On Feb. 19, New York Times reporters David Sanger and William Broad filed a story about the International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest report [.pdf] on its inspection and monitoring work in Iran. The lead of story, "Inspectors Say Iran Worked on Warhead," announced the Feb. 18 report’s shocking discovery:
"The United Nations‘ nuclear inspectors declared for the first time on Thursday that they had extensive evidence of ‘past or current undisclosed activities’ by Iran‘s military to develop a nuclear warhead, an unusually strongly worded conclusion that seems certain to accelerate Iran’s confrontation with the United States and other Western countries."
If that isn’t disturbing enough, the story then revealed that the IAEA has "concluded," contrary to America’s intelligence agencies, that Iran has been working feverishly on a nuclear bomb without interruption:
"The report, the first under the new director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, also concluded that Iran’s weapons-related activity apparently continued ‘beyond 2004,’ contradicting an American intelligence assessment published a little over two years ago that concluded that work on a bomb was suspended at the end of 2003."
If this story is true, everyone should be frightened. The IAEA has had extensive evidence that Iran was building a nuclear weapon, but it inexplicably withheld that information from the world until now. More troubling, the combined intelligence resources of the United States not only failed to discover the evidence available to the IAEA, but they also reached the erroneous conclusion that Iran had stopped all work on any nuclear weapon years ago.
The prospect is terrifying: Iran is creating a nuclear arsenal, and nobody can or will warn us in time to avert annihilation.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that none of it is true.
The Times imputes to the IAEA report statements, declarations, and conclusions that just are not there. One can see this easily, just by reading the report and comparing it to the story. You do not need a degree in nuclear physics or chemical engineering to see that the New York Times story is, quite simply, false.
The Times was not alone in fabricating content for the IAEA report. The overwhelming response of American media grossly overstated its significance and rewrote it beyond recognition. The Times‘ story, however, is transparently dishonest, and it raises the legitimate question: Is America’s "paper of record" consciously misrepresenting facts to "accelerate confrontation" between Iran and the West?
The Times wasted no time with facts. It got down to the business of distorting the report right away – in the headline itself, followed by the near-hysterical lead paragraph. Contrary to the Times, the IAEA inspectors do not "say Iran worked on warhead," nor do they for the "first time declare … that they had extensive evidence of past or current undisclosed activities by Iran‘s military to develop a nuclear warhead." Instead, the report (paragraph 41) summarizes information that the IAEA has discussed in over a dozen reports beginning four years ago, making no new "declarations," referring to no new circumstances. See February 2006 report [.pdf], paragraph 38. It then states:
"The information available to the Agency in connection with these outstanding issues is extensive and has been collected from a variety of sources over time. It is also broadly consistent and credible in terms of the technical detail, the time frame in which the activities were conducted and the people and organizations involved. Altogether, this raises concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile. These alleged activities consist of a number of projects and sub-projects, covering nuclear and missile related aspects, run by military related organizations." (Emphasis added.)
The Times‘ story does not quote the language of the report in bold above until the 15th paragraph. Even then, it does not explain that this sentence is the sole basis for the sensational – and sensationally false – claim that the IAEA says, declares, and concludes that Iran had and has a nuclear weapons program.
Two relevant points are obvious from comparing the 10-page IAEA report and the Times‘ story. First, the story’s lead attributes to the report statements of fact that the IAEA does not make – and has never made. Instead of stating that "Iran Worked on Warhead," the IAEA says that it is concerned about the possible existence of past or current activities related to the development of a nuclear payload. No matter how much spin even the masters at the New York Times can put on it, information giving rise to concerns about the possibility of a weapons program is not a "statement," "declaration," or "conclusion" that Iran has a weapons program. To say that one is concerned about the possibility of something is not to say that the something exists. When speaking of weapons that can destroy civilization, most people would agree that the difference is important. Not so the Times, apparently.
Sanger, Broad, and the editors of the New York Times surely know the difference between the possible and the actual. Why then did they describe the IAEA’s statements of possibility as conclusions of fact?
Second, the report does not state or claim that the IAEA has any new information about the possibility of a nuclear weapons program. The report contains no relevant new or different facts, evidence, conclusions, or "declarations." On the contrary, the IAEA (at paragraph 40) is emphatic that it is summarizing information about potential military application previously reported in detail:
"[T]he Agency needs to have confidence in the absence of possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program. Previous reports by the Director General have detailed the outstanding issues and the actions required of Iran, including, inter alia, that Iran implement the Additional Protocol and provide the Agency with the information and access necessary to: resolve questions related to the alleged studies; clarify the circumstances of the acquisition of the uranium metal document; clarify procurement and R&D activities of military related institutes and companies that could be nuclear related; and clarify the production of nuclear related equipment and components by companies belonging to the defense industries." (Emphasis added.)
