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Chinese Espionage Was a Reagan-Bush Scandal
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Enter Wen Ho Lee

Wen Ho Lee first came to the FBI’s attention in 1982 when he called another scientist who was under investigation for espionage, according to the Times chronology. But Lee's contacts with China -- along with trips there by other U.S. nuclear scientists -- increased in the mid-1980s as relations warmed between Washington and Beijing.

In March 1985, Lee was seen talking with Chinese scientists during a scientific conference in Hilton Head, S.C. The next year, with approval of Los Alamos, Lee and another scientist attended a conference in Beijing. In 1988, Wen Ho Lee attended another conference in Beijing.

“On Sept. 25, 1992, a nuclear blast shook China’s western desert,” the Times wrote. “From spies and electronic surveillance, American intelligence officials determined that the test was a breakthrough in China’s long quest to match American technology for smaller, more sophisticated hydrogen bombs.”

In September 1992, George H.W. Bush was still president. By that point, the barn door had been left open for years and the horses apparently were long gone.

In the early years of the Clinton administration, U.S. intelligence experts began to appreciate the potential magnitude of the Chinese espionage. They came to believe that the Chinese nuclear breakthrough was most likely achieved through purloined U.S. secrets.

“It’s like they were driving a Model T and went around the corner and suddenly had a Corvette,” said Robert M. Hanson, a Los Alamos intelligence analyst, in early 1995, the Times reported.

A Scandal 'Fix'

The W-88 story, however, did not break until 1999, in the weeks after President Clinton’s impeachment and Senate trial. It came at a time when the Republicans and the national news media seemed hungry for another "Clinton scandal" fix. To get one, they brushed aside the timing of the lost secrets.

The espionage story often was paired with allegations of suspicious Chinese money going into Democratic coffers in 1996 and with images of Vice President Al Gore visiting a Buddhist temple in California that same year. The picture of Asian-looking monks and Al Gore became the enduring image of "Chinagate."

Virtually never noted was the logical impossibility of Democrats selling secrets to China in 1996 when China apparently had obtained those secrets almost a decade earlier during a Republican administration.

Feeding the media's appetite for scandal, Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., released a high-profile “Chinagate” report on May 25, 1999. The well-received report played down any Reagan-Bush role, even through the presentation of misleading graphics.

The report's time-line chronology of the scandal covered two full pages [p. 74-75] and packed all the boxes alleging espionage into the years of the Carter and Clinton administrations. Nothing sinister appeared in the 12-year swath of the Reagan-Bush years, other than a 1988 test of a neutron bomb built, the Cox report said, from secrets believed stolen in the “late 1970s,” the Carter years.

Only a careful reading of the text inside all the boxes revealed that the principal security breaches under review occurred between 1984-92, the Reagan-Bush years.

Similar misleading charges came from Republican allies. Larry Klayman’s Judicial Watch, for instance, sent out a solicitation letter in 1999 seeking $5.2 million for a special “Chinagate Task Force” that would “hold Bill Clinton, Al Gore and the Democratic Party Leadership fully accountable for election fraud, bribery and possibly treason in connection with the ‘Chinagate’ scandal."

“Chinagate involves actions by President Clinton and Vice President Gore which have put all Americans at risk from China’s nuclear arsenal in exchange for million of dollars in illegal campaign contributions from the Communist Chinese,” Klayman's letter said.

Political Mileage

During the 2000 presidential election campaign, an obscure conservative group got more mileage out of blaming Clinton and Gore for the espionage. The group aired an ad modeled after Lyndon Johnson's infamous 1964 commercial that showed a girl picking a daisy before the screen dissolved into a nuclear explosion.

The ad remake in 2000 accused the Clinton-Gore administration of selling vital nuclear secrets to communist China, in exchange for campaign donations in 1996. The compromised nuclear secrets, the ad stated, gave communist China “the ability to threaten our homes with long-range nuclear warheads.”

While the attacks on Clinton and Gore were high profile, less-noticed evidence continued to build indicating that the hemorrhage of nuclear secrets actually had occurred on the Reagan-Bush watch.

Last year, federal investigators began translating other documents from the Chinese defector who approached U.S. officials in Taiwan in 1995. The closer examination indicated that the exposure of nuclear secrets in the 1980s was worse than previously thought.

According to an article in The Washington Post on Oct. 19, 2000, “the documents provided by the defector show that during the 1980s, Beijing had gathered a large amount of classified information about U.S. ballistic missiles and reentry vehicles.”

Still, the overwhelming public impression remained that the Clinton-Gore administration was responsible.

The Payoff

The ultimate payoff for this twisting of history may have come in November, when possibly millions of Americans went to the polls determined to throw out the Clinton-Gore crowd for selling nuclear secrets to communist China. Given all that the public had heard, the sentiment was understandable.

By voting against Al Gore, these voters might have thought they were taking the keys of the Executive Branch away from the people responsible for Chinese espionage that made Americans more vulnerable to devastating nuclear attack.

In reality, however, these voters simply were helping return the keys to the political leaders who actually had overseen the loss of the nuclear secrets in the first place.

Robert Parry is an investigative reporter who broke many of the Iran-contra stories in the 1980s for The Associated Press and Newsweek.

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