The 'Tiananmen Papers'

Article excerpt

Media events have a life of their own. Consider the launch of the so-called Tiananmen Papers. On January 7, Mike Wallace interviewed on CBS's 60 Minutes an anonymous person in disguise who claimed, at some undisclosed time and place, to have hand-copied a massive number of Chinese secret documents that included transcripts of meetings, telephone conversations and other communications that the top leaders of China had with one another at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. He said he smuggled out transcriptions of a portion of this data on computer disks. He has assumed a disguise so he would have the option of returning to Beijing. A portion of this material has been published in a book, The Tiananmen Papers: The Chinese Leadership's Decision to Use Force Against Their Own People (Public Affairs), edited by Andrew Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University, and Perry Link, professor of Chinese language and literature at Princeton University, with an afterword by Orville Schell, an author and former consultant to 60 Minutes. The material also appeared in Foreign Affairs with an introduction by Nathan. Completing the circle, CBS Evening News quoted the 60 Minutes statement that the documents had been "authenticated" by experts.

Authentication is a defined procedure in which a questioned document, or a part of it, is compared with the original or to an authenticated copy of it. In this case, however, the experts cited by CBS had no opportunity for matching documents with the originals. They did not even possess the questioned hand-copied documents, only the putative transcriptions of parts of them downloaded from a computer disk. And they acknowledged that they did not have proof that the originals existed.

The editors were able to verify bits of information contained in questioned documents from other sources. Much of the chronology of meetings, for example, could be found in Nicholas Kristof's authoritative November 12, 1989, article "How the Hard-Liners Won" in The New York Times Magazine. But such verification does not demonstrate that the documents are authentic. Bogus documents may contain accurate information (for example, facts in Clifford Irving's bogus Howard Hughes autobiography were verified by both Time-Life and McGraw-Hill, and information in the bogus "Hitler Diaries" was verified by the eminent Oxford historian Hugh Trevor-Roper). Indeed, invented documents frequently involve peppering the text with verifiable information.

The credibility of documents therefore rests on their provenance--the traceable chain of custody. By what means did these classified documents get from the files of the Chinese Politburo and Chinese security services into the hands of the media in America? How were they copied without detection, transcribed onto tape and transported to this country? Hand-copying such massive files from secret archives, which would constitute espionage of the highest order, would involve care and time to evade security. According to the Wall Street Journal and Associated Press, some 15,000 pages were copied and, from them, a small fraction was selected for the book. This would be a tall order. If the copier managed to transcribe one page an hour, and worked (in addition to his regular job) six hours a day, five days a week, it would take him ten years to copy 15,000 pages (not counting the time to enter them into a computer). Whoever copied such documents would have to have had access to classified material in different secure areas. …