How False Narrative Works
Editor’s Note: Over the past couple of decades, the Republicans have benefited enormously from their ability to create and disseminate false narratives through the Right’s large, well-financed media apparatus.
With mainstream journalists unwilling to challenge the false narratives – and thus put their careers at risk – American voters often go to the polls believing things that are almost the opposite of the truth.
In this excerpt from Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, the authors present a case study from Election 2000:
During Campaign 2000, conservative groups were given wide leeway in smearing Democratic candidate Al Gore without being called to account, even when the Vice President was falsely portrayed as a traitor.
For instance, in the weeks before Election 2000, Aretino Industries, a pro-Republican group from Texas, ran an emotional 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 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 China “the ability to threaten our homes with long-range nuclear warheads.”
But the ad – which aired in “swing” states including Ohio, Michigan, Missouri and Pennsylvania – was filled with disinformation. The actual evidence was that the key breach in national security, contributing to the modernization of China’s nuclear arsenal, occurred in the 1980s, not the 1990s.
In other words, the secrets were lost during the Reagan-Bush administration, not the Clinton-Gore administration.
The most important compromised U.S. secret that allegedly helped China’s nuclear weapons program was the blueprint for the W-88 miniaturized nuclear warhead, which was smuggled to the Chinese in 1988, the last year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, according to documents later given to U.S. authorities by a Chinese defector.
China tested their W-88-style warhead in 1992, the last year of the first Bush administration.
Therefore, the W-88 secret was lost – and acted upon – before Bill Clinton and Al Gore took office. Indeed, the only significant part of this nuclear-secrets case that happened during the Clinton-Gore administration was that a Chinese defector exposed the espionage breach in 1995.
However, when the American public first learned of the compromised secrets a few years later, the Republicans applied fuzzy logic and a blurred chronology to transform the lost nuclear blueprints, apparently compromised on the Reagan-Bush watch, into an attack theme on Clinton and Gore.
This clever strategy could be traced back to a May 1999 report prepared by a Republican-controlled congressional investigation headed by Rep. Christopher Cox of California. The so-called Cox report accused the Clinton-Gore administration of failing to protect the nation against China’s theft of top-secret nuclear designs and other sensitive data.
When released on May 25, 1999 – shortly after the Clinton impeachment battle had ended – the Cox report was greeted by conservative groups and the national news media as another indictment of the Clinton administration.
By then, the Washington press corps had long been addicted to “Clinton scandals” and viewed almost any allegation through that prism, regardless of the details.
The Cox report gave weight in the public’s mind to the suspicion that there was something far more sinister behind earlier allegations that a Chinese government front had funneled $30,000 in illegal “soft money” donations to the Democrats in 1996.
Cox pulled off his sleight of hand with barely anyone spotting the trick card up his sleeve.
The key ruse was to leave out dates of alleged Chinese spying in the 1980s and thus obscure the fact that the floodgates of U.S. nuclear secrets to China – including how to build the miniaturized W-88 nuclear warhead – had opened wide during the Reagan-Bush era.
While leaving out those Republican time elements, Cox shoved references to the alleged lapses into the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
So, the Cox report’s “Overview” stated that “the PRC (People’s Republic of China) thefts from our National Laboratories began at least as early as the late 1970s, and significant secrets are known to have been stolen as recently as the mid-1990s.”
In this way, Cox started with the Carter presidency, jumped over the 12 years of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and landed in the Clinton years. In the “Overview” alone, there were three dozen references to dates from the Clinton years and only five mentions of dates from the Reagan-Bush years, with none of those citations related to alleged wrongdoing.
Cox’s stacking of the deck carried over into the report’s two-page chronology of the Chinese spy scandal. On pages 74-75, the Cox report put all the information boxes about Chinese espionage suspicions into the Carter and Clinton years.
Nothing sinister is attributed specifically to the Reagan-Bush era, other than a 1988 test of a neutron bomb built from secrets that the report says were believed stolen in the “late 1970s,” the Carter years.
Only a careful reading of the text inside the chronology’s boxes made clear that many of the worst national security breaches could be traced to the Reagan-Bush era.
[One of the authors of the Cox report was I. Lewis Libby, a key neoconservative who would later become Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff and a figure in the Plame-gate scandal, the leak of Valerie Plame Wilson's covert CIA identity.]
Reagan Security Breaches
When federal investigators translated other documents turned over by the Chinese defector, they learned that the exposure of nuclear secrets in the Reagan-Bush years was even worse than previously thought.
According to a later Washington Post article, “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.” But major news outlets didn't spell out the significance of that timing.
Other evidence suggested that conscious decisions by senior Reagan-Bush officials may have put communist China in a position to glean these sensitive secrets.
The rupture followed a secret decision by Ronald Reagan’s White House in 1984 to collaborate with Beijing on a highly sensitive intelligence operation. The project was the clandestine shipment of weapons to the Nicaraguan contra rebels, in defiance of U.S. law and while the administration was denying to Congress that such shipments were occurring.
The point man for enlisting China into the off-the-books contra operation was Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, then assigned to Reagan’s National Security Council staff.
Reagan’s White House turned to the Chinese for surface-to-air missiles for the contras because Congress had banned military assistance to the rebel force and the contras were suffering heavy losses from Soviet-built attack helicopters deployed by Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government.
Some of the private U.S. operatives working with North believed China was the best source for SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles. In his 1989 Iran-Contra trial, North described this procurement as a “very sensitive delivery.”
