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28 May 1999

Our current howler (part II): From within

Synopsis: When NBC lets Chris Matthews disinform and dissemble, they too undermine our precious system.

Reno blames FBI for not initiating China wiretap
Jerry Seper, The Washington Times, 5/28/99

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

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Deborah Orin, Bill Gertz, John Fund
Hardball, CNBC, 5/25/99

Finally! This morning, one of the papers has finally reported what we’ve told HOWLER readers all week:

SEPER: Justice officials confirmed yesterday the FBI sought the warrant [for a wiretap on Wen Ho Lee] based on three pieces of information: Mr. Lee was among the Los Alamos scientists with access to critical W-88 nuclear warhead information that China had obtained; he had gone to China to lecture; and he had once called a colleague, Peter Lee, another laboratory scientist under suspicion of spying.

And no--it hardly seems shocking that the warrant was refused if it was based on evidence like that. Wen Ho Lee had passed a lie detector test after calling Peter Lee in 1982; he had lectured in China with official approval. One hardly needs to conjure up visions of Reno Corrupted to explain failed requests based on that.

But all week, excited pundits were shaking their fists--and improving the factual record. On Tuesday, Chris Matthews had assailed Reno’s judgment (and had convicted Wen Ho Lee) on his inventive cable TV show Hardball. But he never discussed the state of published evidence connecting Lee to the alleged crime. And he falsely said that Lee’s alleged download of “legacy codes” had been part of the wiretap request (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/27/99).

The wiretap request came in 1997; Lee’s alleged mishandling of codes was first discovered this past March. But throughout the evening, the talker misled his viewers--and he savaged Reno on the basis of claims that were baldly, inexcusably false.

On Wednesday, Sean Hannity tried to top him. Hannity began questioning a panel like this:

HANNITY: Congressman [Robert] Andrews, can you explain something to me? We know that the legacy codes, in 1994--this is what William Safire called “the deadliest download” of all the nuclear information that the Cox Report goes into--we know, at this lab in Los Alamos, where the download took place, Wen Ho Lee, in 1994--we knew about this in 1994. This guy kept his top security clearance, stayed on the job for three plus years, and when the FBI wanted an investigation with wiretaps, Janet Reno said “No,” even though she approved 698 other wiretaps. These were the only two they didn’t accomplish. Does that bother you? [Our emphasis]

Later, Hannity continued his theme, interviewing Pat Buchanan:

HANNITY: Now we have other questions we have to raise here. Number 1, whether or not Sandy Berger should be fired, Janet Reno should be fired. What I found amazing about this: Wen Ho Lee, 1994, the “deadliest download,” suspected spy, he stayed around with a top-secret clearance for three years. Patrick J. Buchanan, how in God’s name can that happen?

Later, Hannity asked Buchanan if Reno’s conduct constituted “treason.”

Lee’s alleged mishandling of the legacy codes was first described by James Risen on April 28 (page one, New York Times). Risen’s first ten paragraphs made it clear: the alleged download was discovered this past March. But Matthews and Hannity savaged Reno, implying the matter was part of the ’97 request. The attorney general was accused of treason on the basis of nonsense like this.

The conduct displayed by Matthews and Hannity is pretty much par for the course. Also familiar was the way grinning “journalists” played along with the Hardball debacle. On Hardball, Bill Gertz, John Fund, and Deborah Orin looked on, providing endless agreement with Matthews’ constructions. On Hannity & Colmes, meanwhile, co-host Alan Colmes sat mutely by while Hannity misreported the legacy codes. Colmes did mention one key point: Reno hadn’t reviewed the wiretap request herself. Hannity simply ignored the point in his subsequent discussion with Buchanan.

So what exactly did viewers “learn,” watching the pair of programs? They heard Reno assailed for refusing a tap--although she hadn’t reviewed the request. They were told that the “deadly download” was part of the wiretap request--although it wasn’t discovered until two years later. They never saw any effort made to describe the published evidence about Wen Ho Lee. They did hear Matthews repeatedly say Lee had given away all our secrets--although Lee hasn’t even been charged with a crime, due to the lack of evidence against him.

Meanwhile, pundits asked if Reno should be fired, and asked if she’s guilty of treason. Buchanan, correcting none of Hannity’s errors, said she should instead be impeached. Dick Morris didn’t correct his host’s howlers either, but he said that Reno seemed almost “lobomotized.” If so, she surely would have fit right in on several cable programs this week.

A closing remark on the Hardball show, where the errors were especially egregious. Our nuclear secrets are vital, of course. But our public discourse is also quite precious. In fact, the public discourse of our democracy is one of the world’s irreplaceable public assets. When NBC allows this mess on the air, they too, like spies, undermine from within. The network commits a public disgrace when it puts up with this mess from Chris Matthews.

For the record: We repeat: it is inconceivable that Matthews doesn’t know when Lee’s alleged downloading came to light. And no--we don’t think it’s excusable that a pundit like Matthews disinforms and dissembles on the air. We do not think that NBC journalists should be allowed to tell the stories they like. NBC disgraces itself by allowing this mess to continue.

By the way--NBC got lucky, a week ago, when no violence occurred in Cody Shearer’s garage. Matthews’ reckless “conviction” of Lee is a strange reaction to last week’s near-miss.