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2 June 1999

Our current howler: Firing line

Synopsis: Fox pundits said no one gets fired any more. In our view, a few of them should be glad.

Commentary by Juan Williams, Morton Kondracke
Fox News Sunday, Fox, 5/30/99

How much of our nuclear knowledge has China obtained? It isn’t easy to tell from the Cox Report. The report’s overview provides a few grabber lines that have been widely quoted in the press. But those grabber lines are hard to interpret. Here are two, from the top of the report:

COX REPORT: The People’s Republic of China has stolen design information on the United States’ most advanced nuclear weapons...The stolen information includes classified information on seven U.S. thermonuclear warheads, including every currently deployed thermonuclear warhead in the U.S. ballistic missile arsenal.

Fine. But how much information have the Chinese grabbed? For example, do they have 3% of our info on the W-78, or is it more like 90%? We haven’t seen the question asked or answered, in all the hubbub about the report. This weekend, the pundits at Fox News Sunday began showing us why. Tony Snow was off at the beach, and the crew began getting into mischief:

WILLIAMS: Mr. Secretary, you have a report due this week on exactly who is responsible for security lapses at Los Alamos. Will you be firing people?

It was the first question posed to Energy Sec Richardson, in his latest Sunday appearance. Over the past month, Richardson has had one standard answer to every question--“I’ve done great things since I’ve been here.” And he has written the book on shifty evasion when asked what Clinton knew, or when we lost secrets. But the Fox gang also displayed one-track minds in their discussion of the China matter. They obsessed on who would get fired or blamed, and in the process ignored issues of major substance.

The first question for Richardson: Who would he fire? And would DOE firings allow “people in Washington to escape responsibility?” It seemed all the pundits really cared about was who would be getting in trouble. When Cox himself came on after Richardson, he was quickly asked whether Clinton had lied; and when Brit Hume introduced Senators Specter and Wellstone, he said, “Now that the Cox Report has been released, Congress wants to know who to blame.” And the panel discussion at the end of the hour started out with a long, philosophical segment about whether anyone ever gets fired any more. Four precious minutes got burned up mulling that.

Lost in the obsession with personal blame was the Cox Report’s seminal issues. What new security measures had Richardson put in? He mentioned some, and said they were working--but wasn’t asked to explain what they were. Neither Cox nor Richardson ever was asked how much information we’ve lost. And when the panel did try to pursue basic topics, the level of preparation was woeful. In particular, Morton Kondracke tried to learn if Clinton had lied at his 3/19 press conference. The topic is one that should be pursued, but Kondracke’s pursuit of the topic was gruesome. Pundits should thank God that no one gets fired, if they plan to do business like this:

KONDRACKE: In defense of the president’s March 17 [sic] statement in which he said that he was not aware, nobody had told him about any espionage at the labs that had taken place on his watch, the White House is still saying now that it has not been proved that there was any espionage at the labs during the Clinton administration. You’ve said that there was. Aren’t you in contradiction with the president of the United States here?

Kondracke was right about the White House line, but wrong on what Richardson had said. In Richardson’s grilling on the May 9 Meet the Press, Richardson had said that “the Chinese have obtained damaging information” during the 1990s, but he didn’t specify where or how. He was not asked, and did not say, whether espionage had occurred at the labs. On Sunday, Richardson gave Kondracke a perfectly coherent response, saying that while there had been “serious security breaches” and “counterintelligence problems” at the labs under Clinton, there still was “no evidence of espionage loss at the labs” in that period. (This is not the view of the Cox panel.) In his reply, Kondracke showed a lack of preparation that brought our analysts right out of their seats:

KONDRACKE: If Wen Ho Lee downloads top secret stuff onto his computer, his personal computer, which is available to just about anybody in the world, that’s not espionage taking place on the president’s watch?

One hardly knows what to say to so unformed a presentation. Of course downloading isn’t espionage--unless someone steals the downloaded data. It isn’t even attempted espionage if Lee downloads for innocent reasons. (Several major papers have quoted experts saying this type of downloading, while forbidden, goes on frequently, for innocent reasons.) Kondracke’s question revealed a woeful lack of prep. The exchange that followed was worse:

RICHARDSON: What we have here is a massive security breach. The law enforcement case has to be made. Whether China obtained this information, the facts are not there. It was an enormous security breach. I’m not trying to make excuses here. But the fact is that the law enforcement case the FBI and Justice is building will determine this. [Our emphasis]

KONDRACKE: So espionage did not take place on his watch unless somebody goes to jail for espionage, in other words.

And indeed, those were quite different words. Obviously, espionage can take place at the labs without somebody going to jail. What Richardson had said, in his fumbling way, is that a security lapse occurred with the Lee downloading, but it hasn’t been shown that the data were stolen. And indeed, it has not been determined that China took the data, or that Lee was attempting to pass it on. These facts have been reported again and again. Kondracke seemed not to have heard it.

We think that Richardson’s Sunday appearances have been troubling and unimpressive. He was absurdly evasive on the 5/9 Meet the Press, and he has engaged in relentless sound bite production that has made our analysts doubt his good faith. But in this exchange, Kondracke made Richardson the soul of clarity with questions that, simply put, didn’t make any sense. The press corps, loving to passel out blame, has often failed to do basic homework itself.

Also today: HOWLER prelude! William Safire’s key column on Lee’s downloading had completely misstated what is known.

Tomorrow: Clinton’s 3/19 comments need explanation. But compared to the way the remarks have been spun, they stand as a model of clarity.

It got worse: Here’s how Richardson’s answer to Kondracke was paraphrased in the FNS panel:

WILLIAMS: The fact remains you have these terrible things going on right now. You saw Bill Richardson on this very program say to Mort Kondracke that unless somebody goes to jail, then there’s no proof that there’s espionage occurring. What a crazy logic that is.

But that isn’t what Richardson said at all. Richardson said it hasn’t been shown that China obtained Lee’s download. To our knowledge, no one, including Cox, disputes that. Does Williams know otherwise? How?