Category Archives: News media

Publishing the Unpublishable

*Update.* I’ve posted a “revised version of this post at ACW”: It’s shorter, too, so go read that instead.

* * *

Among many vague motives for blogging, I can count a pretty specific feeling of aggravation at the frequently poor quality of public discussion of national security affairs, especially in the charged realm of “Doubleyou Em Dee”: Anything that helps improve that picture, even a small bit, ought to count as the Lord’s work.

What that makes the contribution of the Washington Post’s opinion editors, you can judge for yourself. The Post is by no means the sole “offender”: But it’s past time to say something about the “July 6 op-ed”: by two former Pentagon officials, Trey Obering and Eric Edelman. To that end, I’m taking this momentary break from the blog break.

The op-ed attacked the May 2009 “U.S.-Russia Joint Threat Assessment on Iran”: sponsored by the EastWest Institute. If you haven’t read it yet, let’s just say that the EWI JTA isn’t too gentle in its treatment of the Euro-GMD proposal, something obviously close to the hearts of former MDA chief Obering and former OSD Policy boss Edelman.

Unfortunately, their critique of this serious (if imperfect) contribution came across as dismissive and misleading. This is not an unfamiliar experience for “outside experts who have examined missile defense systems”: After all, “GMD is a political program”: (You could look it up.) But one would hope that it could get a more respectful hearing in an independent newspaper. -To my knowledge, though, the news side of the Post did not cover the EWI report, so- This bristling, blistering op-ed is the only coverage that _the editorial page of_ the paper has provided.

(See the “earlier news coverage”:

That’s really a shame. The mission of the paper is presumably to inform the public, not merely to provoke. (Otherwise, it could be a cable channel.) By that standard, this op-ed really should not have appeared in its current form. At a minimum, the authors of the EWI report should have had an opportunity to avail themselves of the Post’s healthy practice of running an occasional column-length reply to seriously unbalanced opinion pieces. (One of these “Taking Exception” features appeared “just this past Friday”: And lo, two of the EWI study members — the formidable experts Richard Garwin and Ted Postol — did submit a reply at about that length. Jeff “ran it here”:, with maybe a little more color than I would have applied.

As Jeff points out, the Post instead ran a “shorter reply by Garwin”: in the July 9 letters. But it is really not sufficient to address the distortions. I won’t recite them here; see instead the fuller Garwin-Postol reply.

By no means is the EWI report beyond criticism. Uzi Rubin, who once led Israel’s equivalent to MDA and has crossed swords with Postol in the recent past, has already “called attention”: to its clearest shortcoming, the lack of any serious discussion of Iran’s solid-fueled ballistic missile program. This is — what’s that word? — reasonable. Discussions of anything related to missile defense “often aren’t reasonable”: The Post shouldn’t be perpetuating that trend.

*Update.* “ACW commenter”: Yousaf observes that Obering may have a “vested interest”: not disclosed to readers by the Post.

What Missile Defense Is Supposed To Do

It’s possible to envision the world — either the physical world or the social and political world — as being like either “a clock or a cloud”: Either it’s deterministic and ultimately knowable — you know, like clockwork — or it’s chaotic, irreducibly complex, and elusive. Like a cloud.

Me, I don’t subscribe to either a “clock theory” of politics or a “cloud theory.” I subscribe to a “stopped clock” theory. But that’s only because I’ve been following missile defense issues for so very long. Few people who have an opinion in the first place ever really change their mind about missile defenses. For altogether too many devotees of the subject, the hands of their mental clocks are always pointing in a “fixed direction”:

To be clear, it’s possible to have reasoned discussions about this subject, even across the divide of instinctively held viewpoints. But not with anyone and everyone.

All of this is by way of justifying a narrow focus on one little snippet of “Charles Krauthammer’s extensively flawed column”: of late last week:

bq. [An offense-defense linkage] is important for Russia because of the huge American technological advantage in defensive weaponry. We can reliably shoot down an intercontinental ballistic missile. They cannot.

