Who Makes or Breaks a Scandal?

The Cox Report vs. The Iran-Contra Report

3. News Analysis B: Obscure the findings as unproven or trumped-up

The Iran-Contra report spurred a round of media lectures casting grave doubts on the Reagan administration’s truthfulness and respect for the law. But these same networks downplayed the Cox Report, suggesting the strategic picture after these espionage losses was far too murky for grand conclusions, and labored to avoid judgment on the Clinton administration’s competence or truthfulness.

There would be no lectures about the President’s meddling in a criminal investigation of two defense contractors, one of whom was headed by a major Democratic donor. None of the reports rained criticism on the administration’s slow response to evidence of espionage, or the President’s dishonest denials that he had been told about espionage on his watch. Instead, some reporters dismissed the report as overblown and under-documented.

On the May 27 CBS Evening News, reporter Eric Engberg’s "Reality Check" implied that the Cox committee findings were far too incomplete to be taken seriously: "As the release of the Cox Report again demonstrated Washington’s love of a good spy story, the consensus gelled: Chinese agents have stolen something. But after that many of the report’s scary findings are open to question. Were actual weapons plans among the purloined secrets? The report takes the worst case view: Probably. But a blue ribbon panel of outside experts advising the CIA looked at the same question and decided there is just no way to know. The same group concluded the Chinese spying ‘has not resulted in any apparent modernization of their deployed strategic force or any new nuclear weapons deployment.’"

Engberg added: "Did the Chinese steal the key to building a neutron bomb? Cox talks darkly about a theft, but like all the spy talk it’s pretty murky." He concluded: "The Cox Report says China uncovered the secrets of seven U.S. nuclear warheads, but the intelligence evidence is unclear. It may be as low as four, two of which are obsolete. Amidst all the voices raised in alarm there is a bottom line: Unlike many of the things in the Cox Report there's no argument here. Number of strategic nuclear weapons? U.S.: six thousand, China: less than two dozen."

This is the same reporter who appeared on November 18, 1987 to address the "unanswered questions" of the Iran-Contra report, not to critique the report, but to attack an administration that threatened to create "a private government beyond the reach of due process." On May 4, 1989, Engberg was in a familiar lecturing mode on Oliver North’s Iran-Contra trial. Dan Rather announced that Engberg "has investigated the use of secrecy, lying and deception as instruments of ideology and policy." Engberg sermonized: "Once secrecy is embraced, rather than public debate and compromise, the freewheeling covert operators can do as they wish because an invisible policy can’t be questions....But secrecy leads to deception...deception leads to lies. Lies tear apart the rule of law." He then asked: "Could it happen again? Scholars say yes, until Presidents accept the need to compromise with Congress."

Koppel’s Contrast. Unlike Engberg’s report, ABC Nightline host Ted Koppel’s programs have included some worried talking heads. (CIA counter-intelligence specialist Paul Redmond compared this case to the Rosenbergs.) Koppel has offered a few tough questions. (He asked National Security Adviser Sandy Berger about the dramatic increase in foreign scientists at the nuclear labs.) But Koppel has offered very few shows on Chinagate, and their tone has been mostly dismissive.

Although the first of the New York Times stories on missile technology losses appeared on April 15, 1998, Koppel introduced his first show on June 3, 1998 with this disclaimer: "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."

Since the latest set of stories erupted in The New York Times on March 6, through July 2, Nightline has devoted 48 of 85 shows to the war in Kosovo, but produced just three shows that dealt with Chinagate. On March 12, Koppel explained some of the allegations, then warned: "It all seems to fit so perfectly, especially when you consider the additional charge that the administration told an intelligence official at the Department of Energy not to share what he knew with Congress. There is probably plenty of incompetence and partisanship to go around, but it is not quite as clear-cut as it may seem."

Koppel dropped the matter until ten weeks later. The night the Cox Report came out, Koppel did not begin by scrutinizing the administration, but by deploring the diplomatic state of affairs: "There is, these days, a certain pouting sullen quality to Sino-American relations in which each side is playing to its home crowd. The Chinese should know that NATO planners and pilots never intended to bomb their embassy in Belgrade, but they’ve deliberately been acting as though they knew it was intentional. We, on the other hand, are shocked to learn that the Chinese have been stealing every military secret of ours that they can lay their hands on. We might more appropriately be shocked were we to discover that the United States is not doing everything it can to steal Chinese military secrets."

Koppel and Bury deplored the scandal’s political effects. Bury concluded one report: "Now that the highly damaging report is finally out, the administration is on the defensive, of course, and Republicans on the attack. Once again, much of Washington is engaging in one of its favorite rituals, the search for someone, anyone, to blame." After a commercial break, Koppel added: "The Cox Report makes clear that China’s spying on US nuclear secrets occurred during the watch of two Democratic and two Republican Presidents. You’d think that might cut down on the political opportunism. Think again."

On June 28, Nightline devoted a half-hour, not to exploring the veracity of the espionage charges, but how Asian-Americans are discriminated against thanks to the scandal. The Nightline Web site described the show: "It’s not a great time to be Asian-American in the United States. So often, it seems, the face of wrongdoing, the face of evil, has been Asian."

But on Iran-Contra...

On November 17, 1987, the night before the Iran-Contra report’s release, Koppel started the media chorus in putting the onus of blame on Ronald Reagan: "From the public genesis of the Iran-Contra affair — when Attorney General Meese announced that U.S. weapons had been sold to Iran, and the profits from those arms sales had been diverted to the Nicaragan contras — from the beginning, the central question has been that echo from Watergate: how much did the President know and when did he know it? Tomorrow, the congressional Iran-Contra committtees release their findings, apparently without any conclusive answer to that question. But early leaks, and what would Washington be without leaks of one kind or another, suggest that the majority findings are not kind to President Reagan. Reportedly, one conclusion is that the President may indeed have been aware of possibly illegal diversions, and if he didn’t know, then he should have. If that sounds rather familiar, even stale, it has nevertheless enraged a number of Republican Congressmen and Senators, who have issued a dissenting report."

Later in that show, Koppel shared his puzzlement with then-Rep. Dick Cheney about why Republicans would dissent from a report that charged a cabal of Republican zealots had no respect for the law or the Constitution: "To begin with, Congressman, I’m not so sure that I understand what it is you object to so violently. Basically, it sounds to me — and I haven’t seen the majority report, you have — as though the committees have come up with fundamentally the same conclusion as the Tower Report reached, namely that the President was disengaged."

Koppel tried to get Cheney to agree "that there were a number of people who were making end runs around the Constitution, and that the President was disengaged, and then add one third element, namely, that the President should not have been disengaged and should not have permitted his senior staff to be making those end runs, don’t we then come a little closer to what the majority report seems to be saying?"

In the past two years, Koppel hasn’t been in the habit of asking questions about whether President Clinton has been disengaged, or whether he was involved.