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25 May 1999

Our current howler: Compulsives unite

Synopsis: Safire and Russert think they know Clinton lied. But they haven’t been able to show it.

Clinton’s Compulsion
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 “Clinton’s Compulsion,” but the compulsion may belong to the press corps. Since the president’s 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 hadn’t 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 isn’t matched by their skill with a text. Here’s Safire, saying ol’ debbil Bill is inclined to lie even when telling the truth wouldn’t 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?”

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.”

This is supposed to kick off Safire’s proof that Clinton knew more than he said. But being briefed about “CIA suspicions” doesn’t mean you’ve 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 Safire’s groaning presentation makes a point all too clear. It’s not at all clear just who has the “compulsion”--Vile Clinton, or the scribes who pursue him.

Here’s 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 Clinton’s 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 doesn’t 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 isn’t denying there was espionage on his watch--he says he isn’t 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 Government’s nuclear weapons laboratories.” Russert confronted Richardson:

RUSSERT: But again, it’s the president’s word that’s at stake...The report concluded, let me put this on the screen: “This effort has been successful and Beijing’s 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 Clinton’s March 19 statement. Clinton said he hadn’t 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 didn’t go on to ask the next question. He didn’t 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 didn’t know as of Monday--didn’t know if Clinton had come clean in March. To date, the necessary questions haven’t 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 yesterday’s White House news briefing, in today’s New York Times:

WEINER: At the White House, President Clinton’s spokesman, Joe Lockhart, repeated official assertions that there was no proof of Chinese espionage under the Clinton Administration. “During this presidency,” he said, “I can’t 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. That’s 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 Clinton’s 3/19 statement was correct--that it is not known that data was stolen during Clinton’s term. We note again: Clinton did say there was lax security during his term. But does the Cox Report establish theft under Clinton? It’s one of the points we’ll be researching. We’re compelled--by the Safire Brigade.