Stories I’d like to see

The facts on Iron Dome, suing over Flight 17, and reviving the VA

This column, a regular feature, originally ran on

1. Figuring out the Iron Dome:

As I kept reading and seeing television reports last week about how the Iron Dome missile defense system was doing such a good job protecting Israel from Hamas’ rockets, this intriguing story by the highly regarded veteran journalist James Fallows appeared on the Atlantic website.

Fallows points to other reports suggesting that the system’s success might have been greatly exaggerated and, in fact, that in the midst of war, reporters — he singles out this Washington Post story — often get seduced by military officials and weapons makers into overstating how effective some new piece of weaponry has been.

So, there is obviously a lot more work to be done here figuring out just how good the Iron Dome really is.

Beyond that, there’s the business story related to who makes the system. Fallows’ Atlantic story, and the one he refers to in the Post, vaguely refer to American and Israeli’s “contractors.” Who? How much did the system cost and what would it cost to replicate it?

Which raises the bigger question: If the Iron Dome works even partly as well as the Post and others have suggested, why haven’t whoever the contractors are tried to sell it for deployment in other regions endangered by close-range missiles — such as South Korea?

2. Who’s going to get sued for the Flight 17 tragedy?

As much as we Americans live in a culture in which it seems that someone can always get sued for something whenever there is a man-made tragedy, the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 could prove to be the exception.

The real culprits seem to be Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists. They are not likely to be the kind of defendants who can be dragged into court, let alone have assets that can be claimed by the victims’ families.

After the September 11 attacks, when those obviously at fault were the al Qaeda terrorists, families of the victims still managed to make claims against the airlines and even the makers of the jets for lax security — though with limited success. Much of the litigation was also rendered moot by the establishment of the federal victims compensation fund. But in this case, the Malaysian airliner seems to have followed a flight path that had not (yet) been declared unsafe by international airline-regulatory officials.

Can that regulatory body — the International Air Transport Association — be sued successfully? What about the Russians, if it can be proved that they supplied the antiaircraft missiles to the separatists?

I doubt it on both counts.

But it’s time for a story sorting out how the always-creative air-crash plaintiffs’ bar may be dealing with one of its greatest challenges.

3. Getting the inside view of the VA:

The Obama administration has said it wants to remake the Department of Veterans Affairs — starting with making it more open and accountable.

Here’s a way for someone in the press to take them up on that.

President Barack Obama recently nominated Robert McDonald, the former chief executive of Proctor & Gamble and a West Point graduate, to serve as secretary of Veterans Affairs. Why shouldn’t one reporter on the VA beat ask to be given access to all the briefings and briefing memos McDonald must now be receiving to bring him up to speed on the challenges he is going to face when he takes the job, as well as the issues he is going to have to be knowledgeable about when he faces his Senate confirmation hearings?

It would be a new, clearer window into the story, as well as a way to personalize it by seeing it all through the eyes of the new boss as he prepares to take the job.

The acting head of the VA told Congress last week that the agency needs more than $17 billion to get its act together. Can that possibly be true? What do McDonald’s briefing books say about that? And what does the former business executive think of that seemingly crazy-high number?

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Steven Brill , the author of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight To Fix America’s Schools, has written for magazines including New York, The New Yorker, Time, Harper's, and The New York Times Magazine. He founded and ran Court TV, The American Lawyer magazine, ten regional legal newspapers, and Brill's Content magazine. He also teaches journalism at Yale, where he founded the Yale Journalism Initiative.