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3 June 1999

Our current howler (part I): Can’t get her mind off Bill

Synopsis: On the day the Cox Report was released, Deborah Orin thought only of Bill.

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Deborah Orin
Hardball, CNBC, 5/25/99

Learning From Truman’s Espionage Blunder
Sam Tanenhaus, The New York Times, 5/30/99

Tracking Suspicions About China’s Atom Spying
Jeff Gerth and Tim Weiner, The New York Times, 5/23/99

An exchange at the start of the May 25 Hardball showed how obsessed some scribes get with that Bill. A tabloid talker began his show barking out the Cox Report’s dreary findings:

MATTHEWS: Here are some of the highlights of the Cox Report, released just this afternoon. China has been stealing U.S. nuclear secrets since the late 1970s...China could begin production of nuclear weapons based on stolen U.S. technology as soon as 2002...China stole information on every warhead currently deployed in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. China’s penetration of the U.S. nuclear laboratories almost certainly continues today. And the U.S. uncovered the Chinese theft of the W-88 warhead in 1995, but the president wasn’t told until early 1998, three years later. Deborah Orin, what’s the biggest item on that list?

Orin surely had a list of horribles from which to make her choice. China had information on all of our warheads; planned to use it; and the theft still went on! So, what bothered Orin about that list? You knew it--the part about Bill!

ORIN: Well, I think the biggest item in that list is what the president knew and when he knew it because somebody is not telling the truth. I mean the president’s version is that he wasn’t told about this until quite late, Sandy Berger, his national security adviser, has given conflicting accounts, and their accounts don’t quite match. And that’s a problem. [Our emphasis]

Talk about folks with a problem! Nuclear disaster is about to rain down; at the labs, the nuclear theft goes on. And what grabs Orin about these facts? Bill and Sandy’s accounts “don’t quite match!” We don’t know when we’ve seen a better example of the obsession some scribes have with Our Bill.

A reasonable question about Clinton would emerge from the scrum, but a bit of context should be provided. The discussion that unfolded on Hardball this night was one of its classic head-bangers. Within the first, eight-minute segment, John Fund assured the viewers that there are “absolutely no security procedures in place today” at our nuclear labs. Bill Gertz, the WashTimes security czar, said that Clinton’s brief error in becoming separated from the nuclear football (in April) “shows you right there where he stands on nuclear weapons issues.” Matthews himself said, without support, that Wen Ho Lee “gave away the entire nuclear capacity of the United States,” and that Janet Reno turned down the Lee wiretap request (false) after his downloading was known (it became known two years later). All this went on in eight minutes. But when Gertz mentioned the task force that Clinton has appointed to investigate the way Chinese spying was pursued, that’s when Matthews gave us joy, emitting this gonzo ululation:

MATTHEWS: What do you make of that stuff? I mean why is the president of the United States, he’s in his seventh year, halfway through his seventh year as president, he got his first report of hanky-panky down there in ’95, why is he finally moving? [Our emphasis]

Three minutes earlier, to denigrate Clinton’s staff, he said Clinton first heard in 1998 (see above). Three minutes later, to heighten suspicion of Clinton, he says Clinton learned in 1995. So it goes with the earnest sages who warn us nightly of Clinton’s deceit. Tell us again, so we’ll understand, why NBC lets this endless mess sully its name.

But along the way, Matthews referred to Clinton’s 3/19 press conference, at which Clinton was asked if he could assure the public “that under [his] watch no valuable nuclear secrets were lost.” At the end of a long reply--the second long answer on spying he’s given--Clinton made the following remarks, which have been widely critiqued in the press:

CLINTON: 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.

Clinton’s last sentence has struck many as odd, since his press conference occurred more than two months after the Cox Report’s 1/3 publication. Surely, it has been said, Clinton must have known that the committee had judged that secrets were lost on his watch. The statement has been taken to mean either that Clinton had not been properly briefed, or that Clinton had in fact been lying at the conference. We think it is one of the questions that should be explored in the wake of the Cox Report.

But before we look at Clinton’s press conference, let’s take a moment to note how his remarks have been spun. In evaluating claims that Clinton has lied, it always makes our skeptical juices flow to see the fibbing that is done about Clinton. And we couldn’t help noticing the following passage from Sam Tanenhaus’ op-ed in last Sunday’s Times. See if you have a minor problem with something that Tanenhaus said:

TANENHAUS: In March, after several months of silence, President Clinton made a public statement, saying that “there has been no espionage at the labs since I have been President.” He also said that he had received no reports about it.

Clearly, Clinton never said that “there has been no espionage at the labs” in his tenure. He said no one had told him that espionage had occurred. That latter claim may or may not be true, but it is plainly different from what Tanenhaus said. Incredibly, Tanenhaus took a phrase from a rhetorical question, and pretended it was made as a statement.

Why do editors publish this stuff? Maybe they’d already seen it on page one of the Times:

GERTH AND WEINER: On March 19, at a press conference, Mr. Clinton assured the public that “there has been no espionage at the labs since I have been President” and “no one has reported to me that they suspect such a thing has occurred.”

Clinton made the second statement. The first statement, again, is plainly false, reflecting CelebCorps’ endless desire to bump up the things Clinton says.

Nor did a talker let us down as we sat through his 5/25 program. Early on, the following exchange took place with Dem consultant Peter Fenn:

FENN: The GAO in ’91 and ’92 produced six reports which they gave to the Congress which criticized the security at the labs. The problem is everybody drops the ball. The Congress didn’t do anything about it.

MATTHEWS: Anybody give them to the president? The president said in March of this year he’s never heard about any kind of misconduct or loss of intelligence on his watch. How do you explain that?

“Never heard about any kind of misconduct?” At the press conference, Clinton said just the opposite; he explicitly said that “security was too lax at the labs” on his watch, that there had been “a faulty security situation at the lab.” Indeed, why else would he have ordered the security changes he talked about at the conference? And a talker had said something else:

MATTHEWS: Fish through this, Bill [Gertz]. The president of the United States was briefed on this by Sandy Berger, the director of the National Security Council, his chief adviser on national security, and yet the president denies ever being briefed. How is that possible?

It isn’t. Clinton, on March 19:

CLINTON: Then sometime in the middle of 1997, [Berger] was notified and I was notified that the extent of the security breach might have been quite extensive. Se we had the CIA looking into that...In early 1998, I propounded a presidential directive designed to improve security at the labs.

As has been reported again and again, there is no dispute between Berger and Clinton as to when the president was briefed or what he was told. We don’t know what Clinton was told. But Clinton and Berger do not disagree about what Clinton was told at his briefings.

What do we make of Clinton’s statement that “no one has reported that they suspect” espionage? We’ll take a look at his conference tomorrow. But we will offer one word of caution, dear readers. In disputes about alleged lying by Clinton, the fibbing about him is almost always more plain than the fibbing he is said to have done. The process is almost always confused by the spinning that comes from the press--a press corps that reads the Cox Report and thinks alleged fibbing is the big tale it tells.

Tomorrow: Examining 3/19.