Times Missile Story Missing a Half

Raises questions about using the WikiLeaks cables

The New York Times has come under some fire for overplaying the role of Iran in the Iraq war in its reporting on past WikiLeaks document dumps. This week, some are accusing the paper of overplaying the same card.

It began on Cablegate Day One, when the Times published a lengthy report headlined “Iran Fortifies its Arsenal with Aid of North Korea.” The story—by William J. Broad, James Glanze, and David E. Sanger, with reporting from Andrew W. Lehren—did not bury the lede. It opened:

Secret American intelligence assessments have concluded that Iran has obtained a cache of advanced missiles, based on a Russian design, that are much more powerful than anything Washington has publicly conceded that Tehran has in its arsenal, diplomatic cables show.

The diplomatic cable from which the reporters drew most of their supporting evidence is this from February of this year. It features notes on a meeting between then-acting assistant secretary of the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation Vann H. Van Diepen and a Russian team led by Deputy Secretary of the Russian National Security Council Vladimir Nazarov. The Times reported that, according to the cable, Iran had obtained nineteen BM-25 missiles, based on the Russian-designed R-27, from North Korea. The revelations brought some ominous conclusions.

The missiles could for the first time give Iran the capacity to strike at capitals in Western Europe or easily reach Moscow, and American officials warned that their advanced propulsion could speed Iran’s development of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The problem with the report is, as FAIR was first to note, the cable also contains much
to counter or at least shed doubt on the idea that Iran possesses the missiles. This comes from the Russian end of the meeting and the Times did not include notes on the position of the skeptical Russian officials in its report, or mention, or paraphrase it. And the paper did not publish the full cable on its website, as it has done in conjunction with other stories based on the latest WikiLeaks dump. The paper said the cable was not published in full “At the request of the Obama administration.”

To add balance to the fear-stoking claims that Iran had its hands on the longer range missiles, the Times might have included something from this paragraph, point twenty-six in the cable, which was picked up by FAIR. (Our emphasis.)

Russia said that during its presentations in Moscow and its comments thus far during the current talks, the U.S. has discussed the BM-25 as an existing system. Russia questioned the basis for this assumption and asked for any facts the U.S. had to provide its existence such as launches, photos, etc. For Russia, the BM-25 is a mysterious missile. North Korea has not conducted any tests of this missile, but the U.S. has said that North Korea transferred 19 of these missiles to Iran. It is hard for Russia to follow the logic trail on this. Since Russia has not seen any evidence of this missile being developed or tested, it is hard for Russia to imagine that Iran would buy an untested system. Russia does not understand how a deal would be made for an untested missile. References to the missile’s existence are more in the domain of political literature than technical fact. In short, for Russia, there is a question about the existence of this system.

Or this, from point twenty-nine, also our emphasis:

In the media, and more importantly in the MTCR Information Exchange, countries have offered direct evidence of the transfer of the BM-25 from North Korea to Iran. Russia asked if the U.S. had pictures of the missile in Iran. The U.S. did not, but noted that North Korea had paraded the missile through the streets of Pyongyang. Russia disagreed. Russia said it had reviewed the video of the North Korean military parade and concluded that North Korea had shown a different missile. Russia does not think the BM-25 exists. The missile appears to be a myth, and some say that it is based on a Russian missile. However, no one has seen it, and Russia cannot find traces of it. The U.S. said it would endeavor to provide further information on the existence of the BM-25 at the next round of talks, noting that reaching agreement on this point will affect the joint assessment of Iranian and North Korean missile capabilities.

As FAIR has written in an “Action
compelling readers to question Times public editor Arthur Brisbane on the matter, “the full contents of the cable give a much different picture than the Times gives its readers.”

It is important to note, as John Pomfret and Walter Pincus do in an article questioning the “North Korea-Iran missile link” now online at The Washington Post, that “the Americans and the Russians came to the meeting with competing agendas.”

The Americans were intent on emphasizing the Iranian threat because of their fears about Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons programs and their support for a multibillion-dollar missile defense shield that is a priority of the Obama administration. The Russians focused on playing down the threat because they opposed the missile shield and because of their embarrassment that Russian technology was showing up in North Korean and Iranian missile systems.

However, it does seem as if the Times has adopted the same emphasis as the Americans in its reading of the cables. And the evidence, as the Post story points out, does not stack up.

At one point, the U.S. side said it believed the BM-25 “was sold to Iran by North Korea.” The American team cited news reports as proof. But the main news source on the issue, a story by the German newspaper Bild Zeitung in 2005, quoted German intelligence sources as saying only that Iran had purchased 18 kits made up of missile components for the BM-25 from North Korea - not 19 of the missiles themselves.

Going outside of the cable, the duo report:

A senior U.S. intelligence official said Tuesday that he was unaware of any sale of a complete BM-25, although there was probably a transfer of kits.

“There has been a flow of knowledge and missile parts” from North Korea to Iran, he said, “but sale of such an actual missile does not fully check out.”

The worry here is not necessarily that the Times report is incorrect—it might well be that nineteen BM-25 missiles were shipped to Tehran and used, somehow, in Iran’s launch of its Safir satellite in early 2009. The cable is a bit of a he said-she said situation, with his and hers takes on the murky evidence there to sort through.

The worry is that the Times chose, for whatever reason, to emphasize what one side said and not the other by virtually ignoring notes in the cable on Russia’s skepticism about the movement of the missiles and the transmission of missile technology. The reader of the Times article is not privy to the disagreement, the debate, or any of the gray stuff that might bring some of the more frightening assertions that open the report into perspective. And if WikiLeaks had not published the cable itself, readers would have no idea that the matter is an open question, and not an open-and-shut case.

The report and its critics raise some interesting questions about how outlets treat the WikiLeaks cables. The most interesting might be this: if you are going to report on a cable, should you always make
the source able available to your readers in raw form?

The obvious answer would be no. We pick and choose all the time which information gleaned from sources is best to use in our reporting. But the WikiLeaks case is different, because source material is easily accessible, in full, somewhere else. And the matters at hand are often extraordinarily sensitive. In the case of Times’s report on Iran’s missiles, the decision not to publish the full cable at the behest of the Obama administration seems to have undermined the credibility of the report. At the very least, it has allowed others to do so, and brought into question the motives behind the emphasis the Times chose.

Those motives might be very reasonable. We don’t know as yet; there has been little comment from the paper regarding these criticisms. I contacted public editor Brisbane, who told me that he had not written anything in response to critics of Monday’s article and that he prefers not to comment outside of what he publishes. He also will not say whether he will be publishing on the matter. We will be on the lookout.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.