AJR  Features
From AJR,   November 2000

Rush to Judgment   

The New York Times uncritically embraced the outlook of investigators in its breathless coverage of the Wen Ho Lee case. As a result, the nation's premier news organization tarnished not only the scientist but also its own reputation.

By Lucinda Fleeson
Lucinda Fleeson is director of the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program at the University of Maryland. She has trained journalists in Eastern and Central Europe, Africa, Latin America and, most recently, Sri Lanka, where she was a Fulbright Scholar. Her training manual for teaching investigative reporting in developing democracies has been published in 18 languages by the International Center for Journalists.     

IT WAS THE KIND of Saturday morning a reporter hates. Vernon Loeb, who had covered the CIA for less than a year, was home with his young kids in suburban Maryland on March 6, 1999, when the phone rang. It was Jackson Diehl, the Washington Post's assistant managing editor for national news, calling with bad news. The New York Times had a major exclusive splashed across two columns on page one: "China Stole Nuclear Secrets For Bombs, U.S. Aides Say."

Investigative reporters Jeff Gerth and James Risen reported from the Times' Washington bureau that nuclear weapons secrets had been stolen from the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Federal authorities were focusing on an unidentified Chinese American who worked in the division that helped design the W88 nuclear warhead and had failed a polygraph test. The massive espionage, the story said, had allowed the Chinese to make a "leap in the development of nuclear weapons: the miniaturization of its bombs."

Paul Redmond, formerly the CIA's chief spy-hunter, was quoted saying: "This is going to be just as bad as the Rosenbergs," referring to the notorious spies executed in 1953. The espionage at Los Alamos was believed to have occurred in the 1980s, but not to have been discovered until 1995--although since then the Clinton administration had "sought to minimize the espionage issue." Throughout the story, unnamed "administration officials" were cited, but there were few named sources.

Diehl wanted to respond. Loeb, 44, a lanky marathon runner known for producing large quantities of news stories, was caught flat-footed. To cover the Post, Loeb's colleague on the spy beat, veteran CIA reporter Walter Pincus, filed a Sunday story citing the New York Times. It ran on page A-19.

That week, Loeb started to run hard to catch up with the story, calling as many sources as he could muster. The Times continued to pump out new details, almost always playing the pieces on page one, above the fold. "When you're being hammered mercilessly by your main competition and you're new on the beat, that's tough," recalls Loeb. "The Times is usually right, so we couldn't dismiss the story."

But wherever Loeb turned, he found that people who should have known were skeptical. "People in the Clinton administration in the White House who had firsthand knowledge of the case and at Los Alamos who had information on the case were dubious. They said, 'Look, there are a lot of questions, but there is a very good possibility that the man is not a spy.' You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to ferret this out."

By this time, Loeb was working the story full time. "I'm not getting flak, but my editors kept looking at me like: 'Here is this great story. The train has left the station, and you're nowhere.' "

On March 22 Loeb flew from Washington to Albuquerque, then drove through the New Mexico desert for two hours to reach the 43-square-mile Los Alamos compound for some on-the-ground reporting to flesh out the story. Two days later, he made his way to the public affairs office and scanned the day's press clippings with that sinking feeling known only to reporters who have been beaten on a story. He groaned to see yet another Los Alamos exclusive--by this time, the suspected spy had been fired and identified as Dr. Wen Ho Lee, a 59-year-old Taiwan-born computer scientist who worked in the top-secret X Division. The article, written by Risen, reported that Lee had hired his own graduate assistant, a Chinese citizen. The graduate student had disappeared, according to the FBI. The plot was thickening--perhaps a spy nest had operated at Los Alamos.

"Gee," Loeb recalls thinking, "maybe he's right--maybe they really do have a story that I'm getting killed on."

Chasing yet another Times exclusive, he asked Jim Danneskiold, the Los Alamos public affairs spokesman, "Do you know anything about this missing research assistant?"

"Sure," Danneskiold responded. "The guy is at Penn State. Here's his name. Call him up." It turned out that the graduate student, Genong Li, was one of some 2,000 students who intern at Los Alamos every year. He had written an unclassified paper with Lee while he was at the lab for four months. Now he was studying mechanical engineering at Penn State, where his name was easily found on the university's Web site.

