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27 May 1999

Our current howler (part I): From within

Synopsis: When Chris Matthews disinforms about Reno and Lee, he too undermines our precious system.

Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNN, 5/25/99

U.S. Says Suspect Put Data On Bombs in Unsecure Files
James Risen and Jeff Gerth, The New York Times, 4/28/99

Commentary by Sean Hannity
Hannity & Colmes, Fox News Channel, 5/26/99

Here at THE HOWLER, we haven’t been shown the FBI’s wiretap request on Wen Ho Lee. We have no way of knowing what “probable cause” the gumshoes spelled out in their papers.

But the pundits howling for Janet Reno’s scalp have no way of knowing that either. And to date, the published evidence tying Lee to the W-88 theft has been little short of laughable (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/26/99). According to detailed reporting in the New York Times, Lee made a single phone call to a suspect scientist in 1982, passing a subsequent lie detector test. He gave an approved speech in China in 1988, the same year the theft may have occurred. And oh yes--he once hugged a visiting Chinese scientist, in a manner that seemed “suspiciously congratulatory.” Remarkably, this is the total “evidence” tying Lee to the theft that is detailed in the Times’ lengthy articles.

It’s hardly surprising that a wiretap request didn’t fly, if this type of evidence supported it. But only a handful of pundits have called attention to this remarkably weak published record. Indeed, some pundits, shaking their fists at the sky, have taken a different route altogether. They have grossly misstated the simplest facts about the chronology of the Lee case--baldly misinforming the American public to bolster their “case” against Reno.

You surely knew where we’d have to start. Tuesday night, a tabloid talker barked brio at a standard brisk pace:

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about the attorney general’s decision here. When it was discovered that one of our Americans was involved as a suspect here and was in fact the person who had accumulated this amazing amount of nuclear information in his own computer system, which was apparently so comprehensive it covers all our nuclear warheads, why would Attorney General Janet Reno refuse to give a wiretap, permit a wiretap, by the FBI on that target?

Matthews was interviewing energy chief Bill Richardson. Earlier, Matthews had offered this construction of what the AG had done:

MATTHEWS: Janet Reno is the attorney general of the United States. I don’t understand why she refused to put a wiretap on this fellow, Mr. Lee, after all this suspicion had been raised about him taking the entire nuclear arsenal away from the United States. It seems to me you ought to at least lean toward an investigation of somebody like that and not be too scrupulous about civil liberties at that point. [Our emphasis]

And before that, having cited Lee by name, he’d said:

MATTHEWS: This seems to be a case of a misdemeanor the way they seem to be treating this, like, “Oh yeah, he wasn’t that good a worker. He just gave away the entire nuclear capacity of the United States.” Who is going to be blamed for this thing? [Our emphasis]

Last week, a mentally ill viewer with a shotgun went through Cody Shearer’s garage, after Matthews made false accusations against Shearer. Apparently the talker won’t feel like a man until the same thing now happens to Lee. Matthew’s construction of the events involving Lee is howlingly wrong on the simplest facts. Yet this construction has been peddled all over the news channels by excited talkers who demand Reno’s head.

Let’s review the well-documented facts to which the brave talker referred.

On April 28, James Risen and Jeff Gerth, in the New York Times, reported a new allegation against Lee. According to their story, government officials now claimed that Lee had “improperly transferred huge amounts of secret data from a computer system at [Los Alamos], compromising virtually every nuclear weapon program in the United States arsenal.” This alleged conduct has been widely discussed in the press in the four weeks since this first report appeared.

Also widely discussed, of course, has been the time frame of these events. According to Risen and Gerth, most of the alleged transfers of secret data occurred in 1994 and 1995. But Risen and Gerth also wrote this, in plain English, for all talkers to see:

RISEN/GERTH: Federal investigators did not discover the evidence of huge file transfers until last month, just after he was fired, when they examined Mr. Lee’s office computer in connection with their investigation of the earlier theft [of the W-88] at Los Alamos...They then found evidence that Mr. Lee, who held one of the Government’s highest security clearances, had been transferring files involving millions of lines of secret computer code, officials said. [Our emphasis]

In short, nothing was known about the alleged mishandling of files at the time of the wiretap request. The request was made, and denied, in 1997; the file matter turned up two years later.

But throughout the course of the talker’s show, he declaimed against Reno for refusing the tap--persistently implying that the mishandled files were a part of the FBI’s evidence. He also implied that Lee had given the critical files to the Chinese; see our second and third cites from Matthews. In fact, though concerns have been voiced that the transferred files could have been accessed by improper users, there has been no evidence claimed to show that Lee had been making the files available to the Chinese.

There doesn’t seem to be any limit to the disinformation that Matthews will spread. What really was shocking was the number of guests who weren’t willing--or able--to correct him.

Tomorrow: Wednesday night, Sean Hannity topped the excited talker. And over the course of the two sad nights, a stream of guests, from Richardson down, sat mutely and haplessly by.

For the record (not that anyone ever checks it): For the record, Matthews also ignored the AG’s statement that she had not handled the wiretap request (see yesterday’s HOWLER). But then, why would Matthews get that part right, given his treatment of everything else?