Spies and Character

April 30, 1999 - A.M. Rosenthal - The New York Times

How come they can do it right here in America and how come our Government does not take action when the crimes are discovered?

The woman next to me at dinner was asking the question all Americans should ask about China's continuous and successful nuclear espionage against the U.S. -- how come?

So far only one or two people have been named as suspected spies, who got hold of thousands of pages of American secret information on nuclear weapons -- one of the great espionage coups of our time.

But it is almost comical -- any belief that one or two men could find out exactly where the information was, what data to search for and in what priority, how to extract it from lab computers without getting caught, and the names and access codes of the companies in America that are fronts for the Chinese Government and Chinese Army.

Historians will be writing books about Beijing's counterparts to the Soviet spy rings in America, and the Cambridge treason crowd in Britain.

The Clinton Administration, which for years ignored early tips on the espionage, now stalls on releasing information gathered by a committee headed by Representative Christopher Cox of California. But I expect pretty soon the investigation teams of The Times and other papers will break the story of the spy rings plural and their contacts plural. Read the excellent article in the May issue of The American Spectator by Kenneth R. Timmerman, one of the experts read by other experts.

But still -- how come these made-in-China spies? The answers are essential not only to understanding the espionage case but the character -- the precise word -- of President Clinton's problems about other critical realities, from Lewinsky to Kosovo.

For almost all its time in office the Administration has preached and practiced a policy toward the Chinese Government that he had denounced before he was elected the first time but soon adopted, widened and made more dangerous to American interests and ideals.

The policy is that the only way to get China to behave itself, and not do nasty things like engaging in nuclear espionage and torturing political and religious prisoners, is to build up U.S.-China trade. Like his American business mentors and our foreign allies, the President calls it the policy of engagement.

It is, it is -- engagement with China's Communist Politburo, not with the Chinese people.

The Administration uses an old trick to fight American people and organizations who still want what he supported before assorted C.E.O.'s and political donors got to him -- the use of economic leverage to squeeze human rights concessions out of the Politburo. Mr. Clinton falsely accuses them of the fatal weakness of his own policy -- playing only one note on his saxophone.

When the Chinese take the trade money and tell the world to get lost about human rights, or go in for nuclear espionage in America, the President has a choice. He can remain a prisoner of Beijing by insisting he is right. Or, he can break out of his cage by admitting error and returning to the mixture of realism and idealism he had promised Americans, to get the votes of those who cared.

But somehow I doubt he will ever do that. I think he really believes that evasion, falsehood, stonewalling, listening to the music of the cash register and not of the soul, stalling -- about Monica or about espionage -- are the instruments of government and the path of self-preservation. I suppose they are, for him.

They worked to save him from impeachment. They were useful in helping Americans forget the promise he once spoke into my own little ears -- not to send troops to Bosnia.

They are not quite working to save him from world realization that neither he nor the other NATO brains ever thought that Slobodan Milosevic would be so crass as to use NATO bombing as the right moment to drive out the Albanians, turning the war into a disaster for Albanians, NATO, Americans and Serbs who positioned themselves under the bombs.

He will not change his character, nor the fact that character of a President determines character of Presidential policy. He has not yet said that espionage by his Chinese captors is good for America. But he has a year and a half of Presidential time left to figure how to break the news.

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