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Jewish World Review May 20, 1999 /5 Sivan 5759

David Corn

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IT WAS PREDICTABLE. Right after NATO warplanes mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and killed two Chinese journalists, the friends of the CIA cried out that this intelligence screwup was proof the CIA was underfunded and demanded more bucks for the intelligence agency.

Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Porter Goss, a Florida Republican who runs the House Intelligence Committee, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, a Republican who oversees the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Democrat who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, each shouted for more funds for the spies. Former CIA chief Robert Gates cited budget cuts at the CIA as the culprit in the embassy attack.

Usually when a government agency commits an idiotic error, Congress threatens its budget and call for the heads of those responsible for the foul-up. But not when the CIA is concerned. As far as the public knows, no one has been disciplined for the bombing that killed Chinese bystanders and sparked a flare-up in China-U.S. relations—no one at the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which provided the outdated maps; no one at the CIA, where analysts misidentified the target.

(And neither, it seems, has anyone been called to task for an earlier mistake: NATO bombed a civilian convoy of refugees and initially claimed it possessed information showing that the Serbs had committed the attack.)

As with many other episodes of CIA bumbling—such as the Aldrich Ames spy case—the agency and its defenders are reluctant to punish incompetence. In this instance, the CIA is to be rewarded with more cash.

Prior to the Chinese embassy fiasco, the Clinton administration had asked for an increase of 9 percent in the intelligence budget. And a few weeks ago, the House Intelligence Committee added less than 1 percent to that request. As an Associated Press report noted, at that time Goss said he was satisfied with the level of intelligence spending. Yet after the embassy bombing, Goss groused about the “under-investment in our intelligence capabilities.”

The CIA’s assets on Capitol Hill quickly came to the agency’s rescue following the embassy attack. But will they accept the agency’s conclusions on Chinese nuclear espionage? On April 21, the agency released the key findings of a damage assessment conducted jointly by the CIA, the Pentagon, the Energy Dept., the FBI, the National Security Agency and other intelligence outfits and reviewed by an outside panel of weapons and national security experts.

The study was produced in response to a recommendation of the Cox Committee, which had probed Chinese attempts to steal U.S. nuclear secrets. In recent weeks, Hill Republicans, including Sen. Shelby, have been yelping about Chinese attempts to penetrate U.S. nuclear research labs. Columnist William Safire and others have declared their alarm and accused the Clinton administration of doing little to thwart such thievery while pocketing campaign money that originated in China.

The independently reviewed CIA assessment takes a more measured view. Sure, it says, Beijing has tried to swipe classified nuclear weapons information and that information probably helped China accelerate its weapons development program. But, it adds, “China’s technical advances have been made on the basis of classified and unclassified information derived from espionage, contact with U.S. and other countries’ scientists, conferences and publications, unauthorized media disclosures, declassified U.S. weapons information, and Chinese indigenous development. The relative contribution of each cannot be determined.” That is, no one knows if Chinese espionage has made any difference. The assessment also notes that the aim of the Chinese nuclear program is to “maintain a second strike capability.” That means Beijing wants to be able to withstand a nuclear attack and then strike back, not to launch first. To those Republicans who fret about a Chinese nuclear attack and call for a ballistic missile defense, the report contains reassuring information: “Significant deficiencies remain in the Chinese weapon program... To date, the aggressive Chinese collection effort has not resulted in any apparent modernization of their deployed strategic force or any new nuclear weapons deployment.” The damage assessment reports that even though China has the technical capability to develop multiple warhead nuclear missiles for its largest ballistic missiles, it has not done so.

Perhaps the CIA and the outside experts are blowing smoke to cover up the conspiracy in which Clinton pockets Chinese campaign cash and allows Beijing’s agents to rifle top-secret filing cabinets. But, taken at face value, this report counters the Chinese espionage hysteria. If the CIA hawks are going to throw taxpayer dollars at the spies, then they at least ought to pay attention to the agency’s conclusions.