Just two points.

First, GMD — America’s existing strategic BMD system — has no known or anticipated capability against Russian missiles. According to MDA, current and planned capabilities are oriented to North Korea and Iran. According to this “fact sheet”:, for example,

bq. The Ground-based Midcourse Defense element is now deployed in Alaska and California to defend the U.S. homeland against a limited attack from countries like North Korea and Iran and is also being developed for deployment in Europe to defend against an attack from Iran.

(There are even more explicit statements to this effect in older MDA budget documents, but they don’t seem to be online anymore. I’ll see if I can’t dig one up. *Update:* “Found it”:!)

There is a longstanding dispute in expert circles — one of those disputes that never gets resolved — about whether GMD is actually capable of coping with North Korean or Iranian “countermeasures”: So far as I’m aware, there is no dispute in the United States — none — about the system’s ability to cope with Russian countermeasures. It hasn’t any.

Second, against a North Korea-type threat, Russian missile defense may be ahead of U.S. missile defense. The “A-135 defensive system around Moscow”:, so far as I know, is still nuclear-armed, which should provide it with certain advantages over the hit-to-kill systems now favored by the United States. “Richard Garwin’s presentation”:,%206-03-2009,%200715-SHARE%20YES.pdf for a missile defense conference last month happened to address this point:

bq.. [Since the 1950s,] Our Strategic Military Panel tried its hardest to help make U.S. ICBMs and SLBMs effective and to give them the ability to penetrate potential Soviet missile defenses, whether armed with nuclear warheads or conventional. On the other hand, we tried our best to devise and to evaluate systems for defending the United States against nuclear-armed Soviet missiles. So we early-on analyzed such techniques and technologies as multiple independently-targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs), various other countermeasures and tactics, such as attacking and blinding the defense, and antisimulation.

In the 1960s, the technology was not available to have homing intercept against warheads in space, so that the only feasible BMD systems used nuclear-armed interceptors. Even for the nuclear BMD, mid-course intercept is problematical because of the availability of countermeasures, together with the ability of the offense readily to stretch out the string of warheads and decoys for many hundreds of km along the trajectory even to a specific point target. …

Countermeasures become a lot simpler against the small kinetic-energy intercept (KEI) kill vehicles that form the core of current U.S. BMD efforts. The homing kill vehicle (HKV) either collides with the warhead or it doesn’t.

p. Bottom line: Don’t go looking for deep insights into strategic systems on the op-ed page of the _Post_.

Spot the Difference

This item is brought to you by the Dept. of Non-Correction Corrections.

1) David Sanger and Nazila Fathi, “Iran Test-Fires Missile With 1,200-Mile Range “:, _New York Times,_ May 21, 2009:

bq.. Though she avoided details, Mrs. Clinton was giving voice to a growing concern among administration officials, who have now had time to review the intelligence, that Iran seems to have made significant progress in at least two of the three technologies necessary to field an effective nuclear weapon.

The first is enriching uranium to weapons grade, now under way at the large nuclear complex at Natanz.

p. 2) David Sanger, “Despite Crisis, Policy on Iran Is Engagement”:, _New York Times,_ July 6, 2009:

bq. Israeli officials have been deeply uncomfortable with Mr. Obama’s engagement offer, arguing that Iran is still adding centrifuges to its plant at Natanz, where it can enrich uranium. The last report of the International Atomic Energy Agency indicated roughly 7,000 centrifuges are now enriching uranium into fuel, but without further enrichment it is suitable only for nuclear power.

Way back in ’04, Daniel Okrent, who was at the time public editor of the _New York Times,_ did readers the signal service of defining and explaining “the rowback”: What he wrote then applies just as well today:

bq. The editors who decided to handle the clarification this way may not know the term, but this was a classic example of the rowback. The one definition I could find for this ancient technique, from journalism educator Melvin Mencher, describes a rowback as “a story that attempts to correct a previous story without indicating that the prior story had been in error or without taking responsibility for the error.” A less charitable definition might read, “a way that a newspaper can cover its butt without admitting it was ever exposed.”

