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.