What had happened? To get to the bottom of this story, one didn't need high-level Washington sources or an inside-the-FBI Deep Throat. All a reporter had to do was call up the Los Alamos PR office and ask a question. Yet no one from the New York Times had done so.

After that first New York Times story appeared on March 6, 1999, more explosive stories would appear, including one with accusations that Lee had placed the nation's entire nuclear arsenal at risk by downloading top-secret files for his own personal library. Let's-get-Clinton Republicans on Capitol Hill would fuel the frenzy by launching a flurry of hearings into alleged security breaches and cover-ups. And while a few journalists and news organizations took a skeptical view of the mounting near-hysteria, many others did little original reporting, settling for wildly simplified versions of the Times' coverage. The Times itself would become part of the story, as media critics, scientists and an outraged Chinese American community assailed its reporting as a one-sided parroting of the theory developed by a source who would later be denounced for constructing a case out of "thin air."

In the end, the government's case collapsed. The major points outlined in the Times' first blockbuster story were found to have little resemblance to what eventually became clear was the truth. And the distinguished newspaper, while defending the accuracy of much of its reporting, conceded significant editing errors in an unprecedented 1,600-word "From the Editors" note. It acknowledged problems with the tone of some articles and said it had failed to assign stories that it should have, including a profile that might have humanized Lee. And it said the paper should have been more skeptical about the information it was receiving and should have explored other possible scenarios.

The Wen Ho Lee saga will be remembered as a case study of what can go wrong when politics infect criminal investigations, when even highly regarded reporters rely on unnamed, inside-the-Beltway sources and leaks about law enforcement investigations, and when cutthroat competition and pressure to match stories encourage news organizations to repeat instead of challenge reporting by others.

LOEB WASN'T THE ONLY reporter who was getting heat on the Wen Ho Lee story. Any reporter assigned to cover national security or nuclear issues was being asked by his editors to confirm the Times' account and advance it with new details.

Ian Hoffman, a 36-year-old reporter who had covered Los Alamos for the Albuquerque Journal for three years, was among them. "It was shocking to see the descriptions of the alleged security breaches, the nature of the information that was supposedly compromised, and that they were fingering an active employee," Hoffman remembers. "In the history of Los Alamos, nobody working there was ever accused of spying--it was always revealed later--years or even decades later. The idea that there was a mole working inside the laboratory was electrifying news."

Hip, irreverent, rail-thin, with a mop of long curly blond hair, Hoffman exudes a youthful enthusiasm and idealism about the noble cause of journalism, an idealism that has been severely dented by the Wen Ho Lee case. "I've got editors barking down my throat, saying, 'Why don't you have this?' " he recalls. "It was frustrating to watch these stories roll out from Washington. The vast majority were totally unsourced, inside-the-Beltway stuff. How do you break that wall? My editors at the Albuquerque Journal almost never allow unsourced stories. They just don't want to go there."

So Hoffman began working his contacts inside the lab, calling the W88 designers and asking if information had been compromised and how valuable that information was. He was making limited headway, as even the fact of a compromised, or stolen, secret is classified. Scientists in the X Division, however, told him they were dubious that Lee had access to the most sensitive information or was inclined toward espionage. "I get a picture of this guy who doesn't speak English very well and, secondly, doesn't have much access to the vault where blueprints are stored.... I'm starting to talk to his friends, who say, 'No way.'... It became clear that all of it was Washington-driven coverage, coming out of sources inside the Beltway, who didn't understand the laboratory and didn't understand nuclear weaponry science."

March 6, 1999, was also a bad day for Bob Drogin, 48, a longtime foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times who had been transferred to its Washington bureau in 1998. Assigned to cover foreign policy, he had been agitating to cover national security and the intelligence community--a beat empty since Jim Risen moved to the New York Times in the spring of 1998. Drogin had written a memo to his editors titled "Nukes, Kooks and Spooks" to bolster his case.