For previous commentary on the May 21 story, see “here”: and “here”:

Silly Season Goes to War

It must be that time of year already: Silly Season, when precious newspaper real estate gets clogged with giddy nothings.

The “Wall Street Journal”: and the “New York Times”: each dispatched a West Coast correspondent to sunny Hawaii, the better to gauge public anxiety about an imminent missile attack from North Korea. Amazingly, everyone out there seems pretty much unfazed. Must be the “laid-back culture.” Hope you enjoyed the trip, guys.

(Maybe they just needed to work harder. The Associated Press “found some hysterics”: Why couldn’t two of our nation’s top publications?)

So where do they get this stuff? I’ll tell you where: “Yomiuri Shimbun”:, by way of the “Associated Press”: That, and a momentary suspension of critical faculties. One didn’t have to read that story too closely to notice that it was perhaps not the brightest moment in the history of Japanese journalism.

Yeah. North Korea’s going to attack America. With two missiles. That’ll be interesting.

I guess it was irresistible. _Armageddon in Paradise!_

Man up, people. It’s a missile test, for crying out loud.

p=. *Annals of Threat Magnification*

In fairness to -the junketeers and their editors- our intrepid news sleuths, the Secretary of Defense made it sound like he was “taking the threat seriously”:

bq.. Dr. Gates, I wondered what you thought about the report that North Korea might shoot a ballistic missile toward Hawaii, if you thought there was any accuracy to that. And if that was to occur, would that be a situation where the U.S. would use its missile defense system, to eliminate that test?

SEC. GATES: Well, we’re obviously watching the situation in the North, with respect to missile launches, very closely. And we do have some concerns, if they were to launch a missile to the (sic – east), in the direction of Hawaii.

I’ve directed the deployment again of THAAD missiles to Hawaii. And the SBX Radar has deployed, away from Hawaii, to provide support. Based on my visit to Fort Greely, the ground-based interceptors are clearly in a position to take action.

So without telegraphing what we will do, I would just say, we are — I think we are in a good position, should it become necessary to protect American territory.

p. (The President has lately gotten in on “this game”:, too.)

Let’s just say that this course of action appears to reflect a superabundance of caution. Looking at it another way, since we’ve built the systems, what would be the point of not deploying them? But what really interests me is the word “again,” as in, “I’ve directed the deployment again of THAAD missiles to Hawaii.”

One shouldn’t make too much of a single word. Gates could have misspoken, or his comments could have been erroneously transcribed. But it sounds like this isn’t the first time. Should we conclude that THAAD was first temporarily deployed in anticipation of the April 2009 Unha-2 launch?

The first THAAD battery was “formally activated”: back at Ft. Bliss, Texas, in May 2008, but we don’t know where it normally operates. Some THAAD testing has “taken place in Hawaii”:

Update: The “Honolulu Star-Bulletin”: has more details.

p=. *A Live Intercept Test?*

Regardless of where North Korea’s missiles fly, if anyone is really thinking of trying out missile defense systems on them — whether to make a point, or just to see what they can do — I would not recommend it. Right now, it’s North Korea’s strategy to ratchet up tensions, and America’s strategy to “act like a responsible adult”: THAAD is not a toy. Still less is GMD.

Fortunately, though, I don’t think that the concerns that apply to “North American”: “GMD scenarios”: apply to Pacific GMD scenarios. Put your mind at rest.

“Musical bonus”:

Something Nice About the News Media

No mere blogger ever risked his/her/its neck like “some correspondents do”:

Something to remember.

Update. Yes, “neck”: I didn’t intend that, but it seems to fit.

*Paul Adds:*

Indeed…another reason why blogs will not supplant traditional media outlets, unless, of course, those outlets end the role of foreign correspondents.

Blog Thought

Blogs aid news reporting, but likely will not/ought not supplant traditional news outlets. They have, however, made progress in marginalizing the established punditocracy.

Yes, I am reduced to being meta this morning.