Alone Again


In the past few weeks, I’ve seen a ghost. More than once. I’ve sighted this wraith walking about Capitol Hill by himself, carrying his own briefcase. I’ve spotted this apparition on the platform at the Metro stop beneath Union Station, standing alone, waiting for a train, talking to no one. There was life in his eyes, but the once-familiar twinkle was gone. This specter was Newt Gingrich.

I assume that on these occasions he was on his way to his new post as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute across town. My office is in the building where Gingrich and his wife Marianne maintain their Washington apartment. During his time as House Speaker, I often saw him striding in and out, in a hurry, accompanied by aides and Capitol Hill police. There frequently was a limo or police vehicle waiting, even when his destination was merely the Capitol two blocks away.

(Once I picked up a piece of litter from the lobby floor and discovered a postcard reminder sent to Gingrich. It was from the Nielsen television rating services. Egads! Gingrich and his wife were a Nielsen family. Their viewing habits were helping to determine the popularity of television shows.)

Now the accouterments of power are gone and Gingrich has the time—the cruelest of insults!—to stroll to the subway and ride the train.

During one shared and brief elevator ride, I asked not about his new pedestrian habits but how he has been enjoying life in the political hereafter. He shrugged and said, “It’s not so bad. I’m traveling, making speeches, learning some things.” He seemed a smaller version of his old self. Feeling a twinge of sympathy, I muttered, “Well, there’s not much to miss these days, is there?” He formed half a smile and left the elevator.

Not too long after this encounter, Gingrich made a speech to a GOP women’s group in Washington and blamed the Littleton shootings on 35 years of liberalism. Yes, the civil rights movement, the environmentalists, union organizers, the opponents of a constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration, and campaign finance reformers apparently are to be held accountable. The old Newt was back, and the speech was billed as Gingrich’s return to politics.

(First Coelho, and then Gingrich—it was a week of liability resurrection for each party.)

His remarks were a touch nostalgic. Remember the occasions when Gingrich said the Democrats were culpable for Woody Allen’s bizarre domestic behavior and the horrific crime of Susan Smith, the South Carolina mother who killed her own children?

It was wonderfully appropriate that on the same day he was accusing “the elite news media, the liberal academic elite, the liberal political elite” of bearing responsibility for the murders at Columbine High School, his Republican pals in the Senate were killing the most modest of gun control measures: a mandatory background check for people who purchase handguns at gun shows. The NRA squawked at this slightest of regulations, and the gun lobby’s Senate GOP parrots voted it down. The next day, after an outburst of outrage from the Clintonites and gun control advocates, the weasely Republicans reversed course. But while the GOP was slavishly following the NRA, Gingrich was whining about liberals. Some things never change.

The word in Washington is that Gingrich pockets up to $50,000 for each speech for which he is paid and that he has delivered about 40 addresses so far this year.

That’s nearly two million dollars—and counting—for rhetoric he couldn’t sell to the American electorate last year.


JWR contributor David Corn, Washington Editor of The Nation, writes the "Loyal Opposition" column for The New York Press.

Up

05/19/99: Meet the New Boss
05/14/99: A 37-Year Losing Streak
05/12/99: Funds Before Guns
05/07/99: Missing In Action
05/05/99: Gun Shy
04/30/99: A Flyover War
04/28/99: Darwin Made Me Do It
04/16/99: Spin to Sell
04/16/99: No Controlling Authority
04/16/99: Damage Done
04/14/99: No Left Churn
04/12/99: Clinton’s Policy Bombs
04/09/99: A Cuban Frost
04/05/99: Coups and Fibbers
03/31/99: The Flynt Fizzle
03/24/99: Liddy and St. Steve
03/19/99: Hope in Hollywood
03/12/99: Clinton: The Novel
03/08/99: A Tale of Two Clintons
03/04/99: ..and Dumber
03/01/99: Post-Mortem Ad Nauseam
02/25/99: What’s Next?


©1999, David Corn