Jeffrey LewisISIS Against The Gray Lady

The New York Times refuses to correct an egregious error by David Sanger and Bill Broad. Arms Control Wonk has the correspondence.

David Albright, President of the Institute for Science and Interational Security (ISIS) (right), recently criticized a New York Times story by Bill Broad and David Sanger, on the grounds that it contains a “a deep and misleading flaw.” Broad and Sanger, Albright explained, “repeatedly characterize the contents of computer files as containing information about a nuclear warhead design when the information actually describes a reentry vehicle for a missile.”

This made it sound like the US had proof Iran was designing a nuclear weapon, which it does not. Look at it this way: Just because Ford puts seat-belts in its automobiles, doesn’t mean they know how to build people.

In they days following his critique, which was e-mailed to colleagues around the arms control community, David Albright has encouraged the New York Times to run a correction. The Times refuses. has obtained the full set of correspondence between Albright and the New York Times, including letters to reporter Bill Broad and Investigative Editor Matt Purdy. Seriously, read it all.

Together, the correspondence says volumes about the cancer that is killing the Gray Lady: reporters who refuse to admit error, jealously shielded by the editorial staff.

I would draw your attention to three things in this remarkable set of correspondence.

  • First, Investigative Editor Matt Purdy responds to a 1,300 word letter by David Albright by simply reasserting that the Times was right. This is the argument of a five-year old, not a professional editor. After brusquely dismissing Albright’s arguments, Purdy offers to buy Albright a cup of a coffee. Purdy surely meant the offer to be sincere, but the contrast in tone makes the offer seem insulting and dismissive. Such rapid changes in mood, which would challenge Olivier as Hamlet, are typically medicated these days.
  • Second, Bill Broad drags a third reporter into the conversation—Carla Anne Robbins at the Wall Street Journal—by claiming she made the same mistake. David Albright points out that’s not true. Albright’s right; She didn’t. You can read her story for yourself, or my blog post at the time which noted she was very specific in stating that the files “don’t include a warhead design.” Maybe Matt Purdy will buy her a cup of coffee, too.
  • Third, Broad drops new information that would have been, well, news. Apparently, the Times has a novel idea of “fit to print.” The “black box”—which reporters had used to describe the unspecified notional payload—“was a telemetry unit for sending back signals on test flights.”

Now this last point bears comment. Broad added, the telemetry unit “seemed to have little to do with the nuclear case so we left it out …”

That is the core of Albright’s critique: Sanger and Broad were making the “nuclear case” for the Bush Administration, not reporting the news. Sanger and Broad selectively cited information and used misleading descriptions. They gave readers the impression that missile information suggested that Iran was “designing”—again their word—a nuclear device.

In another instance, Broad dismisses Albright’s argument that Iran’s nuclear weapons would be too large for the triconic warhead they described. Broad replies the point “is technical and in my judgment is not worth discussing in any detail.”

Yes, technical information is just not worth discussing in a newspaper.

Bill Broad, mind you, is the Times science writer.


I should add that I’ve spoken to Bill Broad on the phone exactly once, and he seemed like a nice enough guy.


  1. Jeff (History)

    You say tomāto, they say tomăto.

    Point one, Bill Broad says that “Google defines a reentry vehicle…” Google doesn’t define anything. You can Google “reentry vehicle” and get over a million returns, but if you click “definition” it takes you to, where you will not find the definition that Mr. Broad states.

    I’m also suspicious of this “substantial range of sources” that Purdy mentions. I’m sure they can find any number of people within the administration and the Blair government and elsewhere who will back up their conclusions. The question is, can they find a disinterested third party who reaches the same conclusion? What does the IAEA say?

  2. BBCWatcher

    Has David Albright contacted the Times’s Omnibudsman? You would think the Times would be both careful and accurate when it comes to any issues related to WMD given their past, deficient performance—and that the Omnibudsman would be keenly interested in any ongoing factual inaccuracies.

  3. Mr.Murder (History)

    A right leaning blog of international merit (JINSA, a pro-Israel blog) tracked the first missile shipments to Iran from China, via the US and voluntary sanctions in the Reagan and Bush Sr Presidencies.

    “After the 20-minute meeting between President Bush and Premier Li, Secretary Baker indicated that the Premier promised to provide a letter that would outline, in detail, China’s pledge to abide by the MTCR.93 On February 5, Secretary Baker told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Chinese had in fact sent the letter committing themselves to compliance.94”

    “No progress was made publicly for nearly a week, On February 21, after the Chinese had continued to repeat their demand that the United States lift the sanctions before they would agree to abide by the MTCR, the State Department Spokesperson Margaret Tutwiler indicated that the sanctions which were enacted in June were being lifted. The next day, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued the following statement:

    ‘Upon the effective lifting of the three sanctions by the U.S. government, China will act in accordance with the existing Missile Technology Control Regime guidelines and parameters in its export of missiles and missile technology’.97”

    So, the idea of voluntary compliance kind of takes an entirely new light with China owing so much of our National Debt.

