Saturday, February 18, 2023
The lines between truth and fiction blur with hilarious and moving results in David Henry Hwang’s unreliable memoir. Asian-American playwright DHH, fresh off his Tony Award win for M. Butterfly, leads a protest against the casting of Jonathan Pryce as the Eurasian pimp in the original Broadway production of Miss Saigon, condemning the practice as “yellowface.” His position soon comes back to haunt him when he mistakes a Caucasian actor, Marcus G. Dahlman, for mixed-race, and casts him in the lead Asian role of his own Broadway-bound comedy, Face Value. When DHH discovers the truth of Marcus’ ethnicity, he tries to conceal his blunder to protect his reputation as an Asian-American role model, by passing the actor off as a “Siberian Jew.” Meanwhile, DHH’s father, Henry Y. Hwang, an immigrant who loves the American Dream and Frank Sinatra, finds himself ensnared in the same web of late-1990's anti-Chinese paranoia that also leads to the “Donorgate” scandal and the arrest of Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee. As he clings to his old multicultural rhetoric, this new racist witch hunt forces DHH to confront the complex and ever-changing role that “face” plays in American life today.
Two days later, before any arrest or charges had been made, the Times identified the suspect as Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwan-born scientist, and reported he’d just been fired from the lab. The original story had forced the FBI into a rushed interrogation of Lee, in which an agent threatened Lee by comparing him to the Rosenbergs; Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson, desperate to prove his department was not as hapless as it seemed, directed that Lee be fired without review. Intelligence official Notra Trulock, a central figure in the original Times story, would later say that it was Richardson who had leaked Lee’s name to the press. Lee was the only suspect under investigation.
In the months that followed, no charges were brought. Dozens of agents descended on Los Alamos, New Mexico, to prove what had become accepted fact in Congress and in the public eye: that Wen Ho Lee had betrayed the country he was a naturalized citizen of, and in the worst possible way. He’d given China the keys to the destruction of the United States. When in December Lee was finally arrested, he was charged not with nuclear espionage, for which there was no evidence, but with 59 counts of downloading restricted data to unrestricted systems. Prosecutors told the court that the knowledge Lee possessed threatened the safety of every single American, and he was placed—before trial—into 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement, shackled for his one hour of exercise. To prevent him from passing secrets, he was forbidden to speak in Mandarin during family visits.
Nine months later, in September 2000, Lee pleaded guilty to one felony count of mishandling data and was released. Thus ended, at least officially, the 18-month fiasco that exposed an American security apparatus as both too vulnerable to political influence and too unchecked in its investigative and prosecutorial abilities, all in the name of the national interest.
It can be easy to forget the enormity of the Wen Ho Lee debacle. Nearly every assumption the government made—that China had acquired a miniature-warhead design through espionage, that Los Alamos had been its source, and that it had done so using intel from a “master spy”—was refuted by the facts. After Lee’s release, the New York Times conducted an internal investigation, detailing what “we wish we had done differently” in its one-sided and sensationalist stories but retaining a defiant tone that disappointed critics who believed the paper had stoked the entire ordeal. (In 2006, Lee would receive a settlement from the government and several newspapers including the Times for the leaking of his name.) The federal judge, in releasing Lee, offered an extraordinary and emotional apology, firing a salvo at the executive branch for drumming up the case and causing “embarrassment to our entire nation and each of us who is a citizen in it.”
As purely a story of government overreach and journalistic malpractice, the Wen Ho Lee case is worth revisiting.
The collapse of the government's case against Lee marks the end of a shameful episode of government witch-hunting and persecution of the Taiwan-born nuclear scientist. An examination of the background to the case provides a telling exposure of the American political establishment in which no segment emerges unscathed—from the Republican right wing, to the Clinton administration and the Democrats, to the liberal media led by the New York Times.
