The assumption that Iran wanted a bomb also encouraged hyperbolic reporting about Iran’s enrichment program itself. The same basic enrichment process can be used to create fuel for both civilian reactors and, after a time, bomb-grade uranium for weapons. But with Iran’s enrichment plant still subject to inspections from the U.N., there is no known evidence it has done the latter. Iran has more than tripled its ability to produce enriched uranium in the last three months, adding some one thousand centrifuges, ABC News announced in an “exclusive report” last April. Citing sources “familiar with the dramatic upgrade,” the report warned that “Iran could have enough material for a nuclear bomb within two years.” Last December’s National Intelligence Estimate concluded that it is “very unlikely” Iran could have enough highly enriched uranium by then. The ABC piece “was fly-by journalism,” says Lewis.
Another story by the Times raised even more hackles among nuclear experts, and this one had shades of the Iraq debacle. In November 2005, The New York Times published a front-page piece by David Sanger and William Broad detailing the contents of a purloined laptop apparently provided to the U.S. under unclear circumstances that was presented as proof that Iran was moving ahead with its nukes effort. The laptop had been alluded to in November 2004 by then Secretary of State Colin Powell, who caused a stir by alleging Iran was “actively working on delivery systems” for a nuclear bomb.
The Times story seemed to corroborate Powell’s controversial allegations. According to American officials, the paper said, documents from the stolen laptop offer the “strongest evidence yet that, despite Iran’s insistence that its nuclear program is peaceful, the country is trying to develop a compact warhead to fit atop its Shahab missile, which can reach Israel and other countries in the Middle East.” The story had plenty of caveats—including quotes from European diplomats doubting the evidence—but its thrust was clear.
It also may not have been accurate. The laptop files never in fact referred to a nuclear warhead. Instead they referred to a missile re-entry vehicle, essentially a compartment that a warhead could, theoretically, go in. What’s more, experts later noted, the compartment was likely too small to hold any nuke Iran was capable of building. Perhaps most important, the work detailed in the laptop ended in 2003, the same time that, according to the recent NIE, Iran stopped its program. (The Post had already referred briefly to the laptop files previously, and suggested they weren’t proof of much.)
Jeffrey Lewis, writing on ArmsControlWonk, his authoritative blog, declared the Times story a “collection of half-truths, pablum, and recycled news.” David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, also excoriated it. Albright wrote a letter to the Times detailing the story’s shortcomings and complaining that it was ultimately “another example where the media has published WMD statements from this administration that are not balanced sufficiently.” (Albright had written the Times back in 2002 complaining about Judith Miller and Michael Gordon’s now discredited “aluminum tubes” story, which helped set off the war in Iraq.) The Times declined to run a correction.
In fairness, the Times has run some superior pieces on Iran. A particularly good one—also by Sanger and Broad— came in February 2007 after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed that Iran had made significant process on enrichment. The story suggested that Ahmadinejad was, in short, full of it.
One news organization that has been particularly inquisitive on the Iran crisis: McClatchy, née Knight-Ridder, the same outfit celebrated for its skeptical reporting in the run-up to the war in Iraq. Last fall (shortly before the NIE), McClatchy’s Washington bureau did a series of pieces probing the administration’s contentions. “There had been a lot of focus on tactical questions like, Will we bomb?—as opposed to larger questions like, What really is the threat from Iran?” says Warren Strobel, senior correspondent for foreign affairs at McClatchy. “So we sat down last August and had a series of meetings. We very deliberately decided we’d look from the ground up, to look at the most basic questions.”