Times Does a Wiki Rewrite

Take two on the maligned missile story

Yesterday we pointed to reporting by FAIR and The Washington Post that brought into question a New York Times report on the WikiLeaks embassy cables published Sunday. The report suggested Iran had obtained medium range missiles from North Korea, making much of the concerns of American diplomats expressed during a meeting reported on in one of the released cables. The same dispatch also showed that Russians involved in the meeting were far more skeptical about whether Iran had obtained the missiles—the Times left that part out of its final report. The result? A pretty scary “Iran’s weapons could reach as far as Moscow” piece.

The Times has clearly noted the criticism, publishing a new report on A15—the original had made A12—titled, “Wider Window Into Iran’s Missile Capabilities Offers a Murkier View.”* It is not exactly a mea culpa, but fleshes out more soberly and less alarmingly the remaining questions about the transfer of the missiles. Focusing on a dozen cables, Mark Mazzetti and William J. Broad write:

It was one of the most provocative assertions to emerge from the WikiLeaks cache — a diplomatic cable from this past February confidently describing the sale of 19 missiles to Iran by North Korea that could give Tehran the ability to strike Western Europe and Russia.

But a review of a dozen other State Department cables made available by WikiLeaks and interviews with American government officials offer a murkier picture of Iran’s missile capabilities. Despite the tone of the February cable, it shows there are disagreements among officials about the missiles, and scant evidence that they are close to being deployed.

And later:

The dozen cables provide a glimpse of secret discussions between the United States and a number of foreign governments about the BM-25, described earlier this week in an article in The New York Times. Their views are colored by their relationships with Iran.

The Israelis, for instance, take a more alarmist stance than the United States because Israel regards Iran as its greatest threat. Russia, on the other hand, denies that the BM-25 even exists.

In the cables, American officials argue that North Korea developed the medium-range weapon based on a Russian design, the R-27, once used on Soviet submarines to carry nuclear warheads.

The cables describe how the North Koreans, in turn, transferred “missiles” or “missile systems” to Iran. The cables do not refer to missile parts or “kits.”

But the cables, written over four years, vary in the certainty with which Americans make the claim about the technology transfer, with one cable saying Iran “has probably acquired” BM-25s and another discussing “substantial data indicating Iranian possession of a missile system.”

Later, the reporters reference the cable used most extensively in the Times initial report, noting the Russian skepticism.

We wrote yesterday that the first report raised some questions about how outlets deal with these cables. And the Times, in this latest story, is grappling with them.

The conflicting portraits illustrate how the batch of diplomatic documents made available by WikiLeaks can be glimpses of the American government’s views, sometimes reflecting only part of the story, rather than concrete assertions of fact.

Correction: The article originally stated that the first Times story appeared on the front page. This has been corrected to reflect the fact that it appeared on A12.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.