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Caveat lector

13 April 1999

Our current howler (part I): Questions intact

Synopsis: Jeff Gerth’s major story on neutron bomb data left most of our questions intact.

Intelligence Report Points To 2d China Nuclear Leak
Jeff Gerth and James Risen, The New York Times, 4/8/99

Only so much U.S. can do about China
Walter Shapiro, USA Today, 4/9/99

In a lengthy New York Times page one story on April 8, Jeff Gerth and James Risen discussed allegations that China stole neutron bomb data from the United States in 1995. According to their article, a U.S. spy in China, in early ’96, reported that Chinese officials were “boasting” of same. They boasted that they “had just stolen” such secrets, and had used them to improve China’s bomb.

Gerth’s article covers several topics related to that report. It discusses charges that the Clinton administration responded slowly “to concerns about security breaches at the nuclear weapons laboratories.” And it says that an Energy Department analysis completed in July 1996 “raised the possibility” that Wen Ho Lee, the chief suspect in the alleged theft of the W-88 nuclear warhead in the 1980s, “had also been involved in the transfer to China of neutron bomb secrets.”

All in all, the story has been received as a bombshell in the press. Here’s Walter Shapiro, the following day:

SHAPIRO: A chilling investigative story in Thursday’s New York Times revealed that Chinese spies appear to have stolen the secrets of the neutron bomb.

In a Thursday night discussion on Hardball, Chris Matthews referred to the story, and laid it right on the table: “We’re a sieve.”

In short, another blockbuster from Times star Gerth--and more bad news for the Clinton White House, putting into question several things the president has recently said. But analysts here at DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters were troubled by their reading. For example, analysts who made it to paragraphs 41 and 42 encountered the following text:

GERTH: According to the F.B.I.’s informant, Chinese officials were boasting in 1995 about obtaining new data from the United States but did not specifically mention the Government’s weapons laboratories. American officials say the F.B.I. has not found any evidence linking the weapons laboratories to the suspected theft of neutron bomb secrets.

Government officials said it is difficult to evaluate China’s progress on developing a neutron bomb because they have not detected any testing of such a weapon since 1996, when Beijing agreed to a moratorium on tests.

In these paragraphs, we learn the following things about the alleged theft of data:
  1. There was never any specific statement that the alleged theft involved the weapons labs.
  2. In three years, the FBI has found no evidence linking the labs to the alleged theft.
  3. China has done no neutron bomb testing since the time the theft would have occurred.
Remarkable information, we think, in a story receiving such attention. And the information is passed on in a remarkably casual way, given the prominence the story has received. Reading Gerth carefully, one sees that the only “evidence” that a theft has occurred is a single report, from a single Chinese spy, that he heard officials “boasting” of same. Three years later, Gerth reports no other information that suggests this theft ever took place.

But indeed, Gerth displays a noticeable tendency to draw conclusions from limited data. Was Wen Ho Lee involved in a neutron bomb theft? Remember, Gerth says in the article that the FBI “unearthed some intriguing connections” which “raised [that] possibility.” But here’s what occurs when one reads a bit farther to see what those “connections” might be:

GERTH: Energy Department officials discovered that Mr. Lee had attended a classified meeting in 1992 in which solutions to the neutron bomb’s design flaw were discussed, officials said. The F.B.I., officials said, had also found that Mr. Lee had made at least one telephone call to the scientist at Lawrence Livermore who was suspected of having provided the Chinese with the original neutron bomb data in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

So here are the “intriguing connections.” Lee has made one phone call, at some undisclosed point, to a scientists suspected of an earlier theft. And he had attended a meeting at which neutron bomb issues were discussed. On this basis, Gerth suggests Lee involvement in a second theft--which the FBI can’t say occurred. Will it shock you if we also quote this?

GERTH: No criminal charges have been filed against [Lee]. Officials said the F.B.I. has investigated the Energy Department’s theory but has not been able to establish that Mr. Lee has any connection to the neutron bomb case.

You know--the “neutron bomb case” of which Gerth wrote: “[T]he F.B.I. has not found any evidence linking the weapons laboratories to the suspected theft of neutron bomb secrets.”

Let’s go back over this story. The entire evidence that a theft occurred is a report of “boasting” from one Chinese spy. The Chinese haven’t done any testing of the neutron bomb since the theft would have occurred. There is no evidence that Wen Ho Lee was involved in any such transfer--except he made one phone call to another scientist, who is “suspected” of an earlier theft. In fact, the FBI hasn’t found any evidence linking the weapons labs to this new alleged theft at all.

Insinuations abound in this Jeff Gerth piece--but hard questions are notably lacking. Would the Chinese steal neutron bomb data, and then agree to a ban on testing? Here at THE HOWLER, we can’t answer that question, but Gerth doesn’t bother to ask it. Could stolen data have been used to improve the N-bomb as quickly as the “boast” would suggest? We don’t know--and Gerth doesn’t inquire. If the Chinese did feel they had “improved” their N-bomb with stolen data, does it make sense that they would agree to a test ban without first running tests? And, is it odd that Lee would make a phone call to another scientist? It doesn’t seem all that strange to us. Gerth provides no context at all as he trumpets the significance of this phone call. (And lovers of hoo-hah, note the writing: Gerth says Lee made “at least” one call. We presume this means that the FBI knows about one call, which Gerth is just ratcheting up.)

But then, ever since he wrote his heavily-criticized Whitewater reports in 1992 and 1993, Gerth has been one of the most frustrating writers in the major press corps. His work is full of subtle insinuation, with the suggestion that bombshells are just an inch away. But often, when one reads his work more closely, proffered “evidence” starts fading from view.

Here at THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing whether this data theft ever took place. But for a page one piece that has produced such attention, this article offers virtually no evidence. As we’ll see tomorrow, no government official ever says in this article that he thinks the data theft did occur. And close reading shows that other Gerth claims are similarly hard to establish.

Gerth’s piece proceeds from a serious charge, that a theft of neutron bomb data took place. But after the analysts’ perusing and parsing, our questions were all left intact.

Tomorrow: Gerth quotes no official, on the record or off, who says the alleged theft took place.