Yahoo exec says he regrets testimony in China human rights case

House panel chairman rips company officials for giving false statements

A Yahoo Inc. executive apologized today for providing confusing testimony to a congressional committee about the company's role in the jailing of Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist.

Yahoo's General Counsel, Michael Callahan, told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs that he was sorry that his testimony last year caused confusion about what Yahoo knew and didn't know about the Shi Tao case.

Shi, a reporter and editor at a Chinese newspaper, was arrested in his home after posting material about a government crackdown on media and democracy activists on Democracy Forum, an overseas Web site. He posted the information using a pseudonym.

Chinese authorities asked Yahoo to hand over information about Shi's e-mail account, including his IP address, log-on history and the contents of his e-mail over several weeks, which the company did. Using that information, Beijing police were able to track him down and arrest him at his home.

Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), however, accused Callahan of not telling the truth to the committee regarding what the company knew about the case and when it knew it.

Callahan, however, said it was a misunderstanding.

"This confusion, and my statements at the [February] 2006 hearing, stem from a lack of information on my part, which I sincerely regret," Callahan said today in a prepared statement (PDF format). "At the time of my testimony in 2006, it was my understanding that the Shi Tao demand contained no information regarding the specific details of the investigation ... and that is how I testified."

Callahan said he now knows that Yahoo had additional information that the Shi investigation was related to disclosure of state secrets. Callahan also apologized that he didn't let the committee know about this additional information when he found out about it in October 2006.

"There remains a disagreement over whether the reference to "state secrets" was significant enough to tell Yahoo anything material about the case," Callahan said. "I believe that while my testimony could have been more precise, the fundamental point of my testimony remains unchanged -- we did not know that the case related to a journalist, dissident activity, or that it was a political case when Yahoo China was required to provide the demanded information [to the Chinese government]."

Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang also testified that Yahoo had been "open and forthcoming" with the committee about the part it played in a human rights case in China that led to Shi's 10-year imprisonment.

"We have answered every question, provided every requested piece of information and worked with you in good faith," Yang said in a prepared statement (PDF format) before the committee.

But Lantos blasted Yahoo for providing false information about its role in the jailing of Shi.

"Michael Callahan, the general counsel of Yahoo, gave sworn testimony about the case and Yahoo's operations in China," Lantos said at the hearing. "Mr. Callahan has not been accused of perjury -- that would be the willful violation of an oath either by swearing to what is untrue or by deliberately omitting information that is material. But as general counsel for Yahoo, he did provide false information to this committee in this critically important hearing 18 months ago."

Lantos said Callahan previously testified that Yahoo didn't know anything about the facts surrounding Shi Tao case, nor did it know anything about the nature of the case against Shi when it provided information to the Chinese authorities.

However, Lantos said his committee later learned that while Callahan may not have known what was going on, other Yahoo employees did.

"Specifically, the document provided to Yahoo China on April 22, 2004 by the Beijing State Security Bureau stated, "Your office is in possession of the following items relating to a case of suspected illegal provision of state secrets to foreign entities," Lantos said.

Lantos said it was incredible that Callahan said he didn't know anything about the Beijing authorities' document, since a key member of the Yahoo briefing team that prepared Callahan for his appearance before the committee last year had a copy, as did Yahoo China lawyers.

"Yet somehow, incredibly, Mr. Callahan apparently was not informed of these critical facts and the fundamental nature of the Yahoo's complicity with the persecution of Shi Tao," Lantos said at today's hearing.

Lantos said he adamantly disagreed with Yahoo's claim that its "false testimony" was just one big misunderstanding.

"Let me be clear -- this was no misunderstanding," Lantos said. "This was inexcusably negligent behavior at best and deliberately deceptive behavior at worst. I wish to repeat this: This was inexcusably negligent behavior at best and deliberately deceptive behavior at worst. ... Either Yahoo has little regard for providing full and complete information to a duly constituted committee of the Congress, or it has little regard for the issue of protecting human rights."

Lantos said that, based upon its investigation, the committee had determined that despite its sworn testimony, Yahoo provided false information to Congress.

"And when Mr. Callahan later discovered that he had provided false information, he did not make the slightest attempt, not the slightest attempt, to correct the information he had given to Congress under oath," Lantos said. "Mr. Callahan did, however, tell his public relations operatives to spin the Shi Tao story in a different direction."

Lantos urged Yang and Callahan to face Shi's family because he was tossed in a Chinese prison as a result of Yahoo's actions.

"When he first appeared before this committee, I asked Mr. Callahan whether he had reached out to Shi Tao's family to offer an apology and to provide assistance," Lantos said. "The answer was a resounding 'No.' Fifteen months later Yahoo has yet to provide any aid to Shi Tao's family. Mr. Yang, Mr. Callahan: Shi Tao's mother is sitting in the first row right behind you -- I would urge you to beg the forgiveness of the mother whose son is languishing behind bars due to Yahoo's actions."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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