We’ve Been Through This Movie Before

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By: William E. Jackson Jr.

No reporter of national stature has more often — and with insufficient skepticism — reported the White House view of the Iranian and North Korean nuclear threats than David Sanger, the New York Times White House correspondent. The intellectually nimble Sanger has been channeling onto the front pages of his newspaper a combination of leaked factoids and broadbrush depictions of the growing danger to the United States.

He has become a WMD expert and, like Judith Miller before him, has been spreading the alarm on numerous television shows and in an online video produced for his paper on May 3, the eve of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty conference at the United Nations. This came just after a Sanger piece led the Sunday Times on May 1: “Threats by Iran and North Korea Shadow Talks on Nuclear Arms.”

A few days later, on May 7, in “U.S. Warns North Korea Against Nuclear Test,” Sanger wrote on page one: “The White House statement came a day after The New York Times reported growing concern among administration officials and several intelligence agencies about signs that North Korea might conduct its first nuclear test. … Several officials confirmed those reports on Friday.”

In a more recent Times’ lead story, on May 11, written with Joseph Kahn, Sanger did not mention until the 14th paragraph that “inside the Bush administration, policy makers seem divided on the question of whether North Korea is really headed toward a [nuclear] test.”

But, as had occurred in the more blatant case of Miller’s flat-wrong reports on WMD in Iraq, some “friendly fire” was being laid down from within the walls of The Times, and by one of the same reporters who had challenged Miller’s spin back in 2003.

On Sunday, May 8, in “Tug of War: Intelligence vs. Politics,” reporter Douglas Jehl, an intelligence expert, implied (in my view) that Sanger’s reports on North Korea contained little that was new, had been subject to manipulation by the White House, and at the same time had left out any exploration of dissent within the intelligence community:

?”Some intelligence officials and administration critics are nervous about the quality of current intelligence assessments at a time of new uncertainties about North Korea’s nuclear program, and ambiguous evidence about whether it is moving toward a nuclear test. One of those critics, the former chairman of the National Intelligence Council, stated: ‘This is not just about the behavior of a few individuals but about a culture that permit[s] them to continue trying to skew the intelligence to suit their policy agenda.’?

? “This weekend, the situation in North Korea is providing a new reminder that intelligence is rarely conclusive, and may thus be vulnerable to manipulation. While some in the Bush administration have been quick in recent days to cite what they described as new intelligence indications suggesting that North Korea’s government may be close to staging its first test of a nuclear weapon, at least one intelligence agency was said to have spread word through the administration that its officials had seen nothing particularly new in satellite photographs and other reports.”

This looked very much like a shot across the bow of the over-dramatic reporting in The Times on the emerging North Korean threat.

Another debunking view had appeared earlier, outside New York. The Los Angeles Times on April 30 published “U.S. Downplays Remarks on N. Korea’s Arms Ability: Officials Say the Head of the Defense Intelligence Agency May Have Overstated Pyongyang’s Nuclear Missile Progress,” by Greg Miller and Mark Mazzetti. They wrote: “Although intelligence analysts are increasingly concerned that North Korea may be able to arm a missile with a nuclear warhead, U.S. spy agencies have not obtained evidence confirming that Pyongyang has developed that capability? according to intelligence officials and weapons proliferation experts.

This followed by one day Sanger?s “U.S. Aide Sees Nuclear Arms Advance by North Korea: Cites Skill to Fit Nuclear Weapon on Missile,” on page one, referring to that Defense Intelligence Agency chief.

However, shortly after the Jehl piece, and long after the L.A. Times story, appeared, Sanger suddenly produced for the May 12 edition of the Times, “What Are Koreans Up To? U.S. Agencies Can’t Agree,” which ran on page A14. The story revealed: “Last week, three sources in different parts of the United States government told The New York Times that they had seen or been briefed on evidence” that raised suspicions that preparations were in place for a possible test. Sanger noted: “Some positions are shifting.”

Going back a bit in time, one of the most devastating knockdowns of a Sanger story–singled out by The Washington Post ombudsman, Michael Getler–occurred following his front page “Tests Said to Tie Deal on Uranium to North Korea” on February 2. Sanger reported that U.S. intelligence agencies and scientists had concluded from scientific tests that North Korea had sold processed uranium to Libya–a finding set forth in a classified briefing obtained by The Times. This touched off a hunt to determine if the regime also sold uranium to other countries such as Iran and Syria.

However, in The Post of March 20, Dafna Linzer reported “U.S.
Misled Allies About Nuclear Export: North Korea Sent Material To Pakistan, Not to Libya.” She wrote: “In an effort to increase pressure on North Korea, the Bush administration told its Asian allies in briefings earlier this year that Pyongyang had exported nuclear material to Libya….But that is not what U.S. intelligence reported, according to two officials with detailed knowledge of the
transaction. North Korea, according to the intelligence, had supplied uranium hexafluoride — which can be enriched to weapons-grade uranium — to Pakistan. It was Pakistan, a key U.S. ally with its own nuclear arsenal, that sold the material to Libya. The U.S. government had no evidence, the officials said, that North Korea knew of the second transaction.”

This week, in an interview with the online magazine Salon.com, the Times’ outgoing public editor, Daniel Okrent, referred to the paper’s WMD reporting on Iraq as “very bad journalism.” It would appear that a certain “mindset” at the top is now driving the Times’ coverage of the two other axes of evil, North Korean and Iran. Once again, as in the case of Iraq, the Times in this area has often become the conduit for the official line, as a very able star reporter gains questionable inside tips from anonymous Administration sources, and they wind up on the front page.

“We need to get our policies hard-wired into the brains of our reporters and editors that we are obliged to tell readers how we know what we know,” Executive Editor Bill Keller told outgoing public editor Okrent. He added, “We’re still a little new at this.” Fair enough, responded Okrent, “but the credibility issue is growing old.”

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