Roasting The Times' Tim Weiner
by Clay Waters

Something's amiss at the New York Times.

Reporter Jeff Gerth laid out in a May 23 story the convoluted series of events leading up to the release of the Cox Committee report on Chinese espionage. No surprise there; Gerth has broken several parts of the Chinese espionage story.

The element that didn't fit was the piece's coauthor, Tim Weiner, the Times' longtime national security reporter who recently left that beat for the Hill.

Unlike Gerth or James Risen, the Times' new national security reporter, Weiner has yet to break a Chinese espionage story. He did, however, make a comment on the Chinese espionage story last March, after reports of espionage from Los Alamos came out. It's a piece which should make Times readers glad Weiner is now off the national security beat.

Confronted with the familiar charge of an executive branch withholding foreign policy information from Congress (a sin he excoriated when it involved Oliver North and Ronald Reagan) Weiner picked up on the story-and dismissed it as conservative paranoia. "Grow up, America. Stop acting shocked to discover spies in the global Casbah. The world these days is driven by money, not ideology."

Quite a change from a reporter who, in the late 80s, in free-lance articles for liberal magazines Rolling Stone and Mother Jones, passionately decried the Reagan administration was undermining democracy from within with covert action and paranoid militarism. Yet a Chinese Communist spy within the Clinton administration's Energy Department is a silly thing to be concerned about?

A quote from a 1990 Rolling Stone article on the CIA encapsulates his worldview: "[President] Bush loves secret intelligence like a kid loves Nintendo." 

Weiner's enmity toward conservative policies extends to defense spending. Recently he fretted that "the Pentagon already takes more than half of the money Congress spends, excluding mandatory programs like Social Security, Medicare and interest on the national debt."

This sounds high, but only because of Weiner's odd formulation. Some 70 percent of fiscal year 2000 outlays will go to mandatory spending programs like Social Security and Medicare. Of the rest, around half will indeed go to national defense.

But writing "The Pentagon takes about 15 percent of the money Congress spends" would not have had Weiner's anti-defense effect.

Wiener has a particular grudge against the B2 "Stealth" Bomber. In "Blank Check," his 1990 book on the Pentagon's secret weapons budget, he termed it "an act of folly" and said "the secret that has surrounded it is a real threat to the nation, a danger now greater than the communist menace the bomber was built to destroy." Hysterical.

In addition, "it almost certainly will never be used in combat unless a full-tilt nuclear war erupts." Wrong--it has in fact seen limited action over Yugoslavia.

Since "Blank Check" was written, control of Congress and the Presidency has flip-flopped. Weiner's point of view has undergone a similar reverse. He has become much more accepting of presidential secrecy prerogatives, and quite dismissive of Congressional attempts of oversight.

Despite ample raw material from Clinton foreign policy scandals at hand, Weiner's last "scoop" (quickly debunked) involved allegations against the Strategic Defense Initiative which dated back to 1984, the Reagan era. On two occasions he's made the same false claim about the Strategic Defense Initiative. Both articles concerned the Homing Overlay Experiment, a test of SDI's primary goal--to hit a missile with another missile.

In 1993 his front page story charged that "officials in the 'Star Wars' project rigged a crucial 1984 test and faked other data in a program that misled Congress as well as the intended target, the Soviet Union."     The late Les Aspin, Clinton's Secretary of Defense, concluded "the experiment was not rigged and, in fact, could not be rigged by the presence of the radar beacon." Yet Weiner repeated the story in the summer of 1994.

Weiner's treatment of two Senate hearings also showed off his double standard. While in both cases the allegation of lying to Congress was on the table, his treatment of Oliver North and Anthony Lake were markedly different.

"Blank Check" excoriated North's justification of his mission to win freedom for hostages held in Iran, a covert action that led to the Iran-Contra hearings. "No one in the Reagan administration told Congress about the...arms sales to Iran or the weapons shipments to the Contras. The failures to notify Congress were flagrant violations of law. The law governing Congressional notification of covert action--the 1980 Intelligence Oversight Act--explicitly covers every agency in the government."  

Back then, Weiner claimed this failure to notify Congress served to "sever constitutional and legal control of covert action."

But his tone changed at the 1997 Senate confirmation hearings for Lake, Clinton's liberal nominee to head the CIA. Foreign policy secrets in the executive branch were suddenly ho-hum.

Instead, Weiner went after Republicans for asking Lake about the Clinton administration's secret approval of Iranian arm shipments to the Bosnian Muslims--specifically, Lake's actions as Clinton's national security adviser.

Weiner portrayed Lake as a stand-up guy unfairly forced to defend himself against "accusations by House Republicans that Mr. Lake was 'lying' about the administration's tacit approval of Iranian arm shipments to Bosnia's Muslims. Mr. Lake did not notify Congress about the decision. He arguably did not have to, but now concedes he should have." So much for notifying Congress about covert action.

Weiner was even more of a cheerleader during the 1993 Senate hearings for Morton Halperin, Clinton's choice for assistant secretary of Defense for Democracy and Peacekeeping.

"While Mr. Halperin's opponents have excerpted his publishing writing and public testimony to suggest that he is a dangerous leftist," Weiner wrote, "a close study shows that those statements are either demonstrably false of based on statements wrenched from their contexts."

The unshaven ghost of Sen. Joe McCarthy pops up, on cue, as Weiner reports that Halperin's supporters are afraid the same "false accusations of Communist subversion [which] set off witch hunts in the 1950's" are now "haunting the Senate."

Yet as the Center for Security Policy discovered, Halperin was hardly the "odd target for conservative rage" Weiner claimed he was. Halperin wrote in a 1979 issue of the left-wing Nation magazine that "every action which the Soviet Union and Cuba have taken in Africa has been consistent with the principles of international law."

Near the end of his commentary on Chinese espionage, Weiner soothes our paranoia. "If the Chinese did indeed steal the trick of miniaturizing nuclear weapons from Los Alamos...there is no evidence yet that they have figured out how to deploy that force in a way that alters the strategic balance with the United States."

Weiner says there's nothing to worry about. Considering his track record, should you feel safer?

Clay Waters is an associate opinion editor for Bridge News, a financial news service in New York City. He was formerly with the Media Research Center in Alexandria, Va.