the “near hysterical” dis by probing deeper into Plan Colombia, the $1.3 billion foreign aid package that Clinton says will erase cocaine and save the children of the world.
There’s a rhetorical parallel: Just as prosecutors denied bail to Lee on national security grounds, Clinton is bankrolling an out-of-control civil war on national security grounds. His administration has always trampled on civil liberties, but it’s even more likely to do so if the victims are foreigners like those who are kidnapped and killed every day in Colombia. What else could explain the president’s rose-colored vision of Plan Colombia, which he says is “not Vietnam,” just a “really beautiful effort”?
The Times has mostly backed Clinton’s war rhetoric. But on August 30, the day Clinton visited Cartagena, the paper of record ran an editorial deeming Plan Colombia “risky” and “misguided.” The next day, Times reporter Clifford Krauss advanced the radical notion that “long-term involvement” is “likely.” Breakthrough: The Times‘ prediction of an “endless guerrilla war” contradicts Clinton’s party line. The night before arriving in Cartagena, the U.S. president appeared on Colombian TV, saying, “We have no military objective. We do not believe your conflict has a military solution.” His banal strokes continued the next day. In between hugging a drug-war widow and petting a drug dog, Clinton told reporters, “This is not Vietnam.”
The line had been previewed in The Dallas Morning News August 28, in an article that quoted National Security Adviser Sandy Berger (“We don’t think there is a military solution to the guerrilla war in Colombia”); Colombian ambassador Luis Alberto Moreno (“Colombians would never ask for any kind of direct U.S. participation”); and assistant defense secretary Brian Sheridan (“I can tell you there is no serious planning of any kind to intervene in Colombia anywhere”). Colombian president Andrés Pastrana weighed in last week, telling The Miami Herald that Plan Colombia is “anti-narcotics,” not military aid.
If Plan Colombia isn’t a blueprint for military intervention, why the orchestrated denials? Approved by Congress in July, the package allows for the deployment of 500 U.S. military personnel and 300 contract employees, along with U.S. helicopters, airplanes, and ammo (some of the latter dates back to 1952). Technically, this is “training,” not “direct intervention”—which is sort of like the distinction between blow jobs and penetration that Clinton used to defend his fling with Monica Lewinsky.
When Clinton lied about sex, the media railed against his deception and called it grounds for impeachment. But when he sanctions a bloody war and calls it “this really beautiful effort,” no one blinks. (The quote is from Clinton’s remarks to religious leaders on September 14. Clinton recalled how he told everybody in Cartagena “that I didn’t want anything out of Colombia except a decent life for the people there, with a way to make a living on honorable circumstances that didn’t put drugs into the bodies of American children and children in Europe and Asia and throughout the world.”)
Every journalist should be skeptical when a lame duck defends a brutal and expensive military project as good for the natives and for the children of the world. And some are. Narconews.com posts fresh Colombia dispatches every day. On August 24, the AP’s Robert Burns raised the potential parallels between Colombia and Vietnam, where the “provision of modest numbers of military advisers led eventually to a massive and costly infusion of combat troops.” And in a recent Time article, a guerrilla fighter points out the obvious: “It’s inevitable that one of our boys will shoot down one of these helicopters. And when that happens, the U.S. will become more involved.”
Plan Colombia is a study in Clinton-speak, and I hope the Times gets on it fast. Trusting administration sources can make you the laughingstock of other journalists—and of presidents with low regard for the truth.