FAIR Action Alert: NYT’s Iran Missile Fizzle – Paper cites WikiLeaks cable, but omits doubts

1 December, 2010 — FAIR

A November 29 New York Times article alleging that Iran possesses powerful missiles with “the capacity to strike at capitals in Western Europe” appears to rest on incredibly shaky evidence–amounting to a German newspaper article that did not fully corroborate the U.S. claims the Times was touting.

The piece relied on one of the cables published by the website WikiLeaks. The Times did not publish the cable on its website “at the request of the Obama administration.” But the paper was willing to selectively use information from that cable to bolster the U.S. claims against Iran.

Doubts about the piece were first raised on the FAIR Blog (11/29/10). The Times piece, written by William Broad, James Glanz and David Sanger, led with a strong claim: “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 paper was clear about the danger: “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.”

At issue are 19 BM-25 missiles Iran allegedly bought from North Korea. The cable in question describes a December 2009 meeting between U.S. and Russian officials. The Times account faithfully recounts the U.S. position on these missiles, but omits the Russian side of the discussion, which cast considerable doubt on the U.S. allegations:

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.

In other words, not only were the Russians not convinced that Iran had purchased these missiles, they weren’t sure that these missiles even existed. The cable went on to note that the U.S. view is that the Iranians might be buying a system that doesn’t work in order to adapt the technology to its existing missile program. Either way, the full contents of the cable give a much different picture than the Times gave its readers.

As Gareth Porter (Inter Press Service, 11/30/10) pointed out, the decision to conceal the cable meant that readers “could not compare the highly distorted account of the document in the Times story against the original document without searching the WikiLeaks website.” He also noted that in the cable, the U.S. side “said the North Koreans had paraded the missile through the streets of Pyongyang. The Russians responded that they had reviewed a video of that parade, and had found that it was an entirely different missile.”

Further doubt was cast on the Times account by an article in the December 1 Washington Post, which noted that the U.S. intelligence claims seemed to be based on remarkably flimsy evidence:

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.

The Post consulted independent experts who raised questions about the missiles, and even quoted U.S. officials who are doubtful:

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.”

As the Post put it: “The snapshot provided by the cable illustrates how such documents–based on one meeting or a single source–can muddy an issue as much as it can clarify it. In this case, experts said, the inference that Iran can strike Western Europe with a new missile is unjustified.”

If the Iraq War has taught us anything, it’s that claims made by the U.S. government about enemy weapons systems are not necessarily true. The Times, which played a critical role in promoting Bush administration disinformation about Saddam Hussein’s arsenal (FAIR Press Release, 6/10/03; Action Alert, 9/8/06), does not appear to have learned this lesson, treating as fact allegations made in secret documents that it declined to share with readers while omitting doubts and caveats contained in those same documents.

The Iranian missiles claim is one of the most frequently discussed parts of the WikiLeaks documents. Fox News host Glenn Beck bragged (11/29/10) that he was on the story before the Times: “The leaks show that North Korea supplied Iran with a cache of advanced missiles based on a Russian design much more powerful than anything that Washington has publicly conceded that Tehran has in its arsenal. Did you know that? If you watch this show, you did.”

Acknowledging that you misled your audience before the New York Times did is not really something to brag about.

Please ask New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane why the Times’ account about Iranian missile purchases was so much more definitive than the actual WikiLeaks cable on which it was based, omitting the cable’s questions about the U.S. claims and failing to point out that the U.S.’s source was a German newspaper. Also ask Brisbane to explore why the paper made the decision not to publish the cable.

New York Times Public Editor
Arthur Brisbane
Phone: (212) 556-7652

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