Five media giants joined the U.S. government last week in paying maligned Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee $1.6 million while once again denying any serious culpability in his totally unjustified and extremely harsh incarceration. Hiding behind their “bond” with government sources, the media companies continue to protect officials who broke the law in leaking highly classified information to defame an individual, as they have more recently in the Valerie Plame case.

In the now infamous racial profiling of Lee, the media was in cahoots with government leakers, who were bizarrely determined to prove that Lee was a dangerous spy whose freedom would profoundly jeopardize national security. Amid this manufactured hysteria, a frail, middle-aged Lee was forced to spend nine months in solitary confinement — chained even in meetings with his attorneys, and under 24-hour video surveillance, during his every private moment –because the government claimed that if he were released on bond the lives of “hundreds of millions of Americans” would be endangered.

That lurid claim was made possible by a public atmosphere poisoned by shoddy reporting — particularly that of The New York Times, which splashed this headline across its front page: “Breach at Los Alamos: A special report; China Stole Nuclear Secrets for Bombs, U.S. Aides Say.” The story claimed that “Working with nuclear secrets stolen from an American government laboratory, China has made a leap in the development of nuclear weapons: the miniaturization of its bombs, according to administration officials.”

Those officials were lying to the Times then as they were days later when Lee was named as the culprit in the case. Lee was never charged with spying for China or any other government, and 58 of the 59 charges against him were dropped when the Clinton Justice Department eventually settled for time served on one minor charge of improperly handling classified information. While the Times and the other news organizations that uncritically conveyed the “administration officials” falsehoods failed to apologize to Lee, the Reagan-appointed judge who heard the government’s pathetic case had the decency to do just that.

“I sincerely apologize to you, Dr. Lee, for the unfair manner [in which] you were held in custody by the executive branch,” Judge James Parker said at the time. Taking note of the “demeaning, unnecessarily punitive conditions” governing Lee’s incarceration, Parker added that he was “sad and troubled because I do not know the real reasons why the executive branch has done all of this.” Parker, who had surveyed the classified data behind the government’s case, went on to blast “the top decision-makers in the executive branch” who, he said, “have embarrassed our entire nation and each of us who is a citizen of it.”

The most important of those officials was, of course, President Clinton, who had the power to stop this travesty at any time and later conceded the entire case was a farce and likened the media’s role in the Lee case to its Whitewater coverage.

Yet while the main responsibility lay with the president, as Judge Parker pointed out — “The executive branch has enormous power, the abuse of which can be devastating to our citizens” — so, too, does it lay with the members of the fourth estate, whose power as a check on government excess is enshrined in the Constitution. When that power is uncritically put at the service of rogue government agents, the devastating effect on the abused citizen is more than doubled.

In a post-settlement statement, the five media outlets — the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, ABC, AP and The New York Times — claimed they paid Lee only to protect their sources. But those government sources broke the law, and the news organizations covered for them, rather than covering the important news of “government officials” who, acting on their own political agendas, decided to selectively leak highly classified information to smear a scientist who was innocent of the crimes they claimed. The “bond” of the media with its sources was in fact a bond with government witch hunters willing to destroy a loyal American citizen — a man who had devoted his working life to this nation’s military security — in order to renew the Cold War with China.

It is insulting to the spirit of the First Amendment to regard concealing that abuse of governmental power as a sacred duty of the media. There is nothing noble about the media joining the government in paying a bribe to a financially strapped and emotionally exhausted Lee to prevent exposure of the true criminals in this case. It is rather an abrogation of the journalists’ prime duty to expose official malfeasance.

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