Two months after The New York Times broke the first story and fourteen weeknights after the May 15 China connection story broke in the same paper, ABC's Nightline finally got to it - but with a major dose of skepticism. (It could be worse: it took Koppel 668 days from the first New York Times scoop to do his first show on Whitewater.) Ted Koppel began June 3 by noting he was driving in to work listening to Rush Limbaugh:
"He's a smart fellow and I enjoy the program, although sometimes Rush leaps to what may seem like an obvious conclusion before all the facts are in. He's not alone, mind you, a significant majority in the House of Representatives may have done the same thing. They have concluded that the Clinton Administration could have contributed to improvements in Chinese missile technology by letting the Commerce Department approve technological transfers that would have been opposed by State or Defense."
Koppel added: "It has the potential of being a terrific conspiracy story. Several members of Congress, including Speaker Gingrich, have called on President Clinton not to go to China this month as planned until he answers to Congress. But the story may not have the additional advantage of being true."
Koppel went to reporter Chris Bury, who began by contending: "For all the sound and fury here in Washington, no concrete evidence has yet emerged to support the two most damaging allegations. It is not certain any classified missile technology was transferred to China. And no one has produced any proof that President Clinton changed policy because of campaign contributions." But when the foreign-policy scandal was Republican, Koppel didn't cast doubt on a "conspiracy story," even if it later turned out not to be true.
Take "Iraqgate." On October 28, 1992, Koppel declared that 18 months of searching had revealed a series of "legal and illegal technology transfers" to Iraq. Koppel cited polls showing most didn't believe George Bush's Iraqgate expla-nations, but it didn't change the presidential race: "So why raise it yet again? Precisely because the President's denials have been so emphatic, while the evidence contradicting those denials keeps mounting. We felt we should present it....one more time."
Back then, Koppel forcefully alleged the export of dual-use technology was carelessly approved by the Commerce Department: "There was an ongoing battle between the Commerce Department, which was promoting the sale of U.S. technology, and the Defense Department, which was trying to prevent the transfer of defense technology that was potentially dangerous." Ex-Pentagon official Stephen Bryen told Koppel U.S. technology was going into Iraqi missile development.
Koppel concluded with Sens. David Boren and Patrick Leahy charging a Bush coverup. Koppel added: "It is easy enough given the political season to dismiss charges of a coverup coming as they do from two Democratic Senators as purely partisan. As I told you at the beginning of the broadcast, though, a number of serious news organizations have been pursuing [the Italian bank] BNL and the Iraqgate story for almost two years. And in a campaign where trust has been made into such a central theme, this story is no trivial issue." But one of the candidates then was Bill Clinton. Where is Ted's serious news instinct now that a familiar shoe is on the other foot? - Tim Graham