*Josh adds:*

To elaborate on Paul’s comment a bit, there is potential for symbiosis with news reporting in the traditional outlets, however long they’re still with us. A specialized blog like this one can contribute to the accuracy and sophistication of the “coverage”: it also “feeds upon”: Failing that, it’s also good for “cursing”: the “darkness”:

In Paul’s case, of course, it’s just not meta, but “death”: “meta”:

Mis-Reporting North Korea

Can I start by saying that I hold no brief for the DPRK? That ought to be “reasonably”: “clear”: by now, but I’d like to avoid any confusion on that point. They’ve earned the “disrespect”: and then some.

It’s also not my intention to become one of those raging _Death-to-All-MSM!_ types, although the sentiment “certainly seems”: “warranted”: “at times”:

OK. End self-referential throat-clearing. Here’s the bad news about this morning’s newspaper.

What the North Koreans Said

Yesterday, the North Korean Foreign Ministry released another milestone “statement” via “KCNA”: This one comes in response to the “passage of UNSCR 1874”: on Friday. As of this writing, the official English translation is not yet up on the site, but Reuters has “gotten ahold of the text”:

Update: the “official text”: is now online.

(This is a media-criticism post. I’ll tackle the implications of the statement later, time permitting.)

The statement announces three North Korean “countermeasures” to the Security Council’s resolution, which can be summarized as follows:

* “Weaponizing” plutonium that North Korea now claims to have already reprocessed from its current bunch of spent fuel rods.

* Commencing uranium enrichment on an “experimental” basis, in connection with fueling a light-water reactor, as yet not built.

* A “decisive military response” and “all-out confrontation” against any “attempted blockade” of the DPRK by “the U.S. and its followers.”

Got it? For your reference, again, “the text is here”: I’ll put it in the comments, too.

So why can’t the _Washington Post_ get the story straight?

Sorry, Guys, You Blew It

There’s already so much confusion and mythology out there about North Korea’s activities in the field of uranium enrichment (to say nothing of uranium conversion). Why does the _Post_ have to add to it with this “rhetorical flourish in the lede”:

bq.. TOKYO, June 13 — North Korea adamantly denied for seven years that it had a program for making nuclear weapons from enriched uranium.

But on Saturday, a few hours after the U.N. Security Council slapped it with tough new sanctions for detonating a second nuclear device, the government of Kim Jong Il changed its tune, vowing that it would start enriching uranium to make more nuclear weapons.

p. Let’s compare this directly with the relevant section of the NK FM statement, “via Reuters”:

bq. Second: The process of uranium enrichment will be commenced. Pursuant to the decision to build its own light-water reactor, enough success has been made in developing uranium enrichment technology to provide nuclear fuel to allow the experimental procedure.

Do you see any reference to making uranium-based nuclear weapons there? I sure don’t. At best, that’s an inference by the _Post._ Maybe it’s warranted. But the DPRK “vowed” no such thing. This is just plain bad reporting, based on careless reading.

The part of the NK FM statement about the uranium came right after the part about weaponizing plutonium, so it’s not hard to see where the confusion started. But the same _Post_ story discusses the history of the uranium issue at some length, and even quotes part of the relevant excerpt of the NK FM statement above. There’s just no excuse.

How the Others Did

It must have been an easy mistake to make, since the _Post_ was merely this morning’s worst offender. “AFP blew it”:,25197,25634212-12377,00.html, too. So did “this AP story by Carolyn Thompson”:

The _New York Times_ “did somewhat better”:

bq. In a statement on the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, an unidentified spokesman for the North Korean Foreign Ministry was quoted as saying that his nation would continue its nuclear program to defend itself against what he called a hostile United States policy. He was quoted as saying that his nation would “weaponize” its existing plutonium stockpiles and begin a program to enrich uranium, which can also be used to make atomic warheads.

