Jeffrey LewisRitter v. Albright

Did anyone else see Scott Ritter’s deeply personal attack on David Albright?

It is high time the mainstream media began dealing with David Albright for what he is (a third-rate reporter and analyst), and what he isn’t (a former U.N. weapons inspector, doctor, nuclear physicist or nuclear expert). It is time for David Albright, the accidental inspector, to exit stage right. Issues pertaining to nuclear weapons and their potential proliferation are simply too serious to be handled by amateurs and dilettantes.

I wasn’t sure whether I ought to mention the piece at all, especially after talking with a few colleagues who know David much better than I do. He seems to be taking the high-road.

Then a colleague of mine sent an e-mail with what I thought was a fair-minded response to the article. Said colleague was reluctant to let me post it — having to be anonymous and feeling that wasn’t quite fair — but I thought the commentary was too good not to share:

This is way over the top. Let’s grant that David Albright is a flawed human being. But he’s hardly alone in that, and if he stretches his credentials a bit, he may not be the only one, or even the worst offender. Ritter is no PhD nuclear physicist, either, and it does him little credit to level charges of this type against another person.

The article may have been triggered by Albright’s recent publication on the Swiss laptop, but it is their differences on the Iran issue that really seem to inspire Ritter to conduct this airstrike. (Of course, the Swiss case does have implications for Iran.) Notice, by contrast, how effusively Ritter praises Albright on North Korea.

It’s painfully apparent that Ritter is parlaying his experience in Iraq and his early opposition to the Iraq war into a thin veneer of expertise concerning Iran. Consider the following passage from this article:

“While Iran did indeed possess uranium enrichment capability at Natanz and a heavy water plant (under construction) at Arak (as reported by Albright thanks to information provided by the Iranian opposition group MEK, most probably with the help of Israeli intelligence)…”

Anyone follows these issues closely enough will realize from the above that Ritter is not adequately familiar with the convoluted history of public disclosures concerning Iran’s nuclear programs.

Add to that the strong and sour whiff of jealousy emanating from this article. One guy did a single tour in Iraq and gets quoted in the New York Times and Washington Post on a regular basis; the other guy did many years there, and after a brief moment of celebrity, is now ignored.

That may explain Ritter’s collateral attack on the reputation of Mahdi Obeidi. I’ve never heard anyone question his credibility or relevance before, but it was Albright who made him famous and got him out of Iraq. Reading between the lines, one gets a sense that Ritter thinks he himself should have been the one.

But let’s clear away the clutter. For good or for bad, what a person produces is his best credential. Thanks in large part to his access to sources, David Albright produces analysis that is impossible to ignore. Others — people who no longer seem to have access, for whatever reasons, and are inclined to pen red-meat political tracts and personal attacks — fall into another category.

Comments

  1. emptywheel (History)

    FWIW, I don’t have a PhD in nuclear physics either—though I do have a PhD in an entirely unrelated field.

    But Obeidi’s story is rife with internal contradictions certainly at least partly due to creativity on the part of his interrogators. While I don’t know that Albright’s role in that creativity was anything more than willful dupe (indeed, he may have prevented the story from getting REALLY creative), Ritter is justified in questioning the Obeidi tale.

  2. Ak Malten (History)

    Dear Jeffrey,

    here is an article that deals with David Albright latest revelations:

    Blueprints for advanced nukes possibly sold: report

    http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5j9hJbJWhcA7PMnBt0YGHZG7r5PxQ

    Jun 15, 2008

    WASHINGTON (AFP) — A report compiled by a former UN arms inspector warns that an international smuggling ring that sold bomb-related parts to Libya, Iran and North Korea also managed to acquire blueprints for an advanced nuclear weapon.

    The Washington Post reported on Sunday that a copy of the draft it had obtained suggests the plans could have been shared secretly with a number of countries or rogue groups.

    The study focuses on drawings discovered in 2006 on computers owned by Swiss businessmen, according to the paper.

    They included essential details for building a compact nuclear device that could be fitted on a type of ballistic missile used by Iran and more than a dozen developing countries, The Post said.

    The computer contents — among more than 1,000 gigabytes of data seized — were recently destroyed by Swiss authorities under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is investigating the now-defunct smuggling ring previously led by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.

    But UN officials cannot rule out the possibility that the blueprints were shared with others before their discovery, the report’s author, David Albright, a prominent nuclear weapons expert, told The Post.

    “These advanced nuclear weapons designs may have long ago been sold off to some of the most treacherous regimes in the world,” the paper quotes Albright as saying in his report.

    A copy of the report, expected to be published later this week, was provided to The Post.

    The A.Q. Khan smuggling ring was previously known to have provided Libya with design information for a nuclear bomb.