When he read the Risen-Gerth March 6 story, he was stunned. " 'This was the worst case since the Rosenbergs.' I thought, 'Oh my God.' The story seemed very declarative. There didn't seem a lot of nuance. So it was overwhelming. It was very impressive reporting. And it wasn't like you could call up the Energy Department and say, 'Can you confirm this?' "

That week Drogin finally got the opportunity to report on the intelligence community, as he was assigned to play catch-up on the Lee case. You have to be careful what you wish for, he thought.

Most reporters close to the situation assumed then--and still believe--that the key source for the New York Times story was Notra Trulock III, the Energy Department's onetime intelligence chief. But Trulock, who was the department's acting deputy director for intelligence when the espionage story detonated, wasn't answering telephone calls from Drogin, or apparently many other reporters. Drogin likens the case to both Watergate and Whitewater, when a key source was locked up by one news organization. "Everyone else is forced to look at the story from the outside looking in, and so they begin to get another perspective," he says. Drogin and Loeb had been colleagues at the Philadelphia Inquirer (where I worked with both of them) and occasionally talked over the case.

That spring, as Drogin worked the story, he eventually walked into the office of L.A. Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus and said: "Look, I'm getting stuff that doesn't jibe with what the New York Times is reporting." "Fine. Go for it," McManus responded.

These three reporters--Loeb of the Washington Post, Drogin of the L.A. Times and Hoffman of the Albuquerque Journal--were among the few journalists who actually visited Los Alamos during the early stages of the Wen Ho Lee story.

"I have a lot of respect for the reporters who came and took the trouble to talk to as many people as they could in person and take a close look at what security is like here," says Los Alamos spokesman Danneskiold. According to the Los Alamos press office log, Drogin arrived March 16, making him the first print reporter on the scene (CNN had gotten there first). Loeb turned up the following week, and Scott Baldauf of the Christian Science Monitor traveled from the Texas bureau on May 5 to do a general piece about the labs.

"During that first month, those were the only people doing serious work for serious stories," Danneskiold says. "Ian Hoffman of the Albuquerque Journal dug deep and had excellent sources throughout the story."

Numerous television crews set up in front of Lee's house, eight miles away in the community of White Rock, but they unearthed little new information, opting instead for stand-ups in front of the Lee house. One outstanding exception to TV coverage that otherwise largely echoed the Times' account of the case was an August "60 Minutes" interview with Lee--the only extensive interview granted by the embattled scientist.

New York Times editors are not publicly talking about the Wen Ho Lee coverage. Michael Oreskes, the Times' Washington bureau chief, did agree to speak briefly and delivered an ardent endorsement of Gerth and Risen as "spectacular reporters." Says Oreskes, "They are as careful and thorough as any journalists I have ever known."

Gerth declined to be interviewed for this article, saying, "I don't talk about the Times' business, but as a reporter I'm glad other people talk about theirs." Risen, however, talked at length with AJR (see "A Reporter Under Fire"). He acknowledged that he did not go to Los Alamos until August 10, 1999--five months after the story broke--although he met with lab director John Browne in Washington about four months before. "All the sources we were talking to were in Washington," Risen says. "All the top officials dealing with it were here."

Risen defends his work as accurate reporting about the government's investigation as it unfolded, and he's proud of his articles for raising an important issue. His piece about the missing graduate assistant, however, "is the one story I regret." Why didn't he call Los Alamos for a reaction before publishing? "Maybe I should have," he says. "What I was reporting was that this had led the FBI to be suspicious about Lee.... But the story was moving very fast, and that's one story I wish I had passed on."

TWO DAYS AFTER the first New York Times story ran, Lee was fired. He was indicted December 10 on 59 counts of mishandling nuclear secrets, and held in solitary confinement, at times shackled, for nine months. By the end, the government's case was shown to be so weak that Lee was allowed to plead guilty to a single count of mishandling secret information. The presiding federal judge excoriated "top decision makers in the executive branch," apologized to Lee from the bench and said officials had embarrassed the entire nation.

On Capitol Hill, more than 26 congressional committee hearings probed the case. Last year House and Senate Republican leaders were calling for the resignations of Attorney General Janet Reno and National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger, berating them for moving so slowly when confronted with grave national security problems. Now the same lawmakers are demanding to know why the FBI and Justice Department treated Lee so poorly when they had so little evidence against him.

