Sound Bites Man

It is _very_ easy to get confused about this stuff. Nuclear technology, I mean. And it’s even easier to confuse others — _especially_ if you try to give a crisp answer to a misleadingly phrased question. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff “ADM Mike Mullen”:http://www.defenselink.mil/bios/biographydetail.aspx?biographyid=139 was the latest to stumble over a sharp-edged soundbite this Sunday, with a big assist from CNN’s John King:

King: The International Atomic Energy Agency said last week they think they were wrong in the past, that Iran might now have enough fissile material to make a bomb. Does Iran have enough to make a bomb?

Mullen: We think they do, quite frankly.

Here’s the “video”:http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/politics/2009/03/01/sotu.mullen.iran.weapons.cnn. The gaffe embarks at 2:19.

For anyone not deeply immersed in the issue, it would be natural to conclude that Mullen had affirmed exactly what King said. And that’s just what “news”:http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090302/ap_on_go_ca_st_pe/mullen_iran “outlets”:http://www.ptinews.com/pti%5Cptisite.nsf/0/464683EAE58045FC6525756D002B584C?OpenDocument “around the world”:http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1235898316271&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull did. Most balanced Mullen’s alarmist-sounding claim with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s “more judicious remarks”:http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29453246/ given that same day, but the damage was done. Some “people who should know better”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/02/washington/02military.html even chose to privilege Mullen’s statement over Gates’s, although the SecDef speaks more authoritatively than anyone in uniform.

The Pentagon public affairs office had its hands full “straightening this one out”:http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5ishAxQzRl5C3ybc1Y3di0WAeft3g afterwards. As usual, the media was blamed, which is partly true, but probably not in the manner intended.

Long story short, King and Mullen gave renewed life to a “more-than-week-old error”:http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/2193/iran-panic-induced-by-lousy-reporting.

Further responses have varied. Greg Thielmann of ACA was “irked”:http://www.armscontrol.org/node/3540. The good folks at ISIS tried to “square the circle”:http://www.isisnucleariran.org/news/detail/mullen-vs-gates-on-iran-this-sunday-did-they-really-contradict-each-other/.

This cautionary tale was the hook for “an NPR story that aired earlier tonight, March 2”:http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=101354866, quoting Jeff Lewis of NAF / ACW fame, Jackie Shire of ISIS, and Yours Truly of “TotalWonkerr.Com”:http://www.totalwonkerr.net/1871/iran-when-should-we-panic. Give it a listen if you’d like to hear what we all sound like, assuming you don’t already know.

A Modest Proposal

This is going to sound strange coming from a blogger, but how about slowing down a little? The community of nonproliferation experts may simply be moving too fast to interpret IAEA Director-General’s reports and other milestone documents. The “race to put documents online”:http://www.totalwonkerr.net/1868/isis-v-acw is dandy. The race to explain their implications, not so much. Reporters are hungry to comprehend this stuff, but it takes time to think it through and then to explain it carefully enough to avoid sparking a game of telephone in the headlines.

(If you are able to listen to the “NPR story”:http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=101354866, you may gather that I try. To choose. My words. With some care. But I’m new at this, too.)

Since this is all kinda heavy, just to take the edge off, how about a “musical bonus”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DoWF2YalYvI?

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