By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Congressman Christopher Cox would have been delighted had he been inside the Barnes & Noble at the Irvine Spectrum one night last June. Days before, at a carefully staged Capitol Hill press conference, Cox had donned a black suit, solid red tie and somber face to claim that critical U.S. nuclear-weapons secrets had been stolen by Chinese spies. Though remarkably short on supporting evidence, the allegations produced sensational international headlines and once again transformed the congressman into a political star whose machinations could dominate a conversation between five middle-aged women in a bookstore. Never mind that Cox later admitted to a reporter, "We're having a great deal of difficulty in finding suspects. We don't even have any real open cases." People love spy tales. "Thank God for Chris Cox," said one of the women. "If he had been president, the Chinese would have never stolen our secrets."
For the Newport Beach millionaire, who has made no secret of his desire for higher public office, Hollywood could not have scripted a better role: national-security hero. The best heroes are, of course, the reluctant ones, a point the shrewd Cox surely understands. Bob Schieffer, the host of CBS's Face the Nation, ended an interview with the six-term congressman by saying, "I know you've had a long row with [your investigation], and I'm sure you're glad it's over." With all the sincerity he could muster, Cox responded solemnly, "Amen."
Our reluctant hero was so glad it was over that he proceeded to mass-produce press releases touting his allegations, write editorials for several newspapers, book himself speaking engagements, and appear on just about every television network-news show in the country. Not even a Washington Post report that the congressman had leaked details of his secret investigation to favored reporters curtailed the adulation. On the McLaughlin Group talk show, one guest boldly called Cox "a Cool Hand Luke" who is "smart, analytical" and should be Speaker of the House.
For six months, Cox basked in near-blemish-free media glory, haughtily dismissing critical reports (which appeared mostly in the alternative press, including the Weekly). But last month, the congressman's allegations of Chinese espionage suffered a near-fatal blow. Stanford University's respected Center for International Security, which is headed by the man who directed this country's nuclear-weapons programs for 36 years, issued a blistering rebuke to what has come to be known as the "Cox Report." Though Cox oddly didn't bother to include one nuclear-weapons expert on his investigation's staff, the university hired five world-renowned experts. They concluded, "There is no credible evidence presented or instances described of actual theft of U.S. missile technology." That may explain why the FBI has been unable to arrest a single person in what Cox would have us believe is the most damaging espionage scheme in U.S. history.
In their 100-page detailed review, the center's experts found Cox's allegations "inflammatory," "misleading," "extremely vague" and "implausible." The Cox Report, they determined, "lacks scholarly rigor and exhibits too many examples of sloppy research, factual errors and weakly justified inferences." (And to think: Cox's claims prompted conservative newspaper columnist Debra J. Sanders to call for public hangings; another columnist floated the idea that all Chinese-American scientists should be investigated as potential spies.)
Cox—who has always maintained that his report "did not engage in opinion" even though phrases such as "appear to be" pepper the document—tried at first to ignore the university's review. Later, he placed on his office Web site a link to a government press release that slammed the center. According to the defensive statement issued by a Republican staff member, the university's critique "represents the personal conclusions and opinions of the authors and those opinions might be right or wrong" and is a "disservice" to this country by "biased" men who sympathize with the communists. The congressman let others do the dirty work; he did not issue retaliatory press releases or grant a series of high-profile interviews. Better to let that specific story die quickly.
There were clues from the beginning that the Cox Report was nothing more than cheap—if entertaining—political theater. CNN's Reliable Sources noted the report's unusual Hollywood-like "high production values." Strangely enough, those production values worked best at supposedly liberal Newsweek. In a June cover story, the magazine's reporters unquestioningly swallowed Cox's tale. "There is no doubt that Beijing has been adept at pilfering U.S. nuclear secrets," they wrote, without attribution to a single source—much less an expert.
But in trying to pump up Cox's stature, Newsweek may have inadvertently handed his critics a noose. (Some media analysts speculate that Cox leaked information to the magazine to secure favorable coverage.) "Late last fall, the Cox Committee investigation seemed at a dead end. For months the House panel had slogged through arcane documents and endured hours of technical testimony —searching for proof that China had illegally obtained American satellite technology. . . . Then, last November, came a breakthrough," the magazine reported excitedly. "Notra Trulock, a top intelligence officer at the Energy Department, appeared before the panel. In a dry, monotone drawl, he told the secret meeting that over the years, Beijing had stolen some of America's most sensitive nuclear-weapons secrets from the nation's labs. As Trulock spoke, committee members began to stiffen in their chairs. Christopher Cox, the committee's chairman, looked at his colleagues and their eyes bugged out, remembers one participant [the source was likely the congressman]. For the committee, bad news never looked so good."
More accurately: for the ultra-ambitious Cox—a corporate lawyer who jealously protects and promotes his own reputation as a rising political star in Republican circles—bad news (as flimsy as it has proved) certainly never looked so good.