    But the blueprints found in 2006 are far more troubling, Albright said, because they offered instructions for building a compact device.

    The lethality of such a bomb would not be significantly enhanced, but its smaller size might allow for delivery by ballistic missile, the paper said.

    —- end —-

    Now I have 6 questions I would like to see answered.

    1. Why does David Albright keep us in the dark for two years, before releasing a report on the issue?

    2. Why did the Swiss Government, under the eyes of IAEA officials, destroy the hard evidence of the main body of allegations against their own citizens, before their days in court? And I do not want to buy their excuse, that the files were destroyed, because of the proliferation risks they contained !

    3. Who is holding the original documents, within Kahn’s network? Do not tell me they are not there !

    4. From which Nuclear Weapon State were these document stolen and by whom? They already were the source of proliferation and should have been guarded better !

    5. Why is it brought into the open, by the Swiss Government and David Albright at this moment? or in other words: Who is the benefit of this all?

    6. Is there a connection between these files and the files on the laptop stolen from Iran? This connection would be enough to start another war on false information !

    I have the feeling we are fooled into making false conclusions. Again !!!

    —-

    And here is a link to the article “Another Tenet Sting Failure?”
    by Gordon Prather

    Prather’s is also not bying “the truth” in David Albright story….

    http://www.antiwar.com/prather/?articleid=13025

    Ak Malten,
    Global Anti-Nuclear Alliance

  3. emptywheel (History)

    Bummer. I guess that link above doesn’t work.

    Here it is again:

    http://thenexthurrah.typepad.com/the_next_hurrah/2006/02/the_incredible__1.html

  4. Cliff

    Im not an expert, but it appears to me that Ritter’s article, while perhaps harsh, was warranted. Ritter hasn’t described himself as a physicist or anything of the sort. It IS important to call out someone who peddles information to the media under false credentials, especially in matters like these and especially in todays climate. The article addressed the issue in relation to specific claims and facts, even though Scott didn’t have space to elaborate much (and the article didn’t seem to be aimed at a scientific audience).

    So I am curious: Was Albright’s role in UNSCOM consistent with Ritter’s impression? Can the other issues Ritter lists be counter-argued in a fact-based manner?

    If there are arguments that should be made to what Ritter said, I want to hear them, but intellectual dishonesty is much more serious than making a factual error.

    For that reason, Scotts words seem justified to me.

  5. confusedponderer (History)

    What Ritter and Prather suggest is that Albright is somewhat of an empty vessel, that is being filled with information that people want him to have and want to have out.

    In a nutshell the accusation of both Ritter and Prather is that he lacks the expertise to know when he’s being suckered, that he is, as emptywheel said, indeed a dupe. The open question would be whether he is a witting or unwitting disinformer.

    What ticks off Ritter and Prather is certainly this recent piece by Albright:

    http://www.isis-online.org/publications/expcontrol/Advanced_Bomb_16June2008.pdf

    It caused Ritter to point to his lack of analysis experience and lack of real physics knowledge and Dr. Prather, former chief scientist of the army and who has worked on nukes at Lawrence Livermore and Sandia, to address the issue from a technical side.

    http://www.antiwar.com/prather/?articleid=13025

    The main problem both appear to have with Albright, and that is contributing to the attacks being so harsh, his apparent gullibility aside, is that he is contributing to the innuendo that helps the Cheney crowd to establish the case for an Iranian nuclear weapons program. Ritter points out that by essentially posing as a former weapons inspector, he lends unwarranted credit to these allegations. And I have to admit that I agree with them.

  6. Rwendland (History)

    Note also that Scott Ritter contradicts Hans Blix on UNSCOM’s role re nuclear.

    Scott Ritter: “[UNSCOM] shared the nuclear file with the International Atomic Energy Agency”.

    Hans Blix: “IAEA would be responsible for the nuclear sphere” (page 20 of his book)

    My reading of UNSC 687 has Hans Blix correct on this one: “9(iii) The provision by the Special Commission of the assistance and cooperation to the Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency”, though Blix says (page 20) some in the U.S. administration opposed a role for the IAEA in Iraq under UNSC 687.

    So it seems to me Scott Ritter, working for UNSCOM, had no direct responsibility for nuclear inspections and was only giving assistance to the IAEA.

    Blix says “A good deal of friction developed when we at the IAEA felt UNSCOM sought to treat the agency as a dog on a leash. … a reflection of the forces in Washington” , “to the IAEA, some of the UNSCOM inspectors seemed to act Rambo-style.”, “UN people … called UNSCOM staff ‘cowboys’”. Ouch. (page 22-23) Blix obviously thought Ritter was at the Rambo end of the spectrum, contributing to the 1997 suspension of UNSCOM inspections. (pages 33-34)

  7. Tim H (History)

    Jeffrey,
    And what of Dr. Prather? Or is your (or Mr. Albright’s) command of the technical issues similar or superior to his? What is most galling is that I repeatedly hear Mr. Albright on every media outlet speaking as a “nuclear weapons expert” when he as no experience, none, in the design, manufacture, testing, diagnosis or weaponization of nuclear devices. Whereas, Dr. Prather, despite his vast background is relegated to Antiwar.com and other fringe forums.

