lawsuit charged that federal officials had smeared his
name and reputation by leaking information to the media
that he was being investigated as a spy for Communist China.
However, the government case against Lee was badly mishandled
and it could not prove any of those charges. That is why
Lee was only charged with mishandling classified information.
That, however, was a felony.
his lawyers wanted to find out who in the government had
leaked derogatory information to the media about him. Federal
judges had held five reporters in contempt for their refusal
to name their sources for their stories about the government's
investigation of Lee. With a media shield law in place,
those reporters could have protected their sources who
damaged Lee and could have avoided paying him off.
began in 1995 when Notra Trulock, then director of intelligence
at the Department of Energy, discovered a document that
indicated that the Chinese had come in possession of information
about the so-called W-88, our most highly classified nuclear
weapon. It turned out, according to the findings of a select
committee in 1998, chaired by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.),
that China "has stolen classified design information on
the United States' most advanced thermonuclear weapons.
These thefts of nuclear secrets from our national weapons
laboratories enabled the People's Republic of China (PRC)
to design, develop, and successfully test modern strategic
nuclear weapons sooner than would otherwise have been possible.
The stolen U.S. nuclear secrets give the PRC design information
on thermonuclear weapons on a par with our own." This finding
was unanimous by a committee of five Republicans and four
Democrats. Their other main finding was that the Clinton
administration had been far too lax on security matters
regarding such highly classified secrets.
who later worked at Accuracy in Media as associate editor,
tried for four years to get the attention of various government
agencies and officials to investigate Chinese espionage.
Lee, one of the initial suspects, was indicted on 59 felony
counts, and held in solitary confinement for nine months.
He was later released after pleading guilty to the one
the recent settlement, Michael Kinsley of Slate.com wrote
a column using
the Lee case as a stepping-off point to argue for a federal
shield law, which he calls "a good idea—but only if it
clarifies the situations where reporters do have an obligation
to society that outweighs their obligations to sources." That
seems like a reasonable position, but he makes a significant
factual error. He said that Lee "copped a plea to a trivial
offense." In fact, the one felony that Lee pleaded guilty
to was for downloading the equivalent of 400,000 pages
of classified information on tapes. He was also known to
have made trips to China around that time. And as part
of his plea, he agreed to cooperate with the investigation
and lead them to the tapes. But he never did.
was badly handled by the government, but the media performed
terribly as well. Lee, however, took advantage of the misconduct
by the government and the press, coming out of this debacle
a rich man.
victim in the case is Trulock, recognized as a national
hero at the time for trying to interest the government
and the press in a Chinese espionage scandal involving
our national labs that we still don't have all the facts
about. At one point, Trulock became the target when his
apartment was ransacked by the FBI and agents stole his
computer. We later learned that the FBI had been effectively
penetrated by Chinese intelligence.
matter of paying off victims of the media, CNN refused
to participate in the settlement with Lee. CNN said it
had "a philosophical disagreement" with the idea of paying
off a subject of a story to avoid a subpoena.
Lee case is not the only one. The Post reported
on comments by Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which offers
legal advice to reporters and media organizations. "Such
a settlement, she said, potentially exposes the news media
in other Privacy Act lawsuits, such as one brought by Steven
J. Hatfill, a federal employee who sued the government
after he was identified in news media accounts as 'a person
of interest' in the 2001 anthrax poisonings. 'I'm very
troubled by the results,' Dalglish said, 'but I'm not sure
I could have negotiated anything better.'"
case is ongoing, and we have written about it extensively.
He has sued the government and the media in an effort to
determine who in the government smeared his good name and
falsely linked him to the anthrax murders. We hope he wins
the implications of paying off media victims to avoid disclosing
sources, the Los Angeles Times has seized on the
Lee case to
call for a federal media shield law. The paper argues
that the slippery slope of paying off subjects of other
stories based on confidential sources can be avoided by
passage of a federal shield law. Such an approach would
give the media legal protection when its reporting is under
fire and sources could be exposed in legal proceedings.
Accuracy In Media editor, Cliff Kincaid, has effectively
identified the problems faced when trying to codify
such rules and definitions. Would news organizations that
are fronts for terrorist organizations be included? How
about bloggers? What about cases, like that of Hatfill,
when the media's "sources" are government officials who
smear and destroy the lives of innocent people? Shouldn't
they be exposed and held accountable?
all of the attention to the Lee matter, such cases are
rare. And in the case of Lee, as well as Hatfill, there
was clear evidence of media misconduct that should not
have been excused or covered up.
shield law would reward irresponsible media behavior and
prevent victims of the media from having their day in court CRO