As the American people pick through the wreckage left by the Bush administration, many may wonder how the most powerful nation on earth got so far off track. An illustrative case study is the bogus story of Al Gore’s “Chinagate” scandal.
The story doesn’t explain all that’s gone wrong in the past eight years, but it reveals how aggressive right-wing operatives, aided and abetted by a lazy or complicit news media, can create an impression for millions of voters that is nearly the opposite of the truth.
So, in the razor-thin presidential election of 2000 – at the dawn of the George W. Bush era – a significant number of Americans went to the polls believing a right-wing canard, that Al Gore was implicated in a treacherous scheme to trade American nuclear secrets to China for campaign cash.
The smear had been pushed by a combination of Republicans and right-wing activists relying on the Internet, talk radio, direct mail, Fox News and TV ads. Meanwhile, the mainstream news media did little to dispel the ugly suspicions, even though exculpatory evidence existed that would have cleared Gore.
A bitter irony of the story was that Americans, who voted against Gore to stop a “traitor” whom they thought had bargained away life-and-death nuclear secrets to China, were letting back in Republicans upon whose watch the nuclear secrets apparently were leaked.
Up had become down. The votes of those misguided Americans then helped make Election 2000 close enough for Bush and the Republicans to steal the White House. [For details on that election, see our book Neck Deep.]
The “Chinagate” story surfaced dramatically in the weeks before Election 2000 when a pro-Republican group from Texas, called Aretino Industries, 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 blast.
The ad remake accused the Clinton-Gore administration of selling vital nuclear secrets to communist China for campaign donations in 1996. The compromised nuclear secrets, the ad said, gave China “the ability to threaten our homes with long-range nuclear warheads.”
The ad – airing in “swing” states including Ohio, Michigan, Missouri and Pennsylvania – suggested that a Chinese government front funneled $30,000 in illegal “soft money” donations to the Democrats in 1996 in exchange for the nuclear secrets. The most important secret had been the blueprint for the W-88 miniaturized nuclear warhead.
The allegation hit a nerve with many voters because the Bush campaign had run other ads showing grainy photos of Al Gore with saffron-robed monks at a Buddhist temple in California, implying corruption with mysterious Asians.
The daisy ad also played off an earlier report by a Republican-controlled congressional investigation into China’s apparent theft of the W-88 warhead design and other U.S. nuclear secrets. The so-called Cox report, named for the probe’s chairman Rep. Christopher Cox, accused the Clinton-Gore administration of failing to protect top-secret nuclear data from Chinese espionage.
When released on May 25, 1999, the Cox report was greeted by conservative groups and much of the national news media as another indictment of the Democrats in the aftermath of President Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. By then the press corps, addicted to “Clinton scandals,” paid little attention to the sleight of hand in the Cox report.
Cox’s key trick 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 years.
While leaving out Republican time elements, Cox shoved references to the alleged security lapses into the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
For instance, 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 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.
But the major U.S. news media did little to challenge Cox’s misleading findings, even though some newspapers knew then or learned later that the evidence pointed to a hemorrhage of nuclear secrets during the 1980s.
For instance, the Washington Post reported on Oct. 19, 2000, just weeks before the election, that when federal investigators translated previously ignored documents turned over by a Chinese defector in 1995, they learned that the exposure of nuclear secrets in the Reagan-Bush years was worse than previously thought.
“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,” the Post reported. But the newspaper didn't dispute Cox’s earlier findings or debunk the treasonous “Chinagate” allegations then being spread about Gore.
[Cox is now chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, where he has come under criticism for failing to adequately regulate Wall Street banks. One of his aides on the Cox report was I. Lewis Libby, who became Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff and was later convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in the “Plamegate” affair.]
Other evidence, also available before Election 2000, suggested that conscious decisions by senior Reagan-Bush officials in the 1980s may have put communist China in a position to glean those sensitive secrets.
The rupture of U.S. nuclear secrets followed an extraordinary decision by Ronald Reagan’s White House in 1984 to collaborate with Beijing on a highly sensitive intelligence operation, the clandestine shipment of weapons to the Nicaraguan contra rebels, in defiance of U.S. law.
The collaboration was especially risky because Congress had forbidden military shipments to the contras and the administration was insisting that it was abiding by the law. In reality, President Ronald Reagan had tapped a National Security Council staffer, Oliver North, to oversee an off-the-books contra supply operation.
