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7 June 1999

Our current howler (part III): “Suspect” statements

Synopsis: Did Clinton fib on March 19? We present our incomparable critique.

Cox report’s release accompanied by finger-pointing, recriminations
Andrew Cain, The Washington Times, 5/25/99

Out Today: Nuclear Thriller With Ending as Yet Unwritten
Tim Weiner, The New York Times, 5/25/99

Did President Clinton fib at his 3/19 press conference? Eager pundits have prayed that he did. And they’ve occasionally improved the facts a bit, to make the transgression more striking (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/3/99 and 6/4/99). David Bloom asked Clinton a perfectly fair question; though he had mentioned alleged spying in the 1980s, could he “assure the American people that under [his] watch no valuable nuclear secrets were lost?” This is the part of Clinton’s answer which has generated questions and commentary:

CLINTON: It is my understanding that the investigation has not yet determined for sure that espionage occurred [in the mid-80s]. That does not mean that there was not a faulty security situation at the lab...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. [Our emphasis]

The answer has struck many as odd, since the White House had already received the Cox Report, which said this early on in its overview:

COX REPORT: The P.R.C. thefts from our National Laboratories began at least as early as the 1970’s, and significant secrets are known to have been stolen as recently as the mid-1990’s.

The report quickly clarifies the point, saying the theft in the mid-90s “possibly” occurred at a lab. But surely, one would think, the president had been told that the Cox committee “suspected” such theft.

Or had he? On the day before the Cox Report was released, Joe Lockhart said otherwise at his White House briefing, according to the Washington Times:

CAIN: In January of this year, Mr. Clinton received an executive summary of the Cox report...But Mr. Lockhart said the summary was a list of recommendations to improve lax security at the labs. He said it did not include specific allegations of Chinese espionage during Mr. Clinton’s tenure. Thus, Mr. Lockhart said, Mr. Clinton did not lie at a March 19 news conference when asked whether he could assure Americans no valuable nuclear secrets were lost on his watch.

Was Lockhart’s account accurate? At THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing. But among the five major papers we review at THE HOWLER, no one else reported this statement, and Cain never followed up on the claim in the Times. Is it possible that Clinton, as of March 19, didn’t know what the Cox committee had judged on spy cases--had seen only its policy recommendations? If so, why wasn’t he shown more? Is Lockhart’s account of this matter accurate? If not, why did he give it? None of these questions have been pursued by the papers we review--all of which have published claims that Clinton lied on March 19.

But even if Clinton did see the full report, it should be noted that the Cox Report’s judgments on theft of data are not universally shared. For example, Clinton stated several times on March 19 that it “has not been fully resolved, at least as of my latest briefing,” whether Chinese espionage occurred in the 80s. In this statement, he reflected the views of his own intelligence advisers, which have often differed from the judgments of “Cox.” When Jeff Gerth broke this story in the March 6 New York Times, he made it clear even then that intelligence advisers within the administration have not always shared the assessments of DOE’s Notra Trulock, assessments that are generally upheld in the Cox Report. And here’s Tim Weiner, almost three months later--nine weeks after Clinton’s 3/19 conference:

WEINER: Not everyone agrees with the conclusion that the Chinese stole nuclear weapons data. “There is no information that we have to say, ‘This information is in their hands,’” the Energy Department’s new counterintelligence chief, Edward Curran, a respected F.B.I. veteran, told a Senate committee four days ago. Indeed, some Energy Department officials argue to this day that “no espionage occurred, and if it did occur, it did not occur at Los Alamos,” said Notra Trulock...who strongly disagrees with that argument.

Over the past several months, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have quoted a wide array of intelligence professionals, in and out of the Clinton administration, who disagree, in various ways, with the judgments of the Cox Report. Clinton’s 3/19 statements--in which he questioned whether espionage had even occurred in the 80s--accurately reflected that difference of opinion within the intelligence world. But it is a difference of opinion that is often ignored by excited, angry pundits and scribes, who prefer the open-and-shut findings of “Cox”--and who instinctively prefer, in their gloomy way, the Cox Report’s “worst case” judgments.

To his credit, Clinton repeatedly stated on March 19 that there had been security breaches on his watch--that “security was too lax for years and years at the labs,” including at least five years of his presidency. And he didn’t actively deny that espionage had occurred on his watch--merely said that he hadn’t been told about any such theft.

It is also true that, on March 19, the Cox Report was a secret document. It is not clear how much Clinton should have said about its findings at that time. And an apologist for Clinton might point out that, in his answer to Bloom, he was explicitly referring to the investigation being carried out by the FBI and the DOE. When he said, “the investigation has not determined for sure that espionage occurred,” it was that investigation which he (accurately) described.

So what are we to make of the March 19 statement, in which Clinton said no one had told him that they “suspect?” Was he fibbing when he said it? The truth is, if Clinton had said, “No one has reported to me that they have determined that such a thing has occurred,” his statement would be hard to object to. Even today, his advisers (and other experts) do not seem to have judged that the Cox Report’s conclusions are correct.

But Clinton said no one had told him that they “suspect,” and the statement does call for explanation. It is perfectly reasonable to wonder, from the statement, whether Clinton had been adequately briefed. It is also reasonable to wonder, from the statement, whether Clinton misstated what he knew--although it is a bit hard to know why he would have chosen to lie, with the Cox Report being prepped for release.

But if Clinton’s statement calls for explanation, so does the fervor of the press corps itself--its ardent desire to say Clinton lied in his remarks at the conference. In our past two HOWLERS, we have just scraped the surface of the various ways in which Clinton’s 3/19 statement has been spun. A press corps offended by Clinton’s alleged fibbing has been all too eager to fib itself. Tomorrow, we’ll review more contortions from pundits and scribes who just aren’t happy unless they’re being lied to by Bill.

Tomorrow: Safire and Kelly just parsed and parsed, struggling to limn Clinton’s statement.

Coming: Thrilling to negative (if unproven) news, the press corps spun how much was lost.