    In fact, China was a bigger proliferation threat than anyone at the time, and Iran already appears to have been given a stock of conventional use weapons:

    “Concern in the United States over the role China played in promoting missile proliferation resulted from several factors. The seemingly indiscriminate use of missiles during the Iran-Iraq War alarmed the entire world. During the protracted conflict, in which the U.S. supported Iraq, Silkworm anti-ship missiles sold by China to Iran threatened Gulf oil tankers and the American ships which escorted them. As a result, the Reagan Administration froze sales of high technology to China until it halted further missile sales to Iran.6 Additionally, demand on the world market for missiles increased. China tried to export M-9 missiles to meet that demand.7”

    What are the odds that sanctions threats forced item sourcing directly to Rumsfeld interests as part of Iran/Contra and Ghorbanifar? Classic propoganda move, oppose something on the market, then establish channels for increased profiteering and on public dollar.

    Perhaps some spooks out there can shed light on this.

    “In May of 1988, the New York Times reported that Pakistan had tested a nuclear capable missile developed with Chinese assistance.”8
    ‘8 Bernard E. Trainor, “Pakistan Accused of a Nuclear Move,” New York Times, May 24, 1988, A1. The fact that this was reported and seemingly confirmed by an additional extensive report in the Washington Post suggests that those in the U.S. government who were responsible for these matters were aware of it. Although not specific public information was available, I assume that the issue was discussed privately between representatives of the United States government and the appropriate elements within the Chinese and Pakistani governments, as it appeared in the newspapers most read by policymakers. For a discussion of the role of the press in affecting the policy process see John W. Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies as well as Doris Graber, Mass Media in American Politics. In his study, The Washington Reporters, Stephen Hess analyzed and quantified the most influential American newspapers.’

    Intersting, how two major newspapers coordinated INTEL leaks and talking points to coordinate sanctions threats. Bush Sr move there, rather shrewd diplomacy at peacetime, but we’ve seen no such tact this time around…

    B-b-b-b-but it appears it was one of our biggest allies who was getting the technology:

    ”At this time, the United States learned that the Chinese had secretly sold 36 CSS-2 “East Wind” missiles to Saudi Arabia.9”

    In return for further voluntary compliance, the following was said:

    “In Beijing, the United States proposed regular and formal discussions of missile proliferation. The Chinese responded by indicating that they had not sold ballistic missiles to any country other than Saudi Arabia.17 Although the Administration did not take this statement as an adequate pledge to halt any further sales, American defense experts discussed new programs with Chinese army officials that would transfer additional military technology to China to signal that the United States felt more assured about the situation.18 Then, on September 7, in a meeting with Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping declared that China would behave in a”responsible way” in its sale of advanced missiles.19”

    Carlucci? Well it looks like we have the Carlyle Group™ in action! Turns out the Huei Mei affair had longstanding roots to Bush Sr portfolio profiles.

    The deeper one digs, the more shit one finds.

  4. rj (History)

    So Broad says the size of the warheads is “technical” and “not worth discussing in any detail”—like, say, the specs of aluminum tubes, and which kinds would be likely candidates for use in a nuclear centrifuge and which couldn’t be used that way at all…How they can still be making exactly the same mistakes, apparently willfully, is absolutely beyond me—and profoundly depressing. We desperately need a paper of record, and we clearly no longer have one. Bad, very bad for us all.

  5. BE6-II

    Scary, but very scary in context: (look for judy “woman of mass destruction” miller) Ofcourse this also explains Albrights interest in the New York times reporting.

    Bamford is the guy behind puzzle palace. The only person I know of who got sued to prevent the publication of stuff based on FOIA released documents only to have what he published become a textbook in the militairy….

  6. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    I think David has tried very hard to steer the Times away from sensationalism, especially on the aluminum tubes issue.

    I understand that David made contrary evidence about the tubes available to Miller, undermining her claim that she was only as good as her sources.

    But those are “technical issues” and not worth discussing, right?

  7. Bill M (History)

    Wow, the arrogance is just amazing. This does help clear up an oddity in the original story (a small one , I mean, not one of the massive ones). I noticed. Joseph Cirincione wondered if this was an action of a “sector” of the rocketry program, as in a normal channel of study by a team of engineers. The NYT re-phrased it as a “faction,” suggesting that one of the many factions in the Iranian government (not the rocket program) was secretly building a bomb. I assumed at the time this was just a misunderstanding, but now it seems this was part of an intentional pattern to alarm the reader with inuendo.

    Separately, Jeff, the “definition” of a reentry vehicle they use comes from the START treaty, and is in its own terms correct. ( The trick is, START is based on the starting assumption that what we are talking about is nuclear weapons in the first place. We can carry that trick out as far as we want. For instance:

    “75. (77) The term “parking site” means a location, within a rail garrison, at which deployed rail-mobile launchers of ICBMs are based and fixed structures for rail-mobile launchers of ICBMs may be located.”

    Thus, any reference to “parking site” in any Iranian document can be taken as proof of nuclear missiles, if we only use the START definition.

  8. JS Narins (History)

    The UK Telegraph version of the story includes this quote:

    “The documents […] are said to reveal experiments with warhead designs characteristic of nuclear devices.”

    More fear-mongering with this comment ”’The Europeans’ assessment is very close to that of the Americans,’ said a western source.” (could be John Bolton for all we know here).

    Thanks again for your efforts, Jeffrey.

  9. JS Narins (History)

    Bill M,

    Broad is quoting START, and start provides unique definitions for warhead and re-entry vehicle on purpose.

    In fact, only warheads count.

    So, by Broad’s own use of definitions, the distinction between RV and Warhead is PARAMOUNT.

    “123. (9) The term “warhead” means a unit of account used for counting toward the 6000 maximum aggregate limit and relevant sublimits as applied to deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers.”