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Caveat lector

2 June 1999

A Howler prelude: Wrong from the start

Synopsis: William Safire bungled the downloading story the day after the Times first revealed it.

The Deadliest Download
William Safire, The New York Times, 4/29/99

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

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that Morton Kondracke seemed in a fog about Wen Ho Lee’s alleged downloading, when he raised the issue with Energy Sec Richardson on Fox News Sunday this week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/2/99). Kondracke seemed to think that the very fact of Lee’s downloading meant that “espionage” had occurred--although it has been reported in major papers, again and again, that no one knows whether China obtained the critical downloaded data. (It has also been widely reported that no one knows Lee’s motive for downloading the data. Experts have said that such downloading, while inappropriate, often goes on for innocent reasons.)

Kondracke didn’t seem to know these things, but perhaps it isn’t all that surprising, given the way William Safire bungled the story back on April 29. Risen and Gerth had revealed the alleged downloading on page one of the Times the previous day, and Safire rushed into print on the subject. His column remains the most frequently cited writing on the Wen Ho Lee downloaded files.

Unfortunately, the column was grossly bungled. In paragraph 3, Safire said this:

SAFIRE: We are now informed by The New York Times’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning investigative team that the codes--“legacy codes,” as they are known at Los Alamos--were allegedly downloaded by Wan [sic] Ho Lee in 1994. Our nuclear genie is out of the bottle. [Our emphasis]

What did he mean by that last remark? Safire immediately quoted Rep. Cox, whose committee had done no investigation of the alleged downloading:

SAFIRE: “The People’s Republic of China is the number one proliferator,” said Representative Chris Cox, chairman of the select committee on Chinagate. “Now the secrets are out there in the stream of commerce, and probably on to Iran and North Korea and Libya.”

We don’t know if Safire quoted Cox correctly, but he soon made the claim in his own words:

SAFIRE: [Former senator Warren] Rudman has hired nine new investigators and may come up with recommendations about locking the barn door now that the secrets of almost every nuclear test we have undertaken are on their way to Baghdad or Pyongyang via Beijing. [Our emphasis]

Indeed, Safire’s opening paragraph had made his claim:

SAFIRE: During President Clinton’s watch, America’s most vital nuclear secrets--guarded intensely for five decades--have been allowed to spill out all over the world.

Clearly, Safire’s readers were being told that the PRC had accessed Lee’s downloaded data. They also were told that the downloaded data had been passed on to several rogue states.

Unfortunately, this is not what Risen and Gerth had reported, right on page one of the Times. If Safire had read what the prize-winners wrote, in paragraph seven he would have read this:

RISEN AND GERTH (paragraph seven): The investigation is continuing, and officials do not know whether the data transferred by Mr. Lee was obtained by another country. [Our emphasis]

Later on, he would have read this:

RISEN AND GERTH: [A]n Energy Department official said that because it remained unclear whether China actually obtained the data, the case at this point “is serious but not of the scope of the W-88.” [Our emphasis]

Nothing in the Risen/Gerth article asserted that China had obtained the data. Safire stated no authority for this new claim, other than the words he attributed to Cox. (Again, the Cox Committee had not investigated the alleged downloading by Lee.)

Soon, excited talkers like Chris Matthews were telling viewers that Lee had “just given away the entire nuclear capacity of the United States” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/27/99). It had just been a week since the talker’s false accusations against a journalist had led to a gun incident in the journalist’s garage.

In the weeks since Safire wrote his column, it has been reported, again and again, that no one knows if China obtained the downloaded data. It has been frequently reported that Lee’s reasons for the downloading are still not clear.

Kondracke should have known these facts when he questioned Richardson on FNS. But Safire’s bungling still takes the cake--and pointed the way for the bungling that would come.

Smile-a-while: We chuckled over Safire’s early construction (from above):

SAFIRE: We are now informed...that the codes...were allegedly downloaded by Wan [sic] Ho Lee.

We have been “informed”--of an allegation. In paragraph 3, Safire admits he doesn’t know if the downloading even occurred. A few paragraphs later, the crafty scribe has the data all over the world.

So we see the laughable intellectual standards of the world’s most important public discourse.

Does Safire have editors at the New York Times? Do they read the paper’s page one stories?