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.”
That approach led to stories that challenged some of the administration’s basic assumptions. The stories didn’t claim that Iran had no nuclear-weapons program or that its intentions were peaceful. Instead, McClatchy’s reporters focused on the lack of evidence and the ambiguities. As one of their headlines put it, NO FIRM EVIDENCE OF IRANIAN NUCLEAR WEAPONS. Another story flagged recent feelers from Iran, suggesting it might be willing to make a deal to suspend uranium enrichment. Yet another piece surveyed Iran experts and found a broad swath of agreement that, despite the rhetoric that a nuclear weapon would represent an “existential threat” to Israel, Tehran appeared to want a nuclear capability for “the same reason other countries do: to protect itself.”
All of which would have been unremarkable, were it not for the overwhelming chatter in the other direction. “There’s no doubt that [Iran is] moving forward with the acquisition of a nuclear weapon,” McCain said last fall, a few minutes after he jokingly sang, “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” to a Beach Boys melody. Such talk wasn’t limited to conservatives. Hillary Clinton tried to outflank the administration, asserting in January 2006, “Iran is seeking nuclear weapons” and arguing that the White House actually “chose to downplay the threats.” In April 2006, Joe Klein, Time’s centrist columnist, argued on ABC’s This Week, “We should not take any option, including the use of tactical nuclear weapons, off the table.” (McClatchy’s reporters have rarely been invited to join the discussion. “No one comes to us,” says national-security reporter Jonathan Landay. “I did CSPAN once.”)