For the Chinese missile deal in 1984, North said he received help from the CIA in arranging false end-user certificates from the right-wing government of Guatemala. North testified that he “had made arrangements with the Guatemalan government, using the people [CIA] Director [William] Casey had given me.”
But China balked at selling missiles to the Guatemalan military, which was then engaged in a scorched-earth war against its own leftist guerrillas. To resolve this problem, North was dispatched to a clandestine meeting with a Chinese military official.
In fall 1984, North enlisted Gaston J. Sigur, the NSC’s expert on East Asia, to make the arrangements for a meeting with a Chinese representative, according to Sigur’s testimony at North’s 1989 trial.
“I arranged a luncheon and brought together Colonel North and this individual from the Chinese embassy” responsible for military affairs, Sigur testified.
“At lunch, they sat and they discussed the situation in Central America,” Sigur said. “Colonel North raised the issue of the need for weaponry by the contras, and the possibility of a Chinese sale of weapons, either to the contras or, as I recall, I think it was more to countries in the region but clear for the use of the contras.”
North described the same meeting in his autobiography, Under Fire. “Back in Washington, I met with a Chinese military officer assigned to their embassy to encourage their cooperation,” North wrote. “We enjoyed a fine lunch at the exclusive Cosmos Club in downtown Washington.”
North said the Chinese saw the collaboration as a way to develop “better relations with the United States.” Possession of this knowledge also put Beijing in position to leverage future U.S. policies.
While the details of a possible U.S.-China tradeoff are still unknown, the Reagan administration did authorize a broader exchange program between U.S. and Chinese nuclear physicists. The Chinese were given access to the Los Alamos nuclear facility.
The Wen Ho Lee Case
Los Alamos nuclear physicist Wen Ho Lee first came to the FBI’s attention in 1982 when he called another scientist who was under investigation for espionage, 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, according to a New York Times chronology that was published n 2001 after George W. Bush had become President.
The Times reported that limited exchanges between nuclear scientists from the United States and China began after President Carter officially recognized China in 1978, but those meetings grew far more expansive and less controlled during the 1980s.
“With the Reagan administration eager to isolate the Soviet Union, hundreds of scientists traveled between the United States and China, and the cooperation expanded to the development of torpedoes, artillery shells and jet fighters,” the Times wrote. “The exchanges were spying opportunities as well.”
“On September 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.
In the early years of the Clinton administration, U.S. intelligence experts began to suspect that the Chinese nuclear breakthrough most likely came from 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.
Looking for possible espionage, investigators began examining the years of the mid-1980s when the Reagan-Bush administration had authorized U.S. nuclear scientists to hold meetings with their Chinese counterparts.
Though the American scientists were under restrictions about what information could be shared, it was never clear exactly why these meetings were held in the first place – given the risk that a U.S. scientist might willfully or accidentally divulge nuclear secrets.
But the Chinese-espionage story didn’t gain national attention until March 1999 when The New York Times published several imprecise front-page stories fingering Wen Ho Lee as an espionage suspect.
During those chaotic first weeks of “Chinagate,” Republicans and political pundits mixed together the suspicions of Chinese spying and allegations about Chinese campaign donations to the Democrats in 1996. Clinton’s Justice Department officials then overcompensated by demonstrating how tough they could be on suspect Wen Ho Lee.
Virtually no one in official Washington noted the logical impossibility of Democrats selling secrets to China in 1996 that China apparently had obtained a decade or so earlier during a Republican administration.
Instead, conservative groups grasped the political and fund-raising potential.
Larry Klayman’s right-wing Judicial Watch sent out a solicitation letter 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.”
The fallout from the spy hysteria kept spreading. The 60-year-old Wen Ho Lee was imprisoned on a 59-count indictment for mishandling classified material.
The Taiwanese-born naturalized U.S. citizen was put in solitary confinement with his cell light on at all times. He was allowed out of his cell only one hour a day, when he shuffled around a prison courtyard in leg shackles.
The case against Wen Ho Lee began to collapse, however. Prosecutors accepted a plea bargain on September 13, 2000, with the scientist pleading guilty to a single count of mishandling classified material.
A furious U.S. District Judge James A. Parker complained that he had been “led astray” by the prosecutors and apologized to Lee for the “demeaning, unnecessarily punitive conditions” under which Lee had been held. Parker ordered Lee released with no further jail time.
Still, the Cox report’s suspicions about Clinton-Gore treachery lingered and reemerged during the final days of Campaign 2000 with the “daisy ad” remake. The closing message was blunt: “Don’t take a chance,” the ad said. “Please vote Republican.”
In its appeal, the message was unintentionally ironic, since the worst compromises of nuclear secrets to China had occurred under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the team that would be restored to power if the voters followed the ad’s advice.
George W. Bush’s campaign also exploited the “Chinagate” suspicions, albeit a touch more subtly, by running ads showing Gore meeting with saffron-robed monks at a Buddhist temple in California.
So, millions of Americans went to the polls in November 2000 thinking that Gore’s temple appearance and the Chinese nuclear spying were somehow linked.
The national news media – still bristling with hostility toward Clinton and Gore – contributed to the confusion by failing to explain to the American public in a timely fashion that the Chinese security breaches represented a Reagan-Bush scandal, not a Clinton-Gore scandal.
To read more, you can get your copy of Neck Deep at the publisher’s Web site, http://www.neckdeepbook.com, or through Amazon.com.
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