  8. Lisa Simpson

    I am really surprised that there has been no comment on behalf of David in this forum, especially by the moderators who so readily link to his work. I know a bit more about the back story both to David’s credentials and Ritter’s position, but I question whether it is worth a point by point refutation which is likely to result in arguments about minutiae. I would only say this:

    1. How media choose to identify someone has a lot more to do with what the producer/journalist thinks will sell than how the person identifies himself. If you want to know how David identifies himself, read his bio on the ISIS website.

    2. For anyone to think that ISIS or David is a conduit for any one person or group with political motives has not followed the group very long. I don’t know many others who have been attacked so evenly from both sides of many hot-button issues.

    3. Why Ritter has any credibility with the informed readership of this site is beyond me. I could go into details, but I didn’t think it would be necessary for this audience. His history speaks for itself.

    I really don’t want to get into a “flame war”, but I can’t believe that no one else, especially those of you out there (and I know there are many) who rely on ISIS’ independent and informed analyses have not spoken up.

  9. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Well, the moderators were at a conference.

    Anyway, I was waiting to post Frank Von Hippel’s defense of David. Like most things Frank writes, it is better than what I could have managed on my own.

    If I had to have one person on a desert island to help me solve a technical problem, I would pick Albright over Ritter or Gordon Prather.

  10. Andy (History)

    Tim H. brings up interesting questions and to answer them I think one only needs to look at Dr. Prather’s writing. The reason Dr. Prather is not the “go-to” expert on nuclear issues is because Mr. Prather has a political agenda which is completely obvious in almost everything he writes. Much of his work, actually, more resembles an op-ed than the kind of serious technical analysis one would expect from someone with his resume. Perhaps if he didn’t lace so much of his commentary with phrases like, “…it is slightly comforting, isn’t it, knowing that God apparently hasn’t told Bush to precipitate Armageddon before leaving office”, “neo-crazy syncophant,” etc., he might have a wider audience and more credibility as an expert to be listened to.

    For comparison, we can look at Jeffrey’s writings here – while I think it’s probably safe to say that Jeffrey isn’t a fan of the Bush administration, his criticisms are based on policy and not snide perceptions of Bush’s supposed religious views or politically-charged (and meaningless) catch-phrases like “neo-crazy sycophant” and cutesy alternative names for people like “Bonkers Bolton.” Such terminology belongs in an elementary schoolyard and not in a serious policy debate. In other words, how one frames arguments and the context in which they make those arguments matter, and Dr. Prather is his own worst enemy in that regard. If he wants to be taken seriously on matters of policy or technical expertise, and if he wants to persuade anyone outside of a narrow, already converted political spectrum to listen to him, then he needs to fundamentally shift the content and character of what he writes. He’s on “fringe forums,” as you term it, because the fringe is the only place inanities like “Bonkers Bolton” are allowed and even encouraged as legitimate and cogent criticism and debate.

    All that is not to say that Prather does not make good points on occasion. To me, however, it’s exceedingly annoying and difficult to distill those valid points from the polemic schoolyard content that is so much a part of Dr. Prather’s writing.

    And the same criticisms I have for Dr. Prather apply to an even greater extent to Scott Ritter. How is one to take him seriously when he goes off on such a vitriolic rant? Ritter’s bias has taken him over to such an extent that he cannot keep himself from attacking anyone who provides information or analysis that contradicts what he believes is, or should be, the truth.

  11. Andy (History)

    I just listened to antiwar.com’s interview with Dr. Prather and he has some comments on David Albright in response to this question from interviewer Scott Horton:

    So who is this guy, David Albright exactly, cause it seems like, I remember not too long ago [Horton enters into a long description of Albright’s skepticism regarding a NYT story on the ‘laptop of death’] …and it seemed like he was on our side against the neo-crazy media sycophants that time, but you’ve often been very critical of this guy. I know he’s in the newspapers all the time as the expert on what’s going on with the axis of evil and their nuclear programs. Do you know this guy, did he used to work at the nuclear labs with you or what?