Thousands of articles have been published mentioning the case. The overwhelming majority mostly recapitulated allegations first published by the New York Times, simplified highly technical material, repeated some errors and magnified others.

Yet despite the rampant pack journalism displayed on this story, several reporters--including some working for the New York Times--eventually clarified and corrected many aspects of the original article by Gerth and Risen. By late summer 1999, many of its key points had been knocked down. But by then too much erroneous and speculative information was in play, and the story of the country's secrets stolen from Los Alamos had become fuel for another assault on President Clinton by Capitol Hill Republicans.

The power of the New York Times--the preeminent newspaper in the country, if not the world--propelled this story onto the national agenda and kept it there like no other news organization could. By the time Lee was freed from jail, the Times' coverage had been thoroughly castigated by Asian American groups, scientists and media critics as hyped, sensational, irresponsible and just plain wrong. Joe Lockhart, the White House press secretary until September 29, complained after Lee's release of "near-hysterical investigative reporting." After other embarrassments appeared in the paper, including an erroneous piece that the polar ice cap was melting, David Letterman suggested that the New York Times' slogan should be changed from "All the news that's fit to print" to "Stuff we heard from a guy who says his friend heard about it."

TO UNDERSTAND HOW THE Wen Ho Lee coverage spiraled out of control, it is necessary to go back several years, back to when Jeff Gerth was writing a different kind of story about China for the New York Times.

Soon after Clinton was reelected in 1996, several newspapers, most prominently the Los Angeles Times, reported that the Clinton reelection campaign had received huge infusions of cash from Chinese businessman Johnny Chung.

In 1998, Gerth, already well-known for his Whitewater coverage, wrote a series of stories reporting that federal investigators were looking into whether two commercial satellite companies--Loral and Hughes--had shared too much sensitive information about rocket crashes that had "significantly advanced Beijing's ballistic missile program." At the time, U.S. companies needed a presidential waiver to launch in China.

Gerth focused on Bernard Schwartz, the chairman of Loral and the Democratic Party's largest individual contributor in 1996. The Gerth stories strongly suggested--but never proved--that Schwartz made campaign contributions to continue getting waivers to work with Chinese companies. The implication was that Clinton had sold out national security for campaign cash.

The stories were ultimately undercut two years later when the head of a campaign contributions investigation, Charles G. LaBella, cleared Schwartz and Loral of trying to buy influence, and said that Schwartz was "a victim of Justice Department overreaching," based on a "wisp of information."

But long before that development, Republicans on Capitol Hill had scooped up Gerth's reporting and run with it. Then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich created a committee to investigate whether the Clinton administration or U.S. companies gave information or technology to China that helped it make nuclear weapons and whether bribery or political contributions affected administration decision making on such matters. The committee, chaired by California Republican Rep. Christopher Cox, at first didn't turn up much evidence about the transfer of technology or lax controls. Then Cox discovered Notra Trulock. The Energy Department intelligence official quickly became the committee's star witness, telling congressmen behind closed doors a tale of Chinese espionage at Los Alamos. When he disclosed the supposed espionage to the White House and DOE, Trulock told the legislators, the government officials dragged their feet. (Trulock did not return phone calls seeking comment for this article.)

In its report, completed in December but kept secret, the committee made sweeping allegations that as many as 3,000 Chinese government-owned businesses were possible fronts for spies, and reached harrowing conclusions about Chinese espionage of nuclear secrets. As the committee gathered information, Democrats on the panel, primarily Rep. Norman Dicks of Washington, began to make frantic calls to the administration--you've got to act, this is explosive material. Although DOE and the FBI had begun an investigation into alleged espionage at Los Alamos three years before, it was not going anywhere--indeed, Reno turned down the FBI's request to tap Lee's phone, for lack of evidence.

The possibility of significant Chinese espionage went public on January 7, 1999, in a piece by the Wall Street Journal's Carla Anne Robbins. She reported: "China received secret design information for the most modern U.S. nuclear warhead, and U.S. officials say the top suspect is an American scientist working at a U.S. Department of Energy weapons laboratory." Robbins denies she was handed a leak; she says a source gave her a hint that she pursued.

