At a Senate hearing on October 3, the last witness was Notra Trulock, the former Energy Department official who cooked up the theory that China stole our nuclear secrets with the help of former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee.
The last question before the break came from Arlen Specter, who asked what Trulock meant when he hinted that DOE had leaked Lee’s name to the press. Trulock consulted his lawyer, then said, “One of the reporters involved in the publication of the stories in question told me directly that [DOE] Secretary Richardson had provided to him the name of Wen Ho Lee.”
SPECTER: Secretary—he said Secretary Richardson—
TRULOCK: Yes, he did.
SPECTER: Leaked the name of Dr. Lee?
TRULOCK: That’s correct.
SPECTER: And the name of that reporter?
TRULOCK: James Risen, New York Times.
SPECTER: Well, we’re going to pursue that.
Trulock’s claim seems calculated to ring new alarms about the handling of WenHoLeeGate. If true (and that’s a big if), these two leaks present an ethical double whammy: First, a government official discloses the name of a suspect to a reporter; then the reporter publishes the name of the suspect and blabs the name of his source. Trulock’s testimony could open a whole new line of questioning in the 1001 investigations that have been spawned by the latest episode of what one journalist calls the “never-ending national-scandal- industrial complex.”
Risen and Jeff Gerth are the authors of the March 6, 1999, story in which the Times reported that a “Los Alamos computer scientist who is Chinese-American” was suspected of being a spy. In subsequent stories, Risen named Lee and cast Trulock as an expert on Chinese espionage. But since then, Trulock’s credibility has taken a nosedive. Last month, after Lee was released from detention, the Times published a now legendary editors’ note repudiating Trulock’s theories and admitting that its coverage of the case had been deeply flawed.
The Times‘ non-apology apology took pains to exonerate Gerth and Risen, perhaps because the two are now preparing an in-depth review of the case. The review, due out in a few weeks, is also being reported by William Broad, Stephen Engelberg, and Judith Miller, and will be written by Matthew Purdy. It is unlikely to contain any self-referential treatment of the Times‘ reportage. But in light of all the fallout, critics like The Nation‘s Robert Scheer are asking why Risen is still assigned to the case. No doubt Trulock is asking the same thing.
One thing is clear: Risen, who attended the October 3 session, no longer thinks of Trulock as reliable. He made no mention of the twin-leaks claim in his story on the hearings the next day. But The Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Post all mentioned the zinger in their stories, dutifully reporting that Richardson “categorically denies this outrageous accusation.” The Post was the only paper to identify Risen by name.
Post reporter Walter Pincus explains, “Members of the press should not avoid writing about ourselves when we’re brought into a very controversial issue.” To their eternal credit, Pincus and his colleague Vernon Loeb were initially skeptical of Trulock’s spy theories. But then why have they started to believe him now? Perhaps because Trulock gave them a fresh opportunity to knock down the Times. The two papers compete for scoops on a daily basis.
It’s not the Times‘ policy to comment on speculation about confidential sources. But as Risen pointed out to the Post, Lee’s name had already surfaced in wire reports on March 8, 1999, the day the Los Alamos scientist was fired. On March 9, the day the Times first named Lee, Risen explicitly cited Richardson as his source. Let’s give Risen the benefit of the doubt. How likely is it that, just as a big story is breaking, he would start naming sources to other sources?
The Times has learned at least one lesson from WenHoLeeGate, which is not to trust Notra Trulock. The first hit to the fallen star’s credibility came when two colleagues accused him of fingering Lee simply because the scientist was Chinese. In recent weeks, Trulock has sued Lee, Richardson, and the two colleagues for defamation, even as Lee has reactivated a suit against three government agencies for alleged privacy leaks. With the Justice Department rumored to be conducting its own leaks investigation, any number of current and former DOE officials could be targets—which might explain why Trulock is on the defensive.
Of course, the twin leaks story could be true. But Trulock’s credibility is colored by the fact that he is represented by the D.C.-based Judicial Watch, whose founder, Larry Klayman, has a reputation as the last resort of Clinton enemies and as a man who will sue anyone for anything, including his own mother. Legit or not, Klayman’s suits give him broad subpoena power, and he has repeatedly tried to impound the notes of reporters whom he believes to be Clinton sympathizers.
Risen’s intimate knowledge of this case makes him a desirable witness for the leak-seeking lawyers, and a potential asset or liability to Trulock. But when asked whether Trulock will attempt to subpoena any reporters, Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton said, “We hope it won’t come to that.”
This fall, Times-bashing has become a popular and sometimes unseemly sport, with pundits exhibiting the glee of the mob ransacking the palace. Risen and his colleagues will no doubt get some more tomatoes thrown at them in the next issue of Brill’s Content, even as they put the finishing touches on their own investigation.
Granted, the Times got this one wrong. But before we start another round of posturing at their expense, let’s remember what’s at stake. In a democracy, the citizens’ right to know is served by strong First Amendment protections. Leaks of classified information are essential to the process of news-gathering, especially in the hands of reporters who analyze allegations, check them against other sources, and give credence to compelling counterarguments.
Some of the best news stories succeed precisely because of whistle-blowers who tell journalists the unvarnished truth, in exchange for the promise of confidentiality. Last Sunday, for example, the Times published a dramatic, behind-the-scenes front pager about price-fixing at Christie’s and Sotheby’s that was filled with inflammatory assertions and almost entirely based on anonymous sources. The paper would never have gotten the story otherwise.
It’s been fun bashing the Times. But let’s not forget that, in a society where powerful cliques manipulate the flow of information, we need investigative reporters and their anonymous sources more than ever.