The vilification and scapegoating of Dr. Lee had their origins in the politically motivated campaign by right-wing opponents of the Clinton administration. It grew out of the many-faceted Republican dirty tricks operation aimed at destabilizing Clinton, which culminated in the investigation headed by Kenneth Starr and the impeachment crisis. This political vendetta against Clinton converged with Republican opposition to Clinton's policy on Chinese-US relations, an issue that generated sharp divisions within US ruling circles.
Secret congressional hearings chaired by Republican Congressman Christopher Cox were convened in the autumn of 1998 into allegations of Chinese espionage at US nuclear facilities. Leading up to this, Republicans in Congress had been calling for the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate allegations that the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign accepted contributions from China. The Republicans implied that a link existed between alleged Chinese donations to the Democratic campaign and Clinton's moves to normalize relations with China, as well as his administration's supposed reluctance to investigate Chinese theft of US nuclear secrets.
The star witness at these hearings was Notra Trulock III, an Energy Department intelligence officer. Trulock fingered Wen Ho Lee, basing his suspicions of Lee on a document turned over to the US by a suspected US-Chinese double-agent, who claimed that China had stolen the secrets for the W-88, America's most sophisticated nuclear warhead.
Trulock at the time contended that the espionage he attributed to Wen Ho Lee threatened the lives of “tens of millions of people” and was “on a magnitude equal to the Rosenbergs-Fuchs compromise of the Manhattan Project information,” referring to the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were tried on charges of stealing atomic secrets and executed in 1953 as Soviet spies.
The Clinton administration conducted its own investigation, headed by former Republican Senator Warren Rudman, into the Department of Energy (DOE) Labs. This investigation concluded that Trulock and the FBI had singled out Wen Ho Lee—from among 500 possible suspects—because he was Asian-American and had traveled to China in the 1980s, under the auspices of the DOE. Rudman recommended that Trulock's office be disbanded and its responsibilities were turned over to the CIA. Soon thereafter Trulock resigned his position and went to work for the military contractor TRW.
In recent days the New York Times has expressed outrage over the treatment of Wen Ho Lee. On September 12 it published an editorial calling for an investigation into the prosecution of the Los Alamos scientist. A serious investigation is indeed called for, but one of its first items of business would have to be an exposure of the role of the New York Times itself.
The Times played a critical part in launching the spy scare and in witch-hunting Dr. Lee. This campaign began with a front-page article on March 6, 1999 headlined “Breach at Los Alamos: A Special Report; China Stole Nuclear Secrets For Bombs, U.S. Aides Say.” Serving to line up public opinion behind the Republicans' anti-Chinese and anti-Clinton propaganda, the Times contended that the White House had stalled in investigating the spying allegations “even though senior intelligence officials regarded it as one of the most damaging spy cases in recent history.”
The article claimed, “China has made a leap in the development of nuclear weapons: the miniaturization of its bombs, according to Administration officials,” and that in 1996 “Government investigators had identified a suspect, an American scientist at Los Alamos laboratory, where the atomic bomb was developed.” Times articles over subsequent days identified Dr. Lee as the chief suspect.
The Times' March 6 story served to legitimize the campaign against Dr. Lee and lend credibility to Notra Trulock, an ultra-conservative opponent of the Clinton administration who has written and participated in chat room discussions on the extreme right-wing web site “FreeRepublic.com.” “Freepers”, as they call themselves, were responsible for organizing a number of rallies in Washington in 1998 calling for the impeachment of Bill Clinton. It is worth noting that the initial Times spy scare article was published within a month of Clinton's acquittal by the Senate on charges laid the previous December by the House of Representatives in its impeachment vote.
This story was only the first in a series of pieces spanning 18 months wholesaling government charges against Wen Ho Lee and allegations of massive Chinese espionage.
The initial Times article was co-authored by Jeff Gerth, the reporter who during the 1992 election campaign wrote the first story on the Clintons' involvement in the failed Whitewater real estate development scheme. The 1992 piece marked the beginning of the media frenzy which led ultimately to the Clinton impeachment proceedings. Gerth's reporting on Whitewater was exposed as gossip and rumor-mongering in a 1996 book by Little Rock journalist Gene Lyons, Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater. Lyons revealed that much of Gerth's information was obtained from sources who had been paid by right-wing enemies of the Clintons in Arkansas.