Despite its powerful contents, the story caused nary a ripple. On February 17, the Washington Post's Pincus advanced the Robbins story, with an article revealing that the investigation into possible Chinese espionage was launched after U.S. officials received a document in 1995 showing that the Chinese had obtained information about the miniaturization of warheads on the Trident missile.

Around this time, Gerth and Risen separately began picking up signals that the FBI was investigating the possibility of Chinese espionage. The two joined forces. They were preparing a story for the Times' March 5 editions when the FBI contacted Times Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld and asked him to hold the article. Lelyveld assented to a delay--of one day. Wen Ho Lee met FBI agents for an interview on March 5, and the Times unleashed its story the following day.

The Gerth-Risen piece was essentially a longer version of what had been reported by Robbins in the Wall Street Journal, but with two main differences: it quoted Redmond comparing the extent of the spying to the Rosenberg case, and it added the possibility of a Clinton cover-up.

"The impression of the story was that all our secrets were gone," says Dan Stober of the San Jose Mercury News. Stober wrote extensively about an alleged espionage case in the late 1970s at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California involving a Taiwan-born scientist who supposedly passed classified information to Beijing about the U.S. neutron bomb. "The tone [of the Times story] was clearly that this espionage had happened and this unnamed guy had done it, and that every weapon in the nuclear arsenal had been compromised," Stober says. "It was way over-the-top."

A month after the March 6 story, Jeff Gerth was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the satellite companies and the Chinese.

With allegations that the Chinese had pilfered the nation's most valuable nuclear secrets coming on top of reports of campaign contributions from the Chinese and Gerth's yet-to-be-criticized Loral and Hughes stories, Capitol Hill Republicans smelled blood. Clinton had just withstood their impeachment effort, and they savored another opportunity to go after the president. "There was a lynch-mob atmosphere on the Hill," says the Los Angeles Times' Drogin. He remembers examining charts put up at several hearings tracking the alleged spying, only to find that small-print footnotes revealed the source of the information to be none other than the New York Times. "It was a closed loop of information," he says.

The New York Times continued to advance the Los Alamos espionage case in stories almost every week. It wasn't just a story; it had become a campaign. The Times editorial board weighed in, expressing alarm about what it portrayed as serious security lapses and chastising the Clinton administration for its "lackadaisical" response. Times columnist William Safire wrote a series of columns excoriating the administration. Two excerpts: "At Reno Justice, investigating any Chinese penetration is a no-no," and "Although aware of dangerous spying, Clinton still insisted that regulation of the transfer of sensitive technology be controlled by his sell-'em-anything Commerce Department."

"The New York Times has a bigger megaphone than the rest of us," says the L.A. Times' McManus. "Their words are magnified more quickly, more widely and to a greater degree than any other single organ in print or broadcasting.... In this case the megaphone effect intensified for two reasons: The story appeared after the controversy over campaign donations from Asia, after the New York Times' own reporting on Loral and Hughes satellites, and when the Cox committee was investigating evidence of Chinese espionage. But a second factor at work was that the New York Times juiced up its own megaphone. Between its editorials and William Safire, it made sure it got on the agenda."

The power of the Times to dominate was vividly demonstrated when a Wall Street Journal editorial complimented the New York Times for breaking the Los Alamos story. Chagrined by ignoring its own reporter's scoop in January, the Journal ran a correction.

On April 28, 1999, Gerth and Risen broke another big story: Lee had "improperly transferred huge amounts of secret data from a computer system at a Government laboratory, compromising virtually every nuclear weapon in the United States arsenal." While investigating Lee, agents--almost by happenstance--stumbled across evidence that he had copied classified files.

The downloading case was technically complex, too. "There were wild simplifications" by other publications following the appearance of the latest Times story, Stober says. "I kept reading stories that Wen Ho Lee had downloaded files to his home computer--he never did that." What Lee did was much more complicated: He copied computer files used to design weapons, and assembled the files in various places on the computer network in what the prosecutors liked to call his private library. Then he transferred the files to the unclassified network. In 1993 and 1994 he downloaded the files from the unclassified network to portable tapes. By 1997 his office computer had a tape-drive, so he downloaded more files.

