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26 May 1999

Our current howler: They shot a gal named Reno

Synopsis: Monday night was grisly on the nation’s news channels--especially for Reno and Lee.

Commentary by Tucker Carlson, Sen. James Inhofe, Rep. Robert Wexler
Crossfire, CNN, 5/24/99

Spy Suspect Cooperated With FBI in ’82
Vernon Loeb, The Washington Post, 5/2/99

Atomic Scientist Denies He Spied, Cites Aid to FBI
Vernon Loeb and Walter Pincus, The Washington Post, 5/7/99

Cox report’s release accompanied by finger-pointing, recriminations
Andrew Cain, The Washington Times, 5/25/99

Monday night (Cox Report Eve) was a grisly night on the nation’s news channels--a last chance for pundits to sound off on the report, before they’d have to sit down and read it. Pundits and pols gave groaning accounts of the known evidence in the China spy case.

But our favorite moment came on Crossfire, and it involved two politicians. Tucker Carlson kicked off the exchange with a question about atomic scientist Wen Ho Lee:

CARLSON: We know that at some point relatively recently, not in the Bush Administration, Wen Ho Lee at Los Alamos came under suspicion of espionage [concerning the W-88 warhead]. The FBI, using the suspicion, went to the Justice Department and said, “We’d like to tap his phones to find out more.” The Justice Department said, “No.” Now there are about every year 700 requests for the Justice Department to tap phones. All but one or two of them are approved. This one wasn’t approved. Do you have any idea why?

The question was perfectly reasonable, though we can’t vouch for the accuracy of Carlson’s data on wiretaps. (Such figures have been broadly cited, but we’ve seen no one provide validation.) Carlson even kept Janet Reno out of his question. But in response to Rep. Robert Wexler’s reply, he soon brought the AG in hard:

CARLSON: The Attorney General--the one who incinerated the compound at Waco--is telling us that, in order to protect the civil rights of a man suspected of passing nuclear secrets to our biggest military rival in the world, that we’re required to protect his civil rights so we can’t tap his phone?

Wexler had quoted the AG saying the wiretap request didn’t pass statutory muster.

Attacks on Reno for not tapping Lee filled the airwaves Monday night. In fact, Reno had already issued a statement that day, saying she herself hadn’t handled the Lee wiretap request--but all too typically, her statement wasn’t cited on any of the programs we monitored. Angry pundits instead shook their fists in the air, asking how Reno could have made such a judgment. It happened now on the Crossfire show, voiced by Sen. Inhofe:

INHOFE: Only two out of 700! They weren’t concerned about the constitutional rights of the other 700. But just in the two cases when it involved the most serious theft--perhaps, probably--in the history of this country.

Inhofe seemed to be convicting Lee, a process that occurred on news channels all night. He also implied unholy motives in the refusal to wiretap Lee. But Wexler asked Inhofe a crucial question, provoking a telling reply:

WEXLER: Are you familiar with the evidence that was laid on the attorney general’s desk when presented with the question of whether or not to do the wiretap?

You can probably see where this is going:

INHOFE: I’m only familiar with the fact that only two were rejected.


WEXLER: With all due respect then, Senator, how can you criticize the attorney general’s decision when you don’t know what evidence she did or did not have?

Which was, of course, an excellent question--a question rarely asked Monday night. (Note: Neither Wexler nor Inhofe seemed aware of Reno’s statement that she had not made the decision.) And the question was especially interesting, because the published “evidence” implicating Lee in the W-88 theft was so slender as to be almost laughable. Lengthy articles, based on leaks, had been written about Lee, in the Washington Post and New York Times. But it isn’t hard to see why Lee wasn’t tapped, if the “evidence” cited by the two papers formed the basis of the wiretap request.

The published “evidence” against Lee in this case is, once again, simply laughable. According to both the Times and the Post, Lee had originally come under suspicion by the FBI in 1982, for making one phone call to another Taiwanese-American scientist suspected of espionage activities. The monitored phone call was innocent in itself, and Lee passed a subsequent lie detector test. Lee ended up working for the FBI; his wife did work for the FBI when Lee gave two approved lectures in China, in 1986 and 1988. He came under renewed suspicion in 1996 because of that second approved speech.

In 1995, in the now-famous “walk-in” incident, a Chinese agent gave the CIA documents proving that China had stolen info on U.S. weapon systems, including the W-88. The walk-in document was dated 1988; Vernon Loeb explains what happened next:

LOEB (5/2/99): Lee became a suspect in 1996 after the CIA obtained a Chinese document that contained classified information about the size and dimensions of the miniaturized W-88 warhead...The Chinese document was written in 1988, the year Lee attended a scientific conference in Beijing.

The connection was spelled out five days later:

LOEB AND PINCUS (5/7/99): The Chinese document was dated 1988, the same year Lee had traveled to China to deliver a scientific paper. The coincidence was one of the reasons Lee’s name was added to the suspects’ list. A call he made in 1982 to the espionage suspect at Lawrence Livermore was another.

We have searched the detailed Post/Times articles to find more serious evidence against Lee. Perhaps more serious evidence exists, but it hasn’t been described in these papers. All we seem to have, from our published reports, is a single phone call, in 1982, where Lee later passed a polygraph test; and the fact that he gave an approved speech in 1988, the year on the walk-in document.

Was there more evidence against Lee on the wiretap request? Here at THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing. But neither do the roaring pundits who denounced Reno’s judgment all night. We fired our lawyers at THE HOWLER long ago, but we aren’t surprised that the wiretap request was turned down--if the Time/Post stories have detailed the evidence that was supposed to tie Lee to this crime.

But none of that would matter Monday, as pundits scored Reno and Lee. We’ll revisit them, later on in the week, to show you how bad their work got. But Wexler’s asked Inhofe an obvious question, one any competent observer would have asked. But no one else asked it on Cox Report Eve. It was spring--and the accusin’ was easy.

But hold on, folks, it gets worse: Just for the record, Cox has made it clear, since the report was released, that the “1988” date on the walk-in document is now considered bogus. According to Cox, all we know is that the W-88 info was lost between 1984 and 1992. The “coincidence” of Lee’s 1988 speech is now not even that.

For the record (not that anyone ever checks it): From the Washington Times on Tuesday morning, reporting Reno’s statement on Monday:

CAIN: “I take very seriously the department’s responsibility to protect the national security,” Miss Reno’s statement said. “But the Justice Department has not--nor will it--authorize such intrusions when, as in this case, the standards of the Constitution and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act have not been met.”

She said career Justice Department lawyers rejected the FBI’s warrant application. “Although I was not apprised of the details of the case at the time, I have reviewed the decision...and fully support it,” she wrote. [Cain’s deletion]

If the request was based on the published evidence, it isn’t that hard to see why.