The New York Times published the front-page story that touched off the China spy campaign and fingered Wen Ho Lee on March 6, 1999, less than a month after Clinton was acquitted in the Senate impeachment trial. The story, under the headline “China Stole Nuclear Secrets for Bombs, US Aides Say,” was the product of collaboration between reporters and federal prosecutors very similar to that which took place the year before in the launching of the Monica Lewinsky affair.
In the Lee case, as in the Kenneth Starr dragnet and Republican impeachment drive, the Times played a particularly vile role. During the Lewinsky scandal, the Times repeatedly came to the defense of Independent Counsel Starr and used its influence to legitimize the effort by right-wing conspirators to carry out a political coup. Similarly, in the China spy scare, the Times continued for months to publish lurid articles retailing unsubstantiated charges of Chinese nuclear espionage and promoting the legal persecution of Lee.
The Republicans linked their charges of Chinese espionage and White House security laxness to their attempts to scandalize the administration over alleged campaign finance abuses. A central component of their agitation on this issue was the charge that the Democrats had accepted donations from Chinese nationals. In the China spy scare of 1998-99, Republican leaders suggested that Clinton was guilty of a treasonous quid pro quo with “Communist” China—political cover for Chinese spies in return for campaign cash.
The Times provided credibility to such far-fetched charges. On March 9, 1999, three days after it published the initial broadside by Jeff Gerth and James Risen charging Chinese theft of nuclear secrets at Los Alamos, the Times published an editorial citing the Gerth-Risen story and charging that the Clinton White House had refused to aggressively investigate Chinese spying. “The White House should have been especially vigilant,” the Times wrote, “because its handling of China was already under scrutiny by Congress after allegations of illegal Chinese campaign contributions in 1996.”
This was typical of the Times editorial page, which repeatedly denounced the Clinton administration for alleged laxness on nuclear security and attacked the Justice Department for refusing to allow the FBI to place a wiretap on Lee's telephone.
The Times would have us believe that it was guilty of nothing more than inadvertent lapses and omissions in its reporting of the Wen Ho Lee case. This, however, does not hold water. The notion that there was something accidental in the Times' reportage over an extended period of a major domestic and international political issue is not credible.
This is, after all, a highly experienced news organization with the closest ties to the political, military, intelligence and financial establishments in the US. Nor is it a question of a few rogue reporters. The Times made a conscious decision to slant the news and engage in a gutter campaign of character assassination. Its primary target was Clinton; Lee was part of the collateral damage.
There is nothing anomalous about the Times' record in the frameup of Wen Ho Lee. The newspaper's role as a media mouthpiece for reactionary forces in this particular case is consistent with its trajectory over the past eight years. Nor is it a matter of journalistic lapses. What is involved is a modus operandi.
The very “failings” which the Times' September 26 statement acknowledges in relation to the Lee case—failure to examine the political context, failure to adopt a tone of “journalistic detachment,” failure to investigate the politics of sources, failure to present a balanced view of the facts—pervaded its reporting on every scandal directed against the Clinton White House from Whitewater to Monica Lewinsky. The same unscrupulous methods that were employed to provide credibility to a right-wing conspiracy against an elected president were used to witch-hunt Wen Ho Lee.
The Times statement on its role in the Wen Ho Lee case is a cynical evasion. It does not begin to account for or explain the newspaper's actions over an entire period. Who made the decision to launch an anti-China spy scare? With whom did the Times editors consult and collaborate in mounting their attack on Lee? Who is Jeff Gerth, and what are his relations with the right-wing forces that organized the Whitewater provocation? These and many more questions need to be pursued.
