Memo To: Joe Lelyveld, Executive Editor, NYT
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: The China Spy Story
Bill Broad's lead piece in the Sunday "Week in Review," -- "Spying Isn't the Only Way to Learn About Nukes," is the first anywhere in the mass media to put this new Red Scare into proper perspective. The fact that you would commission one of your best science writers to do it and then give it one of the most prominent spots in the newspaper speaks volumes for your intellectual integrity. Yes, you can say it does not totally undermine the early "scoops" you had with Jeff Gerth and Jim Risen -- which I still believe were fed to them by the Cold War Cabal around Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and the Weekly Standard gang that can't shoot straight. But you repaired a lot of damage by permitting Broad to write in his amazing lead paragraph: "For more than half a decade, the Clinton Administration was shoveling atomic secrets out the door as fast as it could, literally by the ton. Millions of previously classified ideas and documents relating to nuclear arms were released to all comers, including China's bomb makers."
The most important thing the Times has done for the country in this critical discussion about our relationship with China is to remind the Ruling Class of the Clinton administration's motives in having then Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary throw open the doors to our nuclear secrets. It was all done on the assumption that if we could get all nations to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, they could not test new weapons designs. By declassifying secrets by the ton we would set a good example! The CTBT would freeze the world in place! Then came the Pakistan tests and the Indian tests and the "last" of the Chinese tests and finally the suspicions that China was stealing from us before and even after it conducted its last test and signed the CTBT. The fact that our own Senate has not ratified the CTBT, the centerpiece of the Clinton non-proliferation policy, makes the whole idea of giving away at least a trillion dollars worth of secrets with no commensurate return a little silly. I note in today's Times that the Beijing government is now publicizing the Internet addresses of secrets over which the Cox Commission has had canaries.
I still have a few quibbles with Bill Broad's piece. I did e-mail him yesterday, regretting I did not send him the letter and attachment I sent you last month about the "theft" of the so-called "revolutionary miniaturized" W-88 warhead. If you recall, I passed on the assessment of my physicist friend, who noted that it would be almost impossible for the national labs underground test experts to have told, on the basis of seismic data, whether or not the last Chinese tests involved a weapon virtually identical to any of our "silo-busting" warheads, and hence impossible to claim that the Chinese had stolen the "blueprint" for one of them, the W-88. In his piece, Broad still writes as if the Chinese theft of the W-88 design was an established "fact". If you give him another poke, he may discover that the W-88 was designed as a highly accurate low-yield silo-buster, not as a people killer. It is ridiculous to imagine a PRC with two dozen high-yield warheads capable of killing millions of people spending a zillion renminbi to replicate a device that could someday take out a few of our Minutemen. Do you realize how preposterous the idea is? It is also clear that the "secrets" divulged on both the W-88 from Los Alamos and the W-87 from Livermore only involve test data, not design.
The one thing I continue to puzzle about is how Notra Trulock decided to zero in on Wen Ho Lee. I am unable to get people in high places to return telephone calls on this matter, because I am just a private citizen living in the New Jersey suburbs, and therefore I can't get this piece of the puzzle. I will speculate that Trulock figured the PRC had the W-88 and that because it was developed at Los Alamos, it must have been Wen Ho Lee, a Chinese-American who had been under suspicion. They could not get Janet Reno to wiretap on such slim suspicion. The controversy gave Department of Energy Secretary Bill Richardson enough clout to have Lee fired, even though Lee worked for a private contractor -- the University of California -- and not the federal government. Still, the case against him and the W-88 fell apart when his computer showed only files relative to the W-87, a competing warhead device developed at Lawrence Livermore. There now are so many people and newspapers and politicians of both parties who followed Inspector Cleuseau into this blind alley that nobody wants to admit the whole thing is baloney. Our best guess is that Mr. Lee, along with many other lab scientists, simply was involved in a project to pull the archives of seven weapons systems that had been developed at different times -- with different codes and computer language -- into a uniform schematic that would be useful to future weapons designers. Such a project, termed WARP, is described on the Internet.
My guess is that China is correct when it suggests that "racism" is involved to some degree, in that Trulock assumed Chinese-Americans are more likely to feed their Chinese brethren secrets -- even though Wen Ho Lee's family hails from Taiwan. In other words, Trulock began his inquiry with the assumption that Wen Ho Lee gave secrets to Beijing, not with the assumption that secrets were given to Beijing, and inquiries led to Wen Ho Lee. This isn't exactly racism, but it is the kind of mentality among security agents which led them to suspect Americans of German extraction in WWI, Japanese-Americans in WWII, and Jewish Americans with dual citizenship when Israel gets our secrets. The fact that Peter Lee, a Chinese-American TRW employee, wound up being sentenced to 18 months in a halfway house for volunteering during an interrogation that he had discussed his work in the early 1980s at Lawrence Livermore on laser induced inertial confinement fusion [ICF] with PRC scientists -- although it seems unlikely that he was in a position to know or pass on LLNL "restricted data" to them -- added to Trulock's surmise.
When I talked to Bill Broad the other day, I did note that the news media simply are not equipped to handle every new political controversy involving complex technical matters. They must rely on "experts," and when the experts are less expert than they appear to be on the surface, a lot of bad information circulates for a long time before the truth becomes clearer. In the early days of the oil scare 25 years ago, NYT political reporters who knew zero about their subject were assigned to the beat and immediately assumed that the world was fast running out of oil and the Arabs were grabbing us by the throats. It was the result of our inquiries at The Wall Street Journal editorial page at the time that led us to understand that it was the Federal Reserve going off the gold standard that led to the quadrupling of oil prices following the quadrupling of the gold price. The Times to this day does not accept this explanation, because it institutionally is incapable of admitting such errors. This is why I tip my hat to you, Joe. There still is a way to go in cleaning up this mess in our relations with Beijing, but you deserve great credit for turning the Grey Old Lady around as far as you have.