MediaWatch: December 14, 1998

Vol. Twelve No. 22

20/20 Tackles Missilegate

Beginning in early April and cresting in May and June, The New York Times and other newspapers developed the story that Chinese companies were gaining access to sensitive missile technology through the weakening of export controls by the Clinton administration, which in turn took large contributions from software and satellite companies. Since April, ABC has aired only three stories, but the December 2 20/20 offered the best television story yet on how China is exploiting American business contacts in its quest for military modernization.

Reporter Chris Wallace explained: "Tonight, you’ll hear a story you’ve never heard before: how U.S. aerospace companies may have helped China build better rockets at the expense of America’s national security." Wallace asked Al Coates, a recently retired monitor of overseas launches: "As a routine matter, are American companies giving sensitive information to the Chinese?" Coates replied: "I believe they are." Wallace inquired: "What has the effect of all this been on U.S. national security?" Coates answered: "They have a better capability at striking us." Wallace replied: "You mean we’re less safe?" Coates: "We’re less safe."

Wallace explained: "Coates has been warning the government for years about what American companies have been doing in China. Last month, frustrated by the lack of response, Lieutenant Colonel Coates quit after 29 years in the Air Force. Tonight, he’s going public about the aerospace industry for the first time."

Coates told of constant problems with security lapses with Hughes Electronics, from being able to break into their Chinese plant to literally stopping meetings because too much technical information was being given away. ABC couldn’t get comment from Hughes, but did use footage of congressional hearings this summer where Hughes Chairman Michael Armstrong and Vice Chairman Steven Dorfman testified. Wallace explained that while candidate Clinton supported cutting back on Chinese satellite deals, "Over time, the White House made it easier than ever for satellite companies to do business in China. And guess who the President put in charge of his export advisory council? Hughes’ Michael Armstrong."