Friday, February 17, 2023
At nearly 9’oclock on the night of February 3rd, a Norfolk Southern freight train jumped the tracks as it was passing through the eastern Ohio town of East Palestine. More than 50 of the train’s 141 cars tumbled off the rails into a smoking jumble. Like most freight trains these days, it was hauling a load of toxic cargo. At least 20 of the derailed cars carried hazardous chemicals, five of them harboring highly poisonous vinyl chloride, a carcinogen used in the manufacture of plastics.
The train had left the St. Louis terminal yard earlier that day bound for Norfolk Southern’s Conway Yard in Pennsylvania, passing through cities, towns and fields, crossing creeks and rivers, rumbling by churches, schools and parks. The derailment was the fourteenth of the young year. Not bad by the standards of the US railroad industry, which has averaged 1700 derailments a year since 1977. But plenty bad enough for the 5,000 people of East Palestine and everyone living downstream or downwind from the crash site.
Two days after the wreck, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a preliminary report saying that the crash was likely caused by a mechanical issue involving the axel on one of the railcars, which had been seen throwing sparks for a least 20 miles before the train entered East Palestine. That may well have been an issue, but it was far from the only one.
For starters, despite carrying at least five toxic chemicals (vinyl chloride, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, and isobutylene) the Norfolk Southern train was not classified as “highly hazardous.” In fact, the first responders to the crash had little idea what kind of chemicals they were dealing with, most of which weren’t included on the train’s manifest.
The train itself was not fitted with electronically-controlled pneumatic brakes, a feature which many railroad safety experts say may have prevented, or at the very least, lessened the severity of the derailment. In the grand scheme of things, these brakes are not that expensive and could surely be written off on the railroad company’s taxes, assuming they pay any. (Norfolk Southern just reported $4.8 billion in profits for 2022, a record year.) But the railroad industry had been griping about regulatory over-reach since the Obama administration made the brakes mandatory on any trains carrying hazardous materials. None of the companies complained more shrilly than Norfolk Southern. The company soon found a sympathetic ear in the Trump administration, which rescinded the regulation less than a year after taking office.
So, why hasn’t the Biden administration reinstated the regulation, as Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley has repeatedly urged? It’s been two years. According to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, his hands are tied. “We’re constrained by law on some areas of rail regulation,” Buttigieg tweeted this week. This is ludicrous. All that really constrained him was a 2015 law requiring a “cost-benefit analysis” of new regulations, the costs and benefits of which should be clear to everyone now.
But that was never the Biden administration’s intentions. As the Lever reported this week, Buttigieg’s department is currently working on a new rule that would further weaken train braking requirements. The responsibility for wreck is as much on Biden’s hands as Trump’s. The Department of Transportation’s crash statistics back this up. While derailments declined under Obama’s term, they’ve remained steady under Trump and Biden: 1204 in 2019, 1013 in 2020, 1020 in 2021 and 1044 in 2022. Both administrations weren’t just negligent. They were complicit. (The Biden Justice Department actually filed a brief siding with Norfolk Southern against a suit brought by a sick railroad worker. The case is now pending before the Supreme Court and could end up shielding the company from future litigation, including any claims brought by the victims of the East Palestine disaster.)
A leading campaigner for the preservation of Iraq's famed southern marshlands has been freed, two weeks after being kidnapped by unidentified gunmen, his family said on Thursday.
“Jassim Al Asadi has been freed from the clutches of his kidnappers,” his brother Nazem said.
Environmental activist Jassim Al Asadi who was kidnapped over a week ago has now been released.— ريام Ream (@reaam_mh) February 15, 2023
Very relieved to hear this news today. Praying for him. pic.twitter.com/R9884uDHYl
the architect of the bombing of Yugoslavia and both Iraq invasions is here to tell you that he "stands with the people of China" (but definitely not with the CCP) - good enough to be a speaker at the "anti war" rally! pic.twitter.com/DKWxFaOAFi— Socialism Train (@socialismtrain) February 17, 2023
Olayemi Olurin, the anchor of The Hill‘s daily news and opinion web series Rising, brilliantly handled two transphobic guests who repeatedly made excuses about why they should be allowed to deadname transgender actor Elliot Page without it being considered an offensive attack.
