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NYT Oversells WikiLeaks/Iranian Missiles Story
WikiLeaks document dumps are largely what media want to make of them. There's one conventional response, which goes something like this: "There's nothing new here, but WikiLeaks is dangerous!" But there's another option: "There's nothing here, except for the part that confirms a storyline we've been pushing." In those cases, WikiLeaks is deemed very, very useful.
That was the case with the last batch of WikiLeaks documents, when the New York Times wrote a long piece about what the documents alleged about Iran's involvement in the Iraq War. Journalist Ali Gharib wrote about that issue (and talked to CounterSpinabout it too). You get a similar feel from the Times' treatment of Iranian weapons in today's Times (11/29/10).
"Iran Fortifies Its Arsenal With the Aid of North Korea" is the self-confident headline, and the piece (co-authored by William Broad, James Glanz and David Sanger) seems remarkably certain about this intelligence:
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 Times' account seems to rely almost entirely on one cable in the WikiLeaks archive-- a "detailed, highly classified account of a meeting between top Russian officials and an American delegation." The Times wastes no time in conveying 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 missiles that Iran allegedly bought from North Korea. It's hard to know how definitive this evidence might be. (There are likely many secret documents pertaining to Iraq's WMDs that proved to be entirely incorrect; because something is secret or confidential does not mean it's uniquely candid or truthful.) The Times does not seem at all skeptical about the story, but there's one thing they won't do: publish the actual cable:
At the request of the Obama administration, The New York Times has agreed not to publish the text of the cable.
So the paper will publish a story that reiterates the most explosive allegations in the cable, but not the cable itself. This is curious.
Luckily WikiLeaks did publish it. And the most interesting thing one learns is that the Russians were deeply skeptical of the U.S. allegations about these missiles:
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 missiles:
The U.S. repeated its earlier comment that Iran and North Korea have different standards of missile development than many other countries, including the U.S. and Russia. North Korea exported No Dong missiles after only one flight test, so it is not unimaginable that it would build and seek to export a system that has not been tested. This is especially true for North Korea because of its need for hard currency. In the U.S. view, the more interesting question is why would Iran buy a missile that has not been tested. One possible answer is that Iran has recognized that the BM-25's propulsion technology exceeds the capabilities of that used in the Shahab-3, and that acquiring such technology was very attractive. Iran wanted engines capable of using more-energetic fuels, and buying a batch of BM-25 missiles gives Iran a set it can work on for reverse engineering. This estimate would be consistent with the second stage of the Safir SLV using steering engines from the BM-25 missile.
Of course it's possible that the North Koreans actually sold Iran missiles that they can use to strike Europe. Or they didn't do any such thing. Or that they sold them missiles that don't actually work. But the Times seems to be going with the first story, based on secret documents that, when you actually read them, suggest strongly that the other two possibilities might be correct. In light of this, the decision not to publish the cable makes a lot more sense: You can make strong allegations about an official enemy without letting your readers see the less than overwhelming evidence.