The amount of material was colossal--the equivalent of 400,000 pages. But his motive remains elusive. Prosecutors point out that Lee left vast quantities of nuclear secrets on an unclassified network; his supporters say that shows he wasn't hiding what he was doing.

In an interview with AJR, the New York Times' Risen said that he and his colleagues were slow to pick up that the investigation split in two directions. Agents had become less convinced that there was espionage involving the W88 warhead and instead were focusing on the downloading. "Now we know there were debates in the FBI and DOE. We didn't know that until a year later," Risen says. "Now we can see that the FBI office in Albuquerque had thought for several months before we wrote that Lee wasn't the right guy. But then they changed their minds. So the investigation was heating up just as we wrote our story. Unfortunately for us, we caught it right at the apogee of their interest in him."

BY MAY 1999, REPORTERS who had doubts about the Lee case began to write stories raising serious questions. On May 11, Drogin wrote a seminal piece revealing that information about the W88 warhead obtained by the Chinese was also printed in a classified manual kept on U.S. Navy ships and at Air Force bases, and could have come from "thousands of places in the U.S. government." Other stories showed that law enforcement authorities were divided on whether there had been espionage, and if so, how much. Some of the nation's nuclear experts also began criticizing the Times and the government, among them Sidney Drell of Stanford University, one of America's most eminent physicists, and Stephen I. Schwartz, publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

At the New York Times, cracks showed May 25 when Tim Weiner, the Times' CIA reporter before Risen, quoted Edward Curran, a respected FBI veteran and the new counterintelligence chief for the Energy Department, saying that "there is no information" that the Chinese stole nuclear weapons data. The Weiner story revealed that Curran had made the assertion "four days ago" at a Senate hearing--underscoring the fact that other Times reporters had missed or ignored it. In July, the New York Daily News' Lars-Erik Nelson wrote a scathing critique of the Times' coverage for the New York Review of Books.

The Washington Post published a barrage of ground-breaking stories: On August 26, Loeb and Pincus wrote a front page piece reporting that the government's case against Lee was falling apart. Three days later, the two reporters quoted critics as saying that Trulock had hyped a flimsy case. And two days later, Loeb quoted Robert S. Vrooman, Los Alamos' former counterintelligence chief, as saying the case was "built on thin air." The inquiry by Trulock that identified Lee "was seriously flawed and lacked intellectual rigor," said Vrooman. "There was no evidence...that Lee had passed any classified information to the Chinese."

Lee's defense attorneys launched a counterattack, and papers reported that the Chinese American community was extremely angry about the treatment of Lee--a story largely ignored by the New York Times. The Post revealed that Trulock was an e-mail contributor to right-wing chat rooms. Drogin wrote a story saying that Trulock had spit on Energy Department acting counterintelligence chief Charles E. Washington. Washington, Vrooman and Los Alamos physicist Michael S. Soukup were quoted as saying they believed Trulock lacked any hard evidence and had singled Lee out as a suspect because of his race.

Risen says he dismissed the Post stories, thinking they were just part of the culture of scoop reporting: "When one paper is ahead on a story, the other papers try to knock it down. That's what I thought was happening when the Washington Post had these stories. In retrospect, maybe I should have given them more credit."

In August, the Times' William Broad, a reporter extremely knowledgeable about nuclear weapons and the author of two books on the Star Wars system, began working on the Los Alamos story. He produced a comprehensive 5,000-word piece that ran on September 7 reporting that experts "clashed violently over how much was stolen and what impact it had in Beijing, if any." The article was widely viewed as an attempt by the Times to rectify its lapses in coverage.

In November, Brill's Content waded into the fray with a searing report on the Times' coverage, which provoked a lengthy riposte from Times investigations editor Stephen Engelberg. Engelberg charged that Brill's had "published a ham-handed piece of 'gotcha' journalism, a work of creative omission that shames a magazine supposedly devoted to keeping the media honest." Brill's author Robert Schmidt replied that Engelberg had apparently spent two months re-reporting the story, but even then did not turn up any factual errors.

