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Secrecy & Government Bulletin

Issue Number 79
June 1999

The Cox Committee and the Tsien Case

One of the scariest features of the Chinese espionage scandal is the corruption of language that has accompanied it. In the media, in Congress and in the May 25 report of the Cox Committee, exaggerations and falsehoods have been routinely presented as if they were demonstrable facts.

"The United States might as well have dumped its most sensitive defense secrets on Pennsylvania Avenue for Chinese spies to pick up," the New York Times wrote in a typically inflammatory editorial on May 16.

The Department of Energy bureaucracy "is so unworkable [that] it has allowed all our secrets-- all our secrets-- that we have spent billions of dollars on, to simply pass over to the Chinese," asserted Senator Frank Murkowski in a grotesque bit of posturing on the Senate floor May 27.

A particularly disturbing assault on consensual reality was committed by the Cox Committee in its discussion of the case of Tsien Hsue-Shen (volume 1, Chapter 4, p. 177 ff; rendered there as Qian Xuesen).

Tsien was a Chinese student who received a scholarship in 1935 to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He went on to become a world class aeronautics expert who did much to advance the state of the art in aerodynamics and rocketry. He was deported from the United States during the McCarthy era on suspicion of espionage-- an allegation that was disputed at the time and never proven. He subsequently became a leading figure in China's ballistic missile program.

In the Cox Committee's account, Tsien is presented insinuatingly as the prototype and patriarch of modern Chinese Communist espionage:

"If the U.S. Government is going to make serious accusations against a man who isn't here to defend himself, then they really should be prepared to back up their accusations with evidence," said Iris Chang, author of the book Thread of the Silkworm (Basic Books, 1995), the most thorough published account of the Tsien case.

"I'm not here to defend or accuse Tsien," Ms. Chang told S&GB on June 2. "I haven't ruled out the possibility that he was a spy. It's just that I would need to see more evidence to believe that he is, and that's what the U.S. Government has not provided." She noted that "In the 1950s, the government was not able to find any concrete evidence that Dr. Tsien was a spy, or even a communist."

Ms. Chang, whose book is cited several times in the Cox Committee report, said that she contacted the Committee to inquire "if there was any new evidence that had emerged" to support the allegations against Tsien and "they said that anything that wasn't in the footnote section of the report was probably classified and therefore I would have to take their word for it that the report was true."

But the Committee's "word" about Tsien is unreliable, judging from the numerous errors in the Cox Committee account.

For example, the assertion that Tsien worked on the Titan ICBM program is evidently in error since "the contract for the Titan I was not even let until October 1955," according to Mark Wade of the online Encyclopedia Astronautica. Tsien's security clearance had been revoked five years earlier, in June 1950, and he was deported from the United States in September 1955.

China's so-called Great Leap Forward, which took place in 1957-60, is said by the Cox Committee to have occurred in 1963 (p. 182).

These and numerous other errors in factual matters that can be easily checked cast doubt on those assertions of the Cox Committee that cannot be independently verified.

Nevertheless, the Committee's version of the Tsien case has now been propagated through the public domain via Time Magazine (June 7) and a wholly uncritical story in the Washington Times which repeatedly terms Tsien a "spy" without any qualification. ("Chinese Missiles Pioneered by Spy Educated in U.S.," by Bill Gertz, May 26).

"I think this is very irresponsible journalism," said Ms. Chang. "It's reminiscent of the kind of journalism about the Tsien case that came out during the McCarthy era."

Chinese Espionage and the New York Times

In a telling editorial error, the Cox Committee report on Chinese espionage included a footnoted reference to a news story by "Jeff Gertz" (volume I, page 256, footnote 32). This obviously conflates the names of Bill Gertz, national security reporter for the agenda-driven Washington Times, and Jeff Gerth, who has led the New York Times reporting on Chinese espionage.

It was an easy error to make. The New York Times coverage of Chinese espionage and related matters has been badly skewed, proving that you really can't believe everything you read, even when it's written by a Pulitzer Prize winner.

The Times produced more tendentious reporting and more unacknowledged errors concerning the Chinese theft of nuclear secrets than can be briefly summarized, but some notable examples included the following:

Everybody makes mistakes. But the Times' mistakes on the Chinese espionage story all tended to exaggerate the consequences of the last two decades of espionage and to inflate the Chinese threat. (And the Times has declined to acknowledge, correct, or run letters to the editor about its recurring bloopers.) This has dangerous consequences.

Senator Bob Kerrey noted on May 28 that the Cox Committee report "has left the impression that China is a bigger threat to the United States in terms of nuclear weapons than Russia is. Nothing can be further from the truth." As the leading outlet for unreflective reporting of allegations about Chinese espionage, the New York Times has left much the same impression. A May 29 Time-CNN public opinion poll found that 46 percent of Americans now consider China a serious threat, compared to 24 percent who hold that view of Russia.

"Whatever else might be said of China, its arsenal has been the very model of a minimal nuclear deterrent," said FAS President Jeremy J. Stone. "China has only a small number of missiles, their missiles are de-alerted, and the Chinese have adopted a clear no-first use policy. In this regard, they are the most responsible of the major nuclear powers."

Bulletins: Declassification Threatened

Secrecy & Government Bulletin is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

The FAS Project on Government Secrecy is supported by grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Rockefeller Family Fund, and the HKH Foundation.

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