14 April 1999
Our current howler (part II): The officials who did not bark
Synopsis: Jeff Gerth doesnt quote a single official who says the alleged theft took place.
Intelligence Report Points To 2d China Nuclear Leak
Jeff Gerth and James Risen, The New York Times, 4/8/99
With Jeff Gerth, its easy to get confused, because so many stories take place all at once. In last weeks lengthy piece in the Times, he interweaves at least three different narratives. He starts out with the report by a U.S. spy (in China) that a theft of neutron bomb data has been boasted about. He then discusses whether Sandy Berger moved fast enough on possible security lapses; and he also gives a detailed description of the suspected theft of W-88 nuclear warhead designs.
With this many narratives all going on, its perhaps not surprising that Jeff Gerth pieces sometimes seem to confuse headline writers. Gene Lyons discussed this in Fools for Scandal, discussing Gerths original Whitewater writing; and the problem occurs again in this article, which may have been too complex for the guy writing heads. The lead headline (see above) is in the present tense, but the intelligence report is more than three years old; and, as we pointed out yesterday, Gerths article suggests that government agencies have come up with no evidence, since that time, that the theft of the data took place. Intelligence Report Alleged 2d China Leak would have been a more accurate headline. Meanwhile, the Times sub-headline is completely mysterious: Spy Allegedly Obtained Data in Clinton Years. The headline produces exciting politics, but its hard to know just what it means; the only spy described as such in the article is the U.S. spy, inside China, who is clearly not being described here. Does the headline refer to Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos analyst suspected of possible W-88 theft? No one in this article alleges that Lee obtained data about the N-bomb. In fact, Gerth says this, in one of his periodic disclaimers: [T]he F.B.I....has not been able to establish that Mr. Lee had any connection to the neutron bomb case. No one ever is quoted alleging that Lee obtained data in this case.
But confusion runs rampant in Jeff Gerth writing; the headline writer apparently thought the article said more than it does. So, no doubt, will many readers, who dont subject it to painstaking scrutiny. We pointed out yesterday that Gerth gives no evidence that this bruited N-bomb theft ever took place. Indeed, scattered throughout his disjointed narrative is a succession of striking, off-hand disclaimers, including the surprising info in paragraph 42 that we quoted in yesterdays HOWLER (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/13/99):
GERTH: Government officials said it is difficult to evaluate Chinas 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.
As we pointed out yesterday, Gerth makes no attempt to weigh the meaning of Chinas decision to stop N-bomb testing right at the time when they were allegedly improving their bomb with the stolen data.
Indeed, it is worth pointing out that, in this lengthy piece, not a single official, on or off the record, ever asserts that this theft did occur. None of the government officials whom Gerth quotes and cites ever expresses this opinion. It may seem to the reader that a dispute does exist, in which alarmed officials have directly challenged the White House. But that is because Gerth quotes officials, in his Berger sub-plot, directly contradicting the White House on other matters. No one ever says in this piece that he believes that this theft did occur.
Perhaps this is just an oversight on Gerths part, the result of his complex set of narratives. Perhaps there are officials who have in fact said that they believe the N-bomb theft has occurred. But we couldnt help noting this striking paragraph--paragraph 19 of the 52-paragraph report--in which Gerth describes material contained in the still-secret Cox report:
GERTH: A bipartisan Congressional report on Chinas acquisition of United States technology includes a detailed, but still secret, account of Beijings efforts to obtain neutron bomb secrets, including reports of efforts during the Clinton Presidency. But Government officials say that the Clinton Administration is resisting requests from Congress to make the more recent material public.
Again, perhaps it is a slip of the pen, but Gerth does not say the Cox Report alleges an N-bomb theft. It says the report talks about efforts and, even worse, reports of efforts. But the spy in China had reported a theft, not an effort to steal the data. Perhaps its an oversight, but Gerths writing plainly fails to assert that the committee claims the theft did take place.
Whats the dispute among officials that Gerth does report? Its a dispute about whether the White House moved quickly enough when reports of this boasting first surfaced. Gerth quotes government officials who assert that Sandy Berger was briefed on the matter in April 1996; Berger agrees that a briefing occurred, but says he did not learn of the [N-bomb] suspicions until a more detailed briefing in July 1997. Gerth does report this as a real dispute, in which unnamed officials flatly contradict Berger--and that may give readers the impression that officials have also said that the theft took place. But nowhere in the lengthy article does Gerth quote an official expressing that view; and the paragraph on the Cox report neatly sidesteps the whole issue.
Indeed, what is surprising throughout is Gerths casual attitude toward material suggesting there was no theft--material he sprinkles, as if at random, throughout the length of his piece. For example, Gerth opens up with a five-paragraph section, describing the three-year-old report by the spy; and after engaging interest with a catchy passage explaining how serious such a theft would be, Gerth inserts this paragraph 6--then quickly moves on to other topics:
GERTH (paragraph 6): The report prompted a Federal criminal investigation, but American officials say they have found no evidence that China has produced an improved neutron bomb.
One would think that fact would lead the writers to examine whether the boasted-about theft ever happened. Instead, Gerth immediately moves on to a separate topic--the question of what Berger was told.
Here at THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing if China stole the N-bomb data. But we cant help noticing: Gerth and Risen make no such assertion--and no one else in their article does either.
Coming: What did Berger know, and when did he know it? Here at THE HOWLER, we dont know. For the record, Gerth and Risen cant say either.