Coming soon: red scare II

May 26, 1999|By Sandy Grady

WASHINGTON -- Ready for Cold War II? Will the ghosts of the 1950s dance again? Bring back Joe McCarthy with his lists of Commies infesting the government?

That's the danger with the release of Rep. Christopher Cox' panel's 700-page report damning China for stealing U.S. nuclear secrets. Will we sink again into the paranoia, suspicion and hysteria of the red scare era? Probably, yes. You can pick up the political drumbeat: "Who gave away the lost nuclear missile secrets?"

And hear a fresh hunt for scapegoats, that dreary charade of the McCarthy years. Tailgunner Joe would feel at home in 1999. Not to sneer at the Cox report. It's as scary as advertised -- the Los Alamo labs an open cafeteria for nuclear secrets, two U.S. satellite manufacturers, Loral Corp. and Hughes Electronics, dishing out rocket technology, 3,000 Chinese-front companies digging nuclear data, China copying our deadliest W-88 warhead.

A real scandal

Even in Washington, where scandals are a fun-and-games pageant, this one's serious. The Lewinsky operetta was sexual titillation. The China nuke heist is real: One was about thongs and cigars, the other about incinerating U.S. cities.

You can believe straight-shooter Mr. Cox, a California Republican, when he says, "The spying is stark and grave -- and continues to this very day."

Give credit to his panel of five Republicans and four Democrats for buttoning up the report in a leak-crazed town. "We made a pact not to let out information," said Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican.

In truth, they got lucky. In October, they casually asked ex-Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld about China modernizing its nuke arsenal. "That's secret," he snapped. CIA boss George Tenet unlocked the archives. "We opened a door and walked into a room of amazing stuff," said Porter Goss, a Florida Republican.

Inevitably, lynching posses will form to string up Guys in the Black Hats, the blunderers who allowed China to pull off its nuke theft.

Long-running saga

Never mind that the Cox report says Chinese spying was rampant through the Carter, Reagan and Bush years. The Clinton team is the target of choice. Rightly so, if it ineptly shrugged off the China threat.

The honor of playing scapegoat No. 1 fell to Attorney General Janet Reno. She's a walk-on in the Cox report. But Republicans who had howled for her scalp for seven years had a tomahawk. "She oughta go now," thundered Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican. Even ally Sen. Robert Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, suggested that Mr. Clinton talk to Ms. Reno about an exit.

Ms. Reno's sin? The Justice Department wouldn't OK a wiretap on suspected Los Alamos spy Wen Ho Lee. (The FBI admits it had no evidence of Mr. Lee's espionage. Mysteriously, after months of media hyping Mr. Lee as master Chinese spymaster, he hasn't even been charged with jaywalking.)

This smacks of '50s red scare dottiness. Tagging Ms. Reno as villainess behind the spy scam is like blaming the Johnstown flood on a leaky toilet in Altoona.

Her boss may be more culpable of mishandling the China heist -- at least fibbing to duck the taint. Mr. Clinton on March 19 denied any spying at nuclear labs during his presidency -- "and no one has reported to me such a thing occurred." Both untrue.

Was Mr. Clinton so distracted by independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation that he brushed off the nuclear thefts? Foreign adviser Sandy Berger recalls warning Mr. Clinton last year that China was swiping secrets. But all Clinton players are ducking for tornado shelters. "Nobody briefed me," says Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

It's not reassuring that poobahs running the Balkan war were out of the loop when China stole the Los Alamos door keys.

Breath deeply

There will be no heroes in this fiasco. But Energy Secretary Bill Richardson deserves honor for tightening the labs' security. Smartest move since he refused to hire Monica Lewinsky. Before red scare hysteria explodes, a deep breath. Sure, China spies. So do we. High-tech giveaways by U.S. rocket companies were scandalous.

There will be 10 congressional committees looking for folks who were soft on China. "Knowing it was going on and doing nothing, man, that doesn't cut it. I'm going to find who's at fault," bellowed Sen. Robert Smith, a New Hampshire Republican, demanding a Senate-House probe.

That's proper -- but not if it spins into a witch hunt for villains. The China nuke heist could plunge us again into fear, xenophobia and anti-Commie pathology of the McCarthyite nuttiness. At least in the '50s we had Dwight Eisenhower's steady calm.

If you see another Ike out there, let me know.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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