25 May 1999
Our current howler: Compulsives unite
Synopsis: Safire and Russert think they know Clinton lied. But they havent been able to show it.
William Safire, The New York Times, 5/24/99
Commentary by Tim Russert
Meet the Press, NBC, 5/9/99
1998 Report Told of Lab Breaches and China Threat
Jeff Gerth and James Risen, The New York Times, 5/2/99
Out Today: Nuclear Thriller With Ending as Yet Unwritten
Tim Weiner, The New York Times, 5/25/99
The story ran as Clintons Compulsion, but the compulsion may belong to the press corps. Since the presidents March 19 press conference, pundits have tried to show Clinton lied in his statements about Chinese espionage. Bill Richardson stated, on the May 9 Meet the Press, that information was lost during the Clinton years; but on March 19, Clinton seemed to say that he hadnt been told that. And since that time, there has been an effort, especially on Meet the Press, to prove that ol Bill lied again.
Unfortunately, the pundits skill at accusation isnt matched by their skill with a text. Heres Safire, saying ol debbil Bill is inclined to lie even when telling the truth wouldnt hurt him:
SAFIRE: Another example of the unnecessary lie was his March 19 response to: Can you assure the American people that under your watch, no valuable nuclear secrets were lost?
This is supposed to kick off Safires proof that Clinton knew more than he said. But being briefed about CIA suspicions doesnt mean youve been told that secrets were lost; and Clinton did state, on March 19, that security lapses occurred on his watch (see below). It is not at all clear that Clinton was lying in what he told the press March 19. And Safires groaning presentation makes a point all too clear. Its not at all clear just who has the compulsion--Vile Clinton, or the scribes who pursue him.
We now know that he had been briefed last November about the F.B.I. and C.I.A. suspicions, and in January had received the secret Cox committee report detailing security lapses during the Clinton watch.
Heres the first question Clinton was asked on March 19 about spying:
QUESTION: How long have you known that the Chinese were stealing our nuclear secrets? Is there any trust left between the two nations? And some Republicans are saying that you deliberately suppressed the information from the American people...because of the election and your trade goals.
As part of his answer to the complex question, Clinton finally said this:
CLINTON: ...Now, I think there are two questions here that are related but ought to be kept separate. One is, was there a breach of security in the mid-80s? If so, did it result in espionage? That has not been fully resolved, at least as of my latest briefing.
The specific wording of Clintons two questions shows his approach to this matter. He draws a distinction between security breaches and what he goes on to refer to as espionage. He says that there may have been a breach in security which did not result in any espionage. He means: we may have engaged in some lax procedures, without actually losing any secrets.
It is interesting to note the final sentence, which we have stressed in bold. Here, Clinton says he doesnt know if espionage has occurred at all--not just during his administration. People who have followed the discussion will know that specialists have expressed different views about how China may have come by some secrets. In particular, there have been those who think information was transferred by means other than traditional spying. (Academic exchanges, for example.)
So Clinton isnt denying there was espionage on his watch--he says he isnt even sure if it occurred in the 80s. On the other hand, he is perfectly frank in saying, moments later, that there were security lapses during his term. In his answer to the question which Safire quoted, Clinton in part said this:
CLINTON: It is my understanding that the investigation has not yet determined for sure that espionage occurred. That does not mean that there was not a faulty security situation at the lab...Can I tell you that there has been no espionage at the labs since I have been president? I can tell you that no one has reported to me that they suspect such a thing has occurred.
So Clinton said that there was faulty security (which he began to address in 1997). He also said that no one told him for sure that secrets were stolen at the labs during his term. Over the past several Sundays, Tim Russert has tried to show this statement was false. But so far, he has failed to do so, showing instead his own weakness with a text.
When Bill Richardson appeared on Meet the Press on May 9, Russert presented him with a Gerth/Risen piece (5/2/99). The article described a November 1998 secret government report, which warned that China posed an acute intelligence threat to the Governments nuclear weapons laboratories. Russert confronted Richardson:
RUSSERT: But again, its the presidents word thats at stake...The report concluded, let me put this on the screen: This effort has been successful and Beijings exploitation of U.S. national security has substantially aided its nuclear weapons program. That was November of 1998. Our counter-intelligence, sending the report to the president and to you, very specifically, that Beijing has benefited. Now let me show you what the president was specifically asked in March...
Russert went on to post the 3/19 question to Clinton about loss of nuclear secrets under your watch.
Russert clearly thought the conclusion he quoted contradicted Clintons March 19 statement. Clinton said he hadnt been told that secrets were swiped in his term; to Russert, the November report had said different. But nothing in the Gerth/Risen article says when Beijing aided its nuclear program. Did the report say Beijing had stolen secrets under Clinton? Nothing in the Gerth piece says that, although Russert appears not to have noticed.
Russert did get Richardson, after considerable prodding, to admit that the Chinese have obtained damaging information...during past administrations, and present administration. It was excellent, dogged work by Russert, because Sec. Richardson, to his discredit, clearly was struggling not to say it. Finally! Someone has acknowledged it, Russert said--but he didnt go on to ask the next question. He didnt ask Richardson if Clinton knew that was true when he met with the press March 19--or if the Chinese had obtained the information by espionage, as opposed to other means.
Was Clinton being candid on March 19? For those who feel compelled to ask, the Cox Report may help give the answer. But Safire and Russert didnt know as of Monday--didnt know if Clinton had come clean in March. To date, the necessary questions havent even been asked--although neither of the two seems to know it.
Tomorrow: Monday night, pundits described the unread report. The hoohah flew around thick and fast.
For the record: Word from yesterdays White House news briefing, in todays New York Times:
WEINER: At the White House, President Clintons spokesman, Joe Lockhart, repeated official assertions that there was no proof of Chinese espionage under the Clinton Administration. During this presidency, he said, I cant point to a case where we know something was stolen, we know who did it, and we know where it went to and where it came from. Thats the bottom line.
Weiner also points out that some Energy Department officials argue to this day that no espionage occurred, and if it did occur, it did not occur at Los Alamos. The state of evidence in this case is more complex than one typically hears from the press corps. But for the record, it seems to be the official White House position that Clintons 3/19 statement was correct--that it is not known that data was stolen during Clintons term. We note again: Clinton did say there was lax security during his term. But does the Cox Report establish theft under Clinton? Its one of the points well be researching. Were compelled--by the Safire Brigade.