Lee was arrested December 10. His bail hearing--usually a short procedural matter--turned into three days of trial-like testimony. For the first time, the public heard that when two FBI agents interrogated him on March 7, 1999--the day after the first Risen-Gerth story appeared--they waved the New York Times article in his face and told him, falsely, that he had failed a polygraph test, and that he faced the loss of his job and pension benefits. "Do you know who the Rosenbergs are?" asked FBI agent John Hudenko. "You know what happened to them? They electrocuted them, Wen Ho."

AFTER 19 MONTHS of sensational reporting and demagogic politicking, none of the major points made in Gerth and Risen's original March 6, 1999, story hold up:

There is no evidence that there was espionage at Los Alamos as opposed to any of hundreds of other locations.

Wen Ho Lee did not fail two lie detector tests. He passed lie detector tests in 1984 and December 1998. In February 1999 the FBI gave him two tests, one of which was pronounced inconclusive and the other interpreted as deceptive.

Whether the Chinese made a great leap forward in their nuclear development continues to be a matter of sharp dispute--clearly the Chinese obtained information that enabled them to learn how to miniaturize warheads, but the Chinese haven't deployed anything like the W88.

This wasn't the most serious spy case since the Rosenbergs.

While Republicans complain they have been stonewalled by the Clinton administration in their efforts to obtain some documents, there is no evidence of a Clinton cover-up. In fact, it now appears that Reno acted properly when she initially resisted pressure to investigate Lee.

Predictably, reaction was divided when the Times finally decided to answer its critics in its "From the Editors" note on September 26. The Daily News' Nelson, who had been one of the earliest critics of the Times' coverage, was unimpressed. "It was a little self-contradictory. They say they are proud of coverage overall, but then admit it was one-sided and alarmist in tone and took the side of the prosecution."

Norman C. Miller, a former Los Angeles Times national editor who now teaches journalism at the University of Southern California, says, "They buried the concessions.... They never said they were wrong. They never apologized to Lee, or indicated straight out that he hadn't committed espionage."

Steven Aftergood, senior analyst for the Federation of American Scientists, concurred that "it wasn't entirely adequate. The piece reflected an apparent ambivalence. It was defensive in tone and suggested that critics were all driven by their own agendas--media critics, competing reporters or Wen Ho Lee defenders. It's surprising from that point of view. I would have thought that once they had decided that this was the way to go, they should do it decisively." A number of media critics, however, applauded the Times for confronting head-on the controversy over its coverage.

In a comment echoed by others, Aftergood suggests that while the Times' reporting in the past year "has been exemplary and essential to anyone who wants to be informed, the lasting effect [of the Wen Ho Lee episode] is a certain loss of innocence on the part of readers. The next time I or others see a certain sort of enthusiastic reporting without any dissenting views represented, we're going to be more skeptical."

Others were more forgiving, among them Henry Tang, chairman of the Committee of 100, a group of influential Asian Americans that includes I.M. Pei and Yo-Yo Ma, and a frequent critic of the Times' coverage: "The New York Times is a pretty responsible organization," Tang says. "It is an act of responsibility that they did it. They're eating a lot of humble pie."

But Tang and others predict it will take years to repair the damage caused by the Wen Ho Lee fiasco. The frenzied spy hunt at Los Alamos is discouraging scientists, particularly those of Asian descent, from working at the national nuclear labs. "We are now faced with a situation that I consider a tragedy," says nuclear expert Sidney Drell. "There is a long-lasting serious concern of morale and performance at the labs, and if that doesn't get corrected soon, there will be real damage."

Racial profiling clearly seems to have been a factor in focusing on Lee, which has contributed to casting Chinese Americans as perpetual foreigners, "always to be treated with a jaundiced eye," says Tang.

And while some journalists took a skeptical, independent tack and resisted the rush to judgment, Tang gives low marks to the overall performance of the American news media during the Wen Ho Lee episode.

"Most were unwilling to listen to the other side," he says. "It felt like mob rule, in the sense that people who normally know better went along.... The whole journalism fraternity and sorority aided and abetted what happened."