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15 April 1999

Our current howler (part III): Fighting the Berger wars

Synopsis: Gerth nowhere asserts that Clinton, once informed, dragged his feet or failed to act.

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

It’s really amazing how little effort Gerth/Risen make to answer their article’s leading question--whether the Chinese actually stole N-bomb data in 1995. Here’s how they describe the original reaction, within the government, when a U.S. spy said Chinese officials were “boasting” that they had done same:

GERTH (paragraph 2): The spy had provided reliable information in the past, and officials and investigators took the information seriously.

As, of course, they should have. But we take Gerth’s page one story seriously, and it seems to us that, three years later, he could have asked those officials and investigators what they think of the boasted theft now. After three years, is there any indication that the theft took place? What is the opinion of the intelligence community about the whole incident now?

But as we pointed out yesterday, nowhere in this lengthy article does Gerth quote anyone on this topic. No one in this lengthy article ever says how the story looks now. Gerth does scatter disclaimers, all through the piece, suggesting the theft may not have happened. But nowhere does he quote any official about how the incident is currently seen.

Obvious questions slide right by, neither asked nor answered. Here’s a passage we quoted two days ago, Gerth’s paragraph 42:

GERTH: 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.

Does that mean Beijing had continued to test through 1996? When in 1996 did Beijing stop testing? If there was testing in 1996, did it give any signs of the boasted “improvements” the spy had said were in place by late 1995? If the testing didn’t indicate any improvements, what did Gerth’s “officials and investigators” think about that? None of these questions are specifically addressed in the course of Gerth’s exploration.

But if Gerth’s article seems to lack some beef, it does come with a whole lot of sizzle. It’s hard to imagine a piece of this kind that packs a more obvious political punch. The article goes right to the heart of political aspects of the Chinese espionage story, as Gerth makes clear in the following passages, paragraph 11-15 in his piece:

GERTH: The disclosure of this previously unknown 1996 intelligence report about the neutron bomb is significant for several reasons.

Until now, Clinton Administration officials have portrayed reports of China’s spying as an old story.

...Administration officials have emphasized that the loss of the W-88 design occurred in the 1980’s, which was while Republicans held the White House. They have suggested that there is no evidence that Chinese nuclear spying continued into the Clinton administration.

They have also said that President Clinton acted quickly in response to concerns about security breaches at the nuclear weapons laboratories by issuing a Presidential order in February 1998.

Accounts by Government officials about the neutron bomb case call both assertions into question. [Our emphasis]

In short, the story is the perfect political story. Why mess it up with the possibility that the headlined “theft” never really occurred?

But suppose it turned out that the theft didn’t happen. There would still be a substantial public interest in seeing how the White House responded to the original report. Is it true that Clinton and others were slow to react to the indication that the labs were in danger?

As we pointed out yesterday, on this matter Gerth does have an actual dispute, with unnamed officials making actual charges. In this article, no official states that the theft took place; but some suggest Berger failed to act when the spy’s report should have raised a red flag. The dispute stems from a briefing on the matter that occurred in April 1996. Gerth quotes “government officials” who say that the briefing was quite specific about the W-88 theft; they also say that, “at the end of the April briefing,” the Energy Department’s head briefer Notra Trulock “said that there was new information that China may recently have stolen neutron bomb data.” Berger has said the 1996 briefing was “very general and very preliminary;” he says he did not brief the president until he himself received a more detailed briefing in July 1997. And Berger disputes the claim that he was told about the N-bomb matter in 1996. Gerth writes: “Mr. Berger and another N.S.C. official who attended the 1996 briefing do not believe the neutron bomb issue was mentioned, [N.S.C. spokesman David] Leavy said.”

What was Berger told at the meeting? At THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing. But it’s worth pointing out that Gerth’s sourcing may be somewhat weaker than it might appear. Throughout his discussion of the 1996 briefing, Gerth quotes “government officials” on the briefing’s contents. But at the one point where Gerth describes his sources, we see that some of these cited officials were not present when Berger was briefed:

GERTH (paragraph 7): Samuel R. Berger, who is now the National Security Adviser, was first told of a possible new theft of neutron bomb data in 1996, according to officials who took part in the meeting or read the highly classified materials used to prepare for it.

“Or” is, of course, the key word. It may be that only one of Gerth’s “officials” was actually present at the briefing. Indeed, Gerth later writes this:

GERTH: The officials said the briefing was more detailed than Mr. Berger has described...“It was a pretty specific briefing,” one American official who was present said.

Throughout the article, Gerth nowhere indicates that he has more than one source who was actually present at the meeting. That official’s account may be perfectly accurate, of course. But again, our matchless analysts groaned when they saw there was perhaps less here than first met the eye.

One final point: let’s suppose that Gerth’s source is right. Let’s suppose Berger was told about the N-bomb report in April 1996. How would that fact support Gerth’s statement of what this story is all about? Remember what we quoted:

GERTH (paragraphs 14 and 15): [Administration officials] have also said that President Clinton acted quickly in response to concerns about security breaches at the nuclear weapons laboratories by issuing a Presidential order in February 1998.

Accounts by Government officials about the neutron bomb case call both assertions into question.

Whatever Berger may have been told in the 1996 briefing, Gerth nowhere disputes the White House claim that Berger only notified President Clinton after the briefing in 7/97. Gerth’s nugget assertion in paragraph 15--the one that makes this a perfect political story--seemed to suggest that Clinton dragged his feet. There is nothing in this lengthy article--not word one--to argue that that is true.

What was Berger told? What should he have done? Here at THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing. But here at THE HOWLER, we report on the press, and we’re concerned by the Gerth/Risen article. It repeatedly suggests things that aren’t argued or proven--at times seems almost designed to mislead. But then, it isn’t the first time this has happened with a major Gerth New York Times piece.

Tomorrow: Arkansas back on our minds.