Reagan’s White House turned to China hoping that it would deliver surface-to-air missiles that might turn the tide of the battle against Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government, which had been inflicting heavy losses on the contras by using Soviet-built attack helicopters.
In his 1989 Iran-Contra trial, North described this procurement of China's SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles 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. But China balked at selling missiles to the Guatemalan military, which was 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.
The idea was to bring the Chinese in on what was then one of the most sensitive secrets of the U.S. government – the missiles were not going to Guatemala, but rather into a clandestine pipeline arranged by the White House to funnel military supplies to the contras.
“In Washington, I met with a Chinese military officer assigned to their embassy to encourage their cooperation,” North wrote in his autobiography, Under Fire. “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 sensitive information also put Beijing in position to leverage future U.S. actions by the Reagan administration. It was in this climate of cooperation that secrets, including how to make miniaturized hydrogen bombs, allegedly went from the United States to China.
While the details of how China learned the W-88 secrets are still unclear, it is clear that the Reagan administration authorized a broader exchange program between U.S. and Chinese nuclear physicists. The Chinese were even given access to the Los Alamos nuclear facility.
By 1985, the Reagan administration’s expanded nuclear exchanges with China were in full swing. In March 1985, Los Alamos nuclear physicist Wen Ho Lee (who would later come under suspicion of espionage) was seen talking with Chinese scientists during a scientific conference in Hilton Head, South Carolina, according to a New York Times chronology that was not published until after Election 2000 (on Feb. 4-5, 2001).
In 1986, with approval of the Los Alamos nuclear lab, Wen Ho Lee and another scientist attended a conference in Beijing. Wen Ho Lee traveled to Beijing again in 1988.
“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.”
The fruits of any Chinese espionage during Ronald Reagan’s presidency became apparent during the presidency of George H.W. Bush.
“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.”
Assessing this Chinese breakthrough, U.S. intelligence experts began to suspect that the Chinese had 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.
By the early years of the Clinton administration, investigators had begun looking back at the mid-1980s when the Reagan administration had authorized U.S. nuclear scientists to hold a number of meetings with their Chinese counterparts.
Though the American scientists were under restrictions about what information could be shared, it was never fully explained why those meetings were held in the first place – given the risk that a U.S. scientist might willfully or accidentally divulge nuclear secrets.
A breakthrough in the probe didn’t occur until 1995 when a Chinese walk-in to the U.S. Embassy in Taiwan provided documents indicating that China apparently had gained access to American nuclear designs back in the 1980s.
It took four more years – until March 1999 – for the Chinese nuclear story to gain national attention, 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 illegal Chinese campaign donations to the Democrats in 1996. Clinton’s Justice Department overcompensated by demonstrating how tough it could be on suspect Wen Ho Lee.
Amid the spy frenzy, however, no one took note of the logical impossibility of Democrats selling secrets to China in 1996 that China seemed to have obtained a decade or so earlier during a Republican administration.
Instead, pro-Republican groups grasped the political and fund-raising potential, especially since President Clinton had just survived his impeachment ordeal and there was a strong appetite for more “Clinton scandals.” Plus, Clinton’s sidekick, Al Gore, was the frontrunner to succeed his boss.
Larry Klayman’s right-wing Judicial Watch sent out a 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 hysteria had especially ugly consequences for Wen Ho Lee, the 60-year-old physicist who 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.
However, the tenuous case against Wen Ho Lee began to collapse in 2000 against the backdrop of the presidential campaign. On Sept. 13, 2000, the scientist pled guilty to a single count of mishandling classified material, and U.S. District Judge James A. Parker apologized to Lee for the “demeaning, unnecessarily punitive conditions” under which Lee had been held.
Still, the suspicions about Clinton-Gore treachery with China 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.”
George W. Bush’s campaign also exploited the “Chinagate” suspicions, albeit a touch more subtly, by running those ads showing Gore meeting with the 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 mainstream news media – still bristling with hostility toward Clinton and Gore – offered no timely explanation that the Chinese espionage represented a Reagan-Bush scandal, not a Clinton-Gore scandal.
Through disinformation from the Right and acquiescence from the mainstream media, the stage was set for a historically close presidential election and for the Republicans to be returned to the White House.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on October 14, 2008.