The NY Times Deep Throat

How Chris Cox misused his committee to destroy Wen Ho Lee

With the November publication of "Rush to Judgment," the American Journalism Review (AJR) has neatly wrapped up the mainstream media's investigation of its role in the China spy scandal. AJR reporter Lucinda Fleeson focused primarily on the March 1999 New York Times bombshell: Chinese agents, the Times asserted, were swiping nuclear secrets from U.S. laboratories with at least tacit permission from an evil, campaign-contribution-hungry President Bill Clinton. You might recall that congressional Republicans—who had exhausted their Monicagate, Filegate, Travelgate and Whitewater probes—jumped on the spy story with adolescent vigor, offering the public apocalyptic scenarios.

"We're going to milk this for all it is worth," one Republican staffer predicted in the early days of the scandal.

The milking was left mostly to Orange County's own Representative Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) and Washington Representative Norm Dicks (a Democrat), both of whom then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich chose to head the spy investigation. Playing to network TV cameras in the summer of 1999, Cox donned his most sincere and alarmed expression and said that the espionage had undoubtedly placed every American city under threat of a Chinese nuclear-missile shower.

But little Johnny in Des Moines can stop gazing at the sky in morbid apprehension. Though Cox gained international acclaim overnight for his accusations, there was a problem with the ambitious congressman's spy tale: it was untrue. At best, it was innocent if idiotic conjecture; at worst, it was part of an unconscionable campaign by Republicans to destroy a president. At best, it was racist; at worst, the campaign drove two nuclear powers closer to war.

The respected AJR didn't mince words in its verdict. Fleeson, a veteran reporter, concluded that none of the major points of the Times' first story—a story pipelined to the Times exclusively by unnamed Republican sources—was true. Wen Ho Lee is now free. The accused Taiwan-born American scientist who once faced life imprisonment on 59 federal spy charges procured his freedom by giving federal prosecutors a face-saving guilty plea on a single count of mishandling lab information.

Readers of the Weekly were not shocked by the outcome. In "Cox, Dicks, No Balls" (Cover Story, June 7, 1999), we noted that the Cox Report, as it had become known, was little more than "lowbrow theater" with the editorial integrity of a tits-heavy Hard Copy episode. Conservatives ridiculed our story as alternative-media propaganda. But 15 months later, the Times—ostensibly America's most trustworthy news source—reluctantly published a lengthy retraction.

"The Times' coverage of this case," the paper's editors wrote on Sept. 26, might have "stimulated a political frenzy amounting to a witch hunt."

But the Times' apology, besides being arrogant, is incomplete. A thorough reckoning would answer a critical question: Who was the paper's deep throat?

AJR offers no answer, and the Times has not revealed its source. Protecting whistle blowers is a tenet of almost religious faith among journalists; some have gone to jail rather than name names. But in this unusual instance, the source deliberately misled gullible reporters and might have put an innocent man in prison.

The Times is unlikely to reveal its source, but all signs point to a Republican on Cox's committee.

Two months before Cox published his committee's 700-page "secret" report, someone was leaking details of the committee's proceedings to the Times—someone who would benefit from the suggestion that the Clinton administration had aided and abetted Chinese spying at Los Alamos. That points to the committee's Republican members. Among those Republicans, Cox had the most to gain from the spy charges. Already angling for the job of speaker, Cox was also looking toward the VP slot on the Republicans' 2000 presidential ticket. The words "Cox Report" were his credentials.

There's monumental irony in the fact that the House committee appointed to investigate holes in U.S. weapons labs was itself porous; that information spilling out of what were ostensibly secret meetings of a committee with Cox's name on it ended up on the front pages of The New York Times; and that, as AJR noted, "cutthroat competition" led to the rapid reproduction of the spy charges in other newspapers, doing maximum damage to Clinton and Wen Ho Lee.

But most significantly, Cox never investigated the leaks. Indeed, Cox used the claim of secrecy to fan the flames of suspicion, arguing in public, at least, that confidentiality prohibited him from revealing even more damaging, "stark" and "grave" facts in classified portions of the Cox Report.

Cox did not respond to several requests for an interview. But when asked in May 1999 about the leaks on ABC's This Week, the Newport Beach congressman offered an amazing piece of illogic. "Well," he said, "the leaks, I'm very unhappy about [them]. And the leaks are coming rather obviously, I think, from the administration."

To believe that, you'd have to believe that the Clinton administration was trying to kill itself—and would choose New York Times reporter Jeff Gerth to do it. How much sense does that make? Gerth spent much of the past several years in a vain attempt to bring Clinton down over the Whitewater scandal.

Though his accusations smeared the good reputations of countless Asian-American scientists and nearly got an innocent man fried in the electric chair, Cox has not mustered the courage to apologize. To admit wrongdoing now might jeopardize his odds-on chances of taking a cabinet position—maybe U.S. attorney general—under a new Bush administration.

And though Cox—who during the 1980s was chief corporate counsel to Orange County's biggest convicted swindler—might replace Janet Reno as the nation's top law-enforcement officer, don't expect the mainstream media to hold him accountable. With rare exceptions (Robert Scheer of the Los Angeles Times in particular), no daily journalist has bothered to document the Cox Committee's role in the Wen Ho Lee scandal. Not even AJR was willing to expose his critical role in manipulating The New York Times and other news sources.

Once again, Cox—who because of his cunning is scarier than former Orange County Congressman Bob Dornan—has evaded responsibility. As far as the American public knows, the USC graduate and corporate lawyer who avoided Vietnam combat is an unblemished patriotic hero. It was U.S. News & World Report that printed and never corrected the following preposterous caption with its sensational June 1999 espionage coverage: "Playing it straight. Chris Cox and his colleagues tried hard."

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