Asia fears US funding report

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 February, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 February, 1998, 12:00am

It is 1,500 pages of dry, often legalistic examinations of the labyrinthine mechanics of the American political funding system - and how to get round it.

One White House aide has also called it 'the first Republican party press release of the 1998 election campaign.' In other words, the forthcoming (but already vastly leaked) Senate report on the Democrats' myriad fund-raising shenanigans is not likely to displace Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil as the bedtime reading of choice for most Americans.

The bad news for Democrats is that the report will add more fuel to the fire on the issue of the party's blatantly unethical approach to raking in the cash during the bloody 1996 presidential and congressional campaigns.

The good news is that something has finally come along to knock Monica Lewinsky of the top of the front pages - for a couple of days at least.

The report was compiled after five months and US$3 million (about HK$23 million) worth of Senate hearings into what is probably the biggest political outrage never to earn the disapproval it deserves from the 99.9 per cent of Americans who live outside the Beltway.

There can be little doubt that the eyes most focused on the impending report will belong to people who either live in Asia, or whose businesses rely on the Asia connection; and not the whole report either, but 13-page chapter whose most exciting revelations the public will never get to see.

The publication of the vast report is a small triumph for the senator who chaired the panel investigating the abuses, Fred Thompson - a beacon of integrity and bipartisan fairness on Capitol Hill. But the fact remains that the potentially most explosive allegation of the whole affair - that the Chinese government sought to buy influence during the election campaign - was never backed up by a shred of solid evidence during his hearings, and will fare no better in the final report.

For the past two weeks, the FBI and CIA have been blocking the general release of the so-called 'China chapter' of the report, because it contains classified information the publication of which, they fear, would compromise secret sources and sensitive intelligence modus operandi.

Remember the Lippo Group's James and Mochtar Riady, Arkansas restaurateur and Friend-of-Bill Charlie Trie, Lippo-man-turned-Democratic Party official John Huang, and other Asian or Asian-American baddies from the fund-raising saga? It emerges that after the Senate hearings closed with a dearth of sexy information on the roles of these characters, the FBI and CIA stepped in to full the void left by an efficient campaign of White House obstruction and obfuscation.

Intelligence agents gave private briefings to the senators engaged in the investigation, and apparently provided mountains of classified information - including the contents of wire-taps carried out on Chinese embassy officials and other alleged conspirators - which the media and general public had not been privy to.

But then there arose a problem; when the Senate staff wrote the China chapter, the Feds and the spymasters were spooked by the amount of compromising material therein. This week, negotiations are still going on between the agencies and the Senate as to how much of the information can be made public - which could delay the release of the report until the end of this week and possibly the next.

The Republican leadership is annoyed that the juicy stuff - which one is led to believe would make Jiang Zemin and President Clinton blush in equal amounts - will not be made public; but patriots to the end, it is bowing to the greater good of maintaining the integrity of the nation's intelligence gathering. This fact, however, has not stopped the panel from placing in the report some explosive allegations; not least that all of the Asian figures mentioned above, and some others, were acting as 'agents' of the Chinese government, or had links to Beijing's intelligence operations.

Ahuge pinch of salt has to be taken in reading these conclusions; for instance, while it has not been disputed that some of the overseas political donations making their way to the Democrats through the likes of Mr Huang and Mr Trie were violations of the law, Republican senators seem comfortable in making the leap from the actions of a few over-zealous party apparatchiks to the conclusion that there was a conspiracy by China to subvert the US' democratic process.

Such a plot would be perfectly at home in a Tom Clancy novel, but even if evidence exists to prove it, we will never know, because the CIA and FBI refuse to make it public. While the agencies have consistently leaked the dirt to the Washington Post and laid it all out for a privileged few in Congress, all the public has to go on is insinuation. The same kind of tactics have been seen in the legal tug-of-war in the Lewinsky case, and the US media is wringing its hands in guilt.

Given the Riadys' commercial ties to China, it would be strange if they did not share a close relationship with Chinese officials - that is how business is done in Asia.

Senator Thompson's probe did a valuable job of putting the spotlight on the ethical cesspit of campaign finance, but to let the China red herring dominate the report's publication would be a shame, because it would divert attention from its true purpose: to shame Congress into enacting campaign cash reform.