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4 June 1999

Our current howler (part II): Tergiversations-R-us

Synopsis: Did Clinton fib on March 19? The press corps keeps crossing its fingers.

Broken Engagement
Editorial, The New Republic, 6/14/99

What did Clinton know?
Donald Lambro, The Washington Times, 5/31/99

Commentary by Bill Richardson
This Week, ABC, 5/23/99

Say what you will for the Washington press corps, they love to say Clinton has lied. And sometimes, they’re so eager to say it occurred, they help things along just a little. Yesterday, we saw writers from the New York Times misrepresenting Clinton’s comments from his March 19 press conference (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/3/99). Meanwhile, try to puzzle out this strange account, from the current New Republic:

THE NEW REPUBLIC: The Cox report is filled with evidence of such elisions. Did Sandy Berger inform the president in 1998 of espionage attempts? Yes, he originally told the Cox committee. Then, this past May, as part of the declassification process, Berger said, oops, the president had actually been briefed in July 1997, though no written record of the meeting exists. But Clinton, in a March press conference, claimed that he had not been briefed on Chinese espionage--“to the best of my knowledge.” And the list of Clinton evasions and qualifications and tergiversations can be multiplied.

Sometimes by devious means. The account that TNR gives here is virtually impossible to decipher. TNR seems to imply that Berger amended his statement just last month, but when the New York Times broke the China story on March 6, they quoted Berger and White House sources saying Clinton was first briefed in July 1997. And TNR is slick-and-slippery in its account of what Clinton has said. TNR implies a conflict: Berger said Clinton was briefed on espionage, and Clinton says that he wasn’t. That, of course, is nonsense. On 3/19, Clinton described in detail the debates that have swirled about alleged Chinese spying. There have been no disputes between Clinton and Berger about what Clinton was told. Finally, in rolling its eyes at “to the best of my knowledge,” TNR pretends--like William Safire and Michael Kelly before it--that Clinton is trying to pull some slick evasion by offering this simple and basic qualification. Maybe if TNR observed the limits of its knowledge with more care, we’d all be spared the need of parsing slippery tergiversation like this.

But the love of spin is virtually endless, once CelebCorps gets a chance to spin Clinton. Donald Lambro improved the truth in a recent op-ed in the Times:

LAMBRO: Mr. Clinton insists he was not told about the espionage going on at the labs, and in recent weeks he even claimed the spying did not occur on his watch. But that claim has been flatly rejected by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who now admits technology thefts occurred during this administration as well as in previous administrations.

It’s truly amazing how many misstatements a spinner can pack into sixty words. Clinton “was not told about the espionage at the labs?” On March 19, he described alleged Chinese espionage in detail, saying that, “as of [his] latest briefing,” the question of whether security breaches led to successful espionage in the 80s had “not been fully resolved.” He had clearly “been told” a good deal. Did he “claim the spying did not occur on his watch?” No--he said, in his press conference’s one puzzling comment, that no one had told him they suspected it had. (More on that to come.) And had Richardson “flatly rejected” what he said? We’ve got your flat rejection right here:

RICHARDSON: The president was correct. The president was correct...[W]hat he was referring to, and this is what he said, was nothing at the nuclear weapons labs. Now there were compromises in the 90s, thefts of nuclear secrets. But we don’t know whether it was from our labs. I think what he said has been taken out of context.

We don’t know how President Clinton will eventually explain his March 19 statement. And though we regard Sec. Richardson as a hapless public spokesman, it is absurd to describe Richardson’s statement as a “flat rejection” of what Clinton said. But then, this press corps simply spills over with those who will spin to “prove” that Clinton’s a spinner (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/4/98). In this case, the misstatements about Clinton’s 3/19 press conference have flowed down like Big Muddy in May.

Here at THE DAILY HOWLER’s state-of-the-art world headquarters, we evaluate the press, not the pols. But to evaluate the press corps’ treatment of this matter, it’s necessary to see what Clinton said. On March 19, Clinton answered two complex questions about spying, offered back-to-back in the middle of his conference. And, except for the puzzling remark about what people “suspected,” Clinton gave two detailed answers, which provide a perfectly plausible set of statements about the China espionage affair.

Responding first to a multiple question from Helen Thomas, Clinton offered a basic chronology. He said Berger was first informed of “the possibility that security had been breached at the labs” in 1996, specifying that the possible breach in question had occurred in the mid-80s. He then said that Berger was told in mid-97--and he too was informed--that “the security breach might have been quite extensive.”

The CIA, DOE, and FBI were directed to investigate the matter, he said. And he noted that he “propounded a presidential directive designed to improve security at the labs” in early 1998.

This from the president who, Lambro says, insists he was “not told about the espionage going on at the labs.” Clinton clearly said that he had been briefed about the ongoing probes, and had called for changes in security procedures. But then he made another statement that is worth reviewing in full, because it reflects a matter that has largely been elided by some tergiversators who have chosen to spin this whole matter:

CLINTON: Now, I think there are two questions here that are related but ought to be kept separate. One is, was there a breach of security in the mid-80s? If so, did it result in espionage? That has not been fully resolved, as of my latest briefing. [Our emphasis]

Please note: Clinton here says it has not been determined that espionage occurred in the 80s. It isn’t just espionage on his watch that he doubts; he says he isn’t sure about alleged spying back to Reagan. This statement reflects an apparent difference of opinion about the alleged spying that has existed within the intelligence community. Understanding this matter doesn’t completely explain the remark Clinton made about what people suspect. But it does help to show that Clinton’s remark may not be as puzzling as has been spun by the media--by those ardent foes of tergiversation who aren’t above the occasional elision themselves.

Next: Hadn’t the Cox committee at least “suspected” espionage? What did Bill mean by his comment?

“Say,” ’bro: Lambro writes that Clinton “insists” he wasn’t told about espionage. In fact, Clinton has discussed this matter only once, and he didn’t insist--he just said it. No one disputed him; there was no reiteration; and he has made no comment on the matter since. Why did Lambro say that Clinton “insists?” Because he wanted to spin a more exciting story, filled with thrilling adventure and conflict. It shows the instinct of a top-flight novelist. Maybe some scribes should go off and write one.