The discussion began by mentioning how right-wing commentators Jordan Peterson and Dave Rubin had received Twitter suspensions for aggressively deadnaming the actor. Their tweets violated the network’s policy specifically forbidding “misgendering or deadnaming” trans people as a form of hate speech or harassment.
Soave replied, “But to not even be allowed to acknowledge that you used to have a different name?”
Olurin then said, “What do you need to be able to acknowledge that for? What are you suffering? Where’s your harm? Where’s your compassion?”
Iversen said, “That person lived as a different person for a long time, decades. And so to say that suddenly we all have to pretend like those decades didn’t exist and that that person wasn’t that person for decades?”
Olurin asked, “Why are we pretending like that is what’s happening here?”
Iversen replied, “That is what’s happening!”
Olurin then explained, “It’s very simple. There exists a trans man now, Elliott Page. That is their name. That is the name they go by now. Their deadname is their deadname. They don’t go by that anymore. They find it dehumanizing or diminishing to their person to be called that. And that’s what it is. It’s not uncommon. People change their names all the time, and we use the different names that they go by. It happens.”
“Right,” Soave replied. “If somebody goes, ‘Well, who’s that?’ I’ll go, ‘Well, they used to be X.’ I would fill them in. But you can’t do that on social media because of this policy.”
Iversen asked, “Did you get banned from calling [the late musician] Prince ‘Prince’ when he changed his name to ‘Assemble’?”
Olurin answered, “It’s not the same. We are comparing apples and vegetables.”
When Iversen asked why it wasn’t the same, Olurin said, “Because it’s a trans person. The name, the deadname, reflects an identity, a person they do not recognize. They find it psychologically harmful to be seen that way. They have moved on.”
Iversen replied, “Well maybe Prince had moved on too. I mean, maybe he felt like being called ‘Prince’ too was dehumanizing.”
Visibly frustrated, Olurin waved her hands at the camera and said, “Go ahead. Go forth. Go forth smartly.”
Hedges continues: “It is not a rally to denounce the rights of the LGBTQ community, which have been attacked by at least one of the speakers. It is a rally to end permanent war.”
And then comes Hedges’ melodramatic punchline: “Should these right-wing participants organize around other issues, I will be on the other side of the barricades.”
Using the word “Should” implies that there is some question about the intentions and policies of Hedges’ right-wing allies. In fact, the rally is being used by the political right to advance its reactionary agenda, and Hedges, despite his apologies, is serving their interests.
Moreover, it is entirely unclear when and under what political circumstances Hedges will decide to end the amnesty, break with the fascists and move to “the other side of the barricades.” The amnesty has no apparent expiration date.
Hedges writes: “We will not topple corporate power and the war machine alone. There has to be a left-right coalition, which will include people whose opinions are not only unpalatable but even repugnant, or we will remain marginalized and ineffectual. This is a fact of political life.”
What Hedges is clearly advocating is not a short-term tactic (which would be bad enough) but a long-term strategic alliance with the fascists. He explicitly declares that it is not possible to “topple corporate power and the war machine” without a “left-right coalition.”
There is a history to the promotion of such reactionary alliances with the extreme right. The most notorious example was the German Stalinists’ promotion, in the years prior to Hitler’s accession to power, of a “Red-Brown” coalition against the Weimar regime.
And what does Hedges attempt to achieve by sharing a platform with the right wing? In pursuit of what bold action plan is Hedges justifying collaboration with these reactionary forces?
He quotes from an email he received from another disoriented liberal endorsing the rally: “Because we urgently need as many voices as possible, from a broad variety of perspectives, to speak out so we can be much more effective at pressuring Congress and the White House to move this conflict from the bloody battlefield to the negotiating table.”
As is always the case, the most grotesque opportunism is employed in the service of the most pathetic and cowardly reformism. The “toppling of corporate power” will be achieved by begging the White House to see the error of its ways.
Thursday, February 16, 2023