Asiagate, Day 5: Hip Hing Ho Hum
The Thompson hearings experienced a bit of a letdown Wednesday. On Tuesday it had been revealed that a John Huang $50,000 contribution to the Democrats when he worked for the Lippo company Hip Hing Holdings in 1992 had apparently been directly reimbursed from Indonesia. Yesterday the committee delved into Huang's hiring, security clearance, and classified briefings, and came up with nothing so dramatic. These are the matters—how Huang got security clearance so fast, and why he got so many briefings?—that have seemed so sinister in the early press about John Huang. But yesterday's witnesses tended to suggest that Huang's clearance and briefings were a matter of bureaucratic routine. At times the testimony was so dull and confusing that the senators themselves didn't seem to know what was going on, and one reporter was seen asleep, his forehead flat against the press table as he took an understandable nap.
The first witness was Gary Christopherson, a former associate director of White House personnel, who testified that there was no special pressure put on him to place Huang. It was a long process between the time Huang's name was placed for consideration and his actual hiring. And Democrats drew out the fact that Huang was interested in numerous positions besides the one he got at Commerce including a job at HUD, which seems an unlikely place for a potential spy to roost. Also, Christopherson emphasized several times that to the extent Huang was a priority, it was only because he is an Asian-American and the administration was concerned with diversity hires. This explanation, of course, rings all too true.
At the witness table with Christopherson was the security officer for the Department of Commerce, Paul Buskirk, (when Senators said his name, it sounded as though they were saying "Buzzkirk," which in turn sounds like the name for a security officer on Beavis & Butthead). Buskirk's testimony was the occasion for some of the most idiotic and mind-numbing exchanges of the hearings. Buskirk told the committee how Huang got clearance before a background check was completed, but also said that the Clinton Administration had instituted a policy of giving everyone these so-called "interim clearances." Which is all you really need to know—but the Senators went back and forth repeatedly trying to nail down the bureaucratic genesis and meaning of the "interim" policy. It doesn't seem as though Huang actually got anything from the interim clearance (he may not even have known he had it). It was notable, however, that an overseas background check was never completed on Huang, which in retrospect seems a major mistake.
Next up was the best witness of the day for Republicans, Jeffrey Garten, former undersecretary of international trade at the Department of Commerce. Garten testified that he considered Huang "totally unqualified" for a policy position at the Commerce Department, and banned him from having anything to do with China policy (although he did grant him some small role with regard to Taiwan). Garten said that he was surprised to learn that Huang had been visiting the Chinese Embassy and had also been receiving classified briefings. Democrat chief counsel Alan Baron tried to rehabilitate Huang by pointing out that his superior, Charles Meissner, gave him a 485 at of 500 in an internal review. But, in an amusing comeback, Thompson read from Garten's deposition in which he characterized those reviews as always inflated and "not worth the paper they are written on." Garten was also surprised that Meissner would have recommended Huang stay on as a consultant after he left Commerce because "Huang was totally ineffective in my view."
That didn't stop Huang from getting classified briefings, but the intelligence witnesses weren't particularly helpful to Republicans. Questioned by the snarling Arlen Specter (R., Penn.), they testified that it was Meissner who said Huang should get the briefings, that Huang never sought out special briefings, and that Huang didn't display any interest in upgrading his security clearance. If a spy, Huang seems to have been an unenterprising one. Specter, however, did read from notes written by John H. Dickerson—who briefed Huang roughly every two weeks—that seemed to indicate Huang showed a special interest in matters relating to Asian trade policy. Some of the intelligence Huang received was extremely sensitive and, if leaked, could have resulted in the death of the sources. But the witnesses said they had no reason to believe that any of the sources of the information provided to Huang had been compromised in any way. And the Republicans couldn't even get the witnesses to express surprise that Huang had been visiting the Chinese embassy at the same time he was getting the briefings (part of his job description, they said).
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