Yes, this wraps up the plutonium and uranium issues together, and does not mention the LWR angle, which could be misleading. But it contains little that can be called inaccurate. (The statement said that that NK would “commence” enrichment, but also said that the development of technology has been underway for an unspecified time, so “begin a program” does not seem quite right.)

The NYT also noticed that this part of yesterday’s statement echoes “one from late April”: That’s something else the WP -got wrong- _appears to have missed._

This other “AP story by Hyung-Jin Kim”:;_ylt=AqBRpW8iowxU7sCNOahYFAys0NUE;_ylu=X3oDMTJqaDI1aDJvBGFzc2V0A2FwLzIwMDkwNjE0L2FzX2tvcmVhc19udWNsZWFyBGNwb3MDMwRwb3MDMTAEc2VjA3luX3RvcF9zdG9yeQRzbGsDbmtvcmVhd2FybnNv got it right about the LWR angle, wrong about the novelty of the statement:

bq. In Saturday’s statement, North Korea said it has been enriching uranium to provide fuel for its light-water reactor. It was the first public acknowledgment the North is running a uranium enrichment program in addition to its known plutonium-based program. The two radioactive materials are key ingredients in making atomic bombs.

Sorry to drag on like this, but I’m really frustrated by the bad reporting. Can you tell?

On a Happier Note

The _Washington Times_ “got it pretty much straight”:

bq. The news agency quoted an unidentified Foreign Ministry official as saying that Pyongyang would start a program to enrich uranium for a light-water reactor.

As in the case of the NYT, one could quibble about the word “start.” Regardless, I’m awarding to Desikan Thirunarayanapuram of the _Washington Times_ the inaugural _TW Prize for Largely Accurate Reporting About North Korea._ Congratulations, Desikan.

The Disappointing New York Times

Have you ever written to the _New York Times_ to ask for a “correction”: They do run them. Here’s an “example”:

bq. An article last Sunday about residential golf resorts opened by a developer transposed his given and middle names. He is Edward Robert Ginn III.

Mr. Ginn is probably relieved to see that. But I’m left wondering why this request of May 23 has not been deemed worthy of a response:

bq.. To whom it may concern,

I would like to request correction of a passage in the May 20 story by David Sanger and Nazila Fathi, “Iran Test-Fires Missile With 1,200-Mile Range.”

The second half of the article includes a claim that “enriching uranium to weapons grade” is “now under way at the large nuclear complex at Natanz.” To the best of my knowledge, this is not accurate; it has been ruled out by every report of the International Atomic Energy Agency that has reached the public eye since enrichment operations commenced at Natanz in 2007.

The authors presumably meant to write that the nuclear complex at Natanz is _capable_ of enriching uranium to weapons grade. This is a very important distinction, as the actual decision to start enriching uranium to weapons grade would be similar in moment to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

I hope you will clarify this matter for the readers.


Josh Pollack

[contact info omitted]

(NYT subscriber since 1996)

p. I have no idea why that doesn’t merit so much as an acknowledgment.

For reference, here’s the link to the “Sanger-Fathi article”: Here’s “what I wrote about it earlier”: Click and scroll down a bit.

There They Go Again

Should the _New York Times_ op-ed page introduce fact-checking? Given recent trends, it really couldn’t hurt.

A couple days ago, the _Times_ ran an “op-ed by John Bolton”: For reasons known only to the author, he chose to revive a “canard about Obama strong-arming Israel into the NPT before it is ready to join”:

I mention this only because it’s in my pet rock collection. It was just one of a series of “questionable representations” “catalogued and dissected at the PONI blog”: earlier today. Among other things, PONI locates “an Israeli account”: of the substance of the Obama-Netanyahu exchange on nuclear opacity. I’ll quote it in full:

On another issue, Obama told Netanyahu at their meeting on Monday that Washington has no plans to change its policy on Israel’s nuclear program, according to an Israeli source.

“At the talks, Obama expressed his deep commitment to Israel’s security and his full adherence to the deep presidential understandings in this area,” the source said.