    Dr. Prather responds:

    No, hell no. In fact, he doesn’t even have a PhD in physics, so he’s not a member of the club, so he doesn’t have the union card. He shouldn’t be able to call himself Dr. Albright and allow other people to think he has a PhD in physics, or nuclear physics, which he does not have. I understand he does have some kind of honorary degree in something or other – I don’t know what. He tells somebody he is a former IAEA nuclear weapons inspector – he never was, and we have testimony from Scott Ritter and others as to exactly what his role was, which was not an employee of the IAEA but at best a consultant, and he learned more than he provided [laughs] in that consulting business. Ok, so he’s not a nuclear physicist, he doesn’t know diddly squat about nuclear weapons; the basis, as far as I can tell, for his so-called knowledge of nuclear weapons was…Ted Taylor, who used to be a designer of nuclear weapons at Los Alamos, who was in a hospice or something like that, in Maryland or Northern Virginia or something like that. He [Albright] claims to have had a number of conversations with him. It’s just like Bob Woodward though, you know, [laughs] how do we know? Bob Woodward claims to have interviewed [former director of central intelligence ] Casey when he was comatose [Dr. Prather goes into an extended discussion of Woodward meeting the CIA director in a coma] I actually know Bob Woodward, I’ve never met David Albright.

    Dr. Prather was more kind to David Albright in early 2007 when writing on something on which they were on the “same side”:

    But an internationally recognized expert on uranium-enrichment, David Albright, had publicly questioned – on technical grounds – the suitability of such aluminum-tubes for centrifuges as early as September 2002. And had continued to question it. Consequently, according to Leopold, National Security Council and CIA officials told him Cheney had visited CIA headquarters and asked several CIA officials “to dig up dirt on Albright,” and to put together a dossier that would discredit his work that could be distributed to the media.

    It seems that for the Ritters and Prathers of the world, expertise is a variable dependent upon agreement with one’s position on the topic at hand.

  12. confusedponderer (History)

    Admittedly Prather is a partisan, yes, but among other things for the NPT.

    You guys, and Albright or Ritter or Prather, are not embarking on an academic quest for knowledge and wisdom. You aren’t operating in a vacuum. The stuff you deal with has profound political implications, as you well know anyway.

    I am somewhat familiar with the NPT and Prather’s tone aside, on the facts he is largely correct, especially about the extent to which administration utterances do reflect the NPT and IAEA reports correctly. I see that from a legalistic perspective. Official US comments on the Iranian compliance with the NPT are by tendency deceptive or deliberately misleading.

    For that there is a good explanation I think. Probably that the sole point behind the US diplomacy about the Iranian nuclear program is confronting Iran. The ‘nuclear threat’ is the issue of choice. It is much easier to mobilise national and international support for the isolation of Iran under such a premise, as opposed to, say, regime change.

    I can’t get that passage from that <a href=“http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC04.php?CID=292”>WINEP Paper by Clawson and Eisenstein</a> out of my head (p.29 of the PDF):
    <blockquote><p><b>These key publics must believe that the Islamic Republic is refusing reasonable diplomatic proposals</b>; that no good prospects exist for stopping Iran’s nuclear program short of military force; and that a nuclear Iran is an unacceptable threat to its people, the region, and international peace and stability – if not the global non-proliferation regime.</p></blockquote>To those with such a view there are clear incentives for designing a diplomacy with Iran to fail. I go further in saying that I think that the Cheney wing wants the Iran diplomacy to fail to be finally able to use military force.

    If along the way the NPT becomes road kill, Bolton for instance certainly won’t complain.

    Prather is furious about such cynicism. When he reads Albright writing:<blockquote>How will authorities learn if Iran, North Korea, or even terrorists bought these designs?</blockquote>he must quietly conclude that this will likely result in the US going to Iran demanding them to prove that they did not buy these plans. Albright’s article, held carefully in the subjunctive, is water on the mills of the Cheney crowd. Yes, it <i>could be</i>, but if it isn’t, alas…

    Prather’s beef with Albright is probably that Albright introduces hypotheticals (which Prather obviously considers not credible) into the public discourse where they will persist, correct or incorrect, and contribute to the innuendo that is making the case to bomb Iran. How many Americans do still believe Saddam had WMD?

    Now then Prather goes on to cantankerously imply either a hidden motive, which might be true or not true, or incompetence, which might be true or not true. That aside, the political implications justify a more critical approach, something which Prather possesses in excess, but what Albright lacks.

  13. confusedponderer (History)

    Ho-ho, I have seer abilities!

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iran/2259578/Iran-has-resumed-A-bomb-project%2C-says-West.html

    “Iran has resumed work on constructing highly sophisticated equipment that nuclear experts say is primarily used for building atomic weapons, according to the latest intelligence reports received by Western diplomats.

    The work is aimed at developing the blueprint provided by Dr AQ Khan, the “father” of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, who sold Iran details of how to build atom bombs in the early 1990s.”

Pin It on Pinterest