In 1969, the United States and Israel reached an understanding under which Israel would maintain ambiguity about its nuclear program and would refrain from conducting a nuclear weapons test. In exchange, the U.S. would refrain from pressing Israel to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which would require Israel to give up any military nuclear capabilities it had and place the reactor in Dimona under international supervision. These understandings, which have remained in force to this day, form the basis of Israel’s nuclear policy.

In recent weeks, Israeli commentators have expressed fear that the U.S. was planning to change this policy, after a mid-level State Department official publicly declared that Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea should all join the NPT. But this comment was actually mere routine, reflecting America’s commitment in principle to eventual worldwide nuclear disarmament, and was not aimed specifically at Israel.

During his previous term as prime minister, Netanyahu requested and obtained a written commitment from then-president Clinton that the U.S. would preserve Israel’s strategic deterrence capability – a euphemism for nuclear capability – and make sure that its arms control initiatives did not impair this capability. Netanyahu also told Clinton that Israel would not join an American initiative to draft a new treaty that would ban the production of plutonium.

The above account appeared in _Ha’aretz_ five days before Bolton’s op-ed went to print.

PONI observes that op-eds, because of their brevity,

bq. can be frustrating because they do not have to cite or explain their interpretation of facts. Maybe they should.

Roger that. Writers should at least have to justify themselves to an editor. Fact-checking is bad enough on the news side of the house. On the op-ed side, it’s nonexistent.

Another Example

Two days before the Bolton piece, the _Times_ ran an item by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann claiming in part that

bq. the Obama administration has done nothing to cancel or repudiate an ostensibly covert but well-publicized program, begun in President George W. Bush’s second term, to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to destabilize the Islamic Republic.

This appears to refer to _overt_ “programs to support”: “democracy in Iran”:, whose usefulness has “come into question”: (Human rights and democracy, as “previously noted around here”:, look pretty threatening to some governments.) But these total well short of “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

If Leverett and Mann are referring to some other “well-publicized” program, it has eluded me completely. But maybe I’m not reading the _Times_ attentively enough.

Then, there is the small matter of how to “cancel or repudiate” a covert program in such a way that anyone would know about it.

So what has the Administration done with the Iran democracy programs that people besides Leverett and Mann actually know about? Mostly, they were funded by a supplemental, and never budgeted. It doesn’t appear that all the money was actually obligated (i.e., spent down). So are Leverett and Mann calling for a rescission (i.e., withdrawal of the unspent funds)? It’s not clear.

Perhaps they are expressing concern about the new and amusingly titled “Near East Regional Democracy”: program. Yes, NERD! Right now, it looks like $25 million, to be awarded “on a competitive basis.” Some of that could conceivably go to NGOs in Iran, if they choose to apply. But there is no assurance that they ever will.

Op-ed fact checking: an idea whose time has come.

Art of the Blown Headline

Back in March, a headline in the _Washington Post_ conflated a North Korean missile test with a nuclear test. ACA’s Peter Crail “blogged it here”:

They’ve done it again, this time with “Iran”:

bq. Correction to This Article
A headline and earlier versions of this article, including in the print edition of today’s Washington Post, incorrectly said that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had linked a medium-range missile test to his country’s nuclear program.

Not that a connection between Iran’s nuclear and missile programs is in any way implausible — quite the contrary! But it would have been pretty remarkable for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to come out and say it.

Keeping Up With The Post-It

The _New York Times_ had a different boner in “their coverage”: of the same event today:

Though she avoided details, Mrs. Clinton was giving voice to a growing concern among administration officials, who have now had time to review the intelligence, that Iran seems to have made significant progress in at least two of the three technologies necessary to field an effective nuclear weapon.

The first is enriching uranium to weapons grade, now under way at the large nuclear complex at Natanz. The second is developing a missile capable of reaching Israel and parts of Western Europe, and now the country has several likely candidates. The third is designing a warhead that will fit on the missile.


Let’s put it this way. If Iran were actually enriching uranium to weapons grade at Natanz, this would have been the biggest buried lede in decades.

Journalism. It’s harder than it looks.