This litany of issues and questions not only contains nothing new. It is a virtual cut-and-paste from prior IAEA reports going back at least two years. See the IAEA report of May 2008 [.pdf], paragraph 14:
"In addition to the implementation of Iran’s Additional Protocol, for the Agency to provide assurances regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, Iran needs to, inter alia: resolve questions related to the alleged studies…; provide more information on the circumstances of the acquisition of the uranium metal document…; clarify procurement and R&D activities of military related institutes and companies that could be nuclear related…; and clarify the production of nuclear equipment and components by companies belonging to defense industries."
The Times‘ claim that the report "declares" "extensive evidence" of a nuclear weapons program for the "first time" is a crude misconstruction designed to hype the report as news that is "certain to accelerate Iran’s confrontation with the United States and other Western countries." The only relevant differences between current and past reports are completely non-substantive. As noted, the current report (paragraph 41) characterizes the IAEA’s information as "extensive," coming from multiple sources, "broadly consistent," and "credible," then states that, "[a]ltogether, this raises concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile." The IAEA has said the same thing in substance over and over again, for years. For example, the August 2009 IAEA report [.pdf] states (paragraph 19):
"[A]s the Director General has repeatedly emphasized, the information contained in that documentation appears to have been derived from multiple sources over different periods of time, appears to be generally consistent, and is sufficiently comprehensive and detailed that it needs to be addressed by Iran with a view to removing the doubts which naturally arise, in light of all of the outstanding issues, about the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program." (Emphasis added.)
In another context, the two statements would be close enough to give the author of the August 2009 an excellent claim for copyright infringement. More importantly, there is no substantive difference between the punch line in the August 2009 report and its rephrasing in the current report. The current report, "raising concerns" about the "possible existence" of activities to develop "a nuclear payload for a missile," merely restates, in mirror image, the earlier report’s unresolved "doubts … about the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program." Doubts about the "exclusively peaceful nature" of a nuclear program mean questions about possible military application. In any event, the basis for both formulations, as stated explicitly in the current report, is an identical list of issues and questions discussed at length in the reports for several years.
It is difficult to believe that veteran reporters from the New York Times would misconstrue the IAEA’s summary of long-standing questions as an earth-shattering new "conclusion" about Iran’s development of a "nuclear payload" that seems "certain" to bring the U.S. and Israel closer to war with Iran. Does the Times want a war?
Whatever its motives, the Times‘ distortions and misuse of the IAEA’s report look like the product of an agenda. In the second paragraph, for example, Sanger and Broad claim that the IAEA has "also concluded that Iran’s weapons-related activity apparently continued ‘beyond 2004,’ contradicting an American intelligence assessment published a little over two years ago that concluded that work on a bomb was suspended at the end of 2003." This statement is blatantly misleading. The National Intelligence Estimate [.pdf] issued in late 2007 expressed the judgment that Iran discontinued a nuclear weapons program in 2003. In other words, American intelligence concluded that Iran had conducted an undisclosed nuclear weapons program up until 2003. Since commencing work in 2003, however, the IAEA has never expressed a conclusion – including in the current report – that Iran has ever had a nuclear weapons program. See report GOV/2003-75 [.pdf], paragraph 52 (Nov. 10, 2003): "To date, there is no evidence that the previously undeclared nuclear material and activities referred to above were related to a nuclear weapons program." Nobody – not even the IAEA – can "contradict" a proposition without a contradiction.
In any event, the report actually states (paragraph 43): "Addressing these issues is important for clarifying the Agency’s concerns about these activities and those described above, which seem to have continued beyond 2004." The "activities" refer to same list of "alleged activities" (the existence of which Iran disputes and which the IAEA still questions) or those that Iran claims solely concern civilian application (but may have a "military dimension"), all of which have been discussed in detail in earlier reports. Whether some activities (e.g., theoretical "dual use" material) that raise questions or concerns about the "exclusively peaceful nature" of Iran’s nuclear program continued "beyond 2004" does not establish that they involve efforts to develop a "nuclear payload" before, during, or after 2004.
The Times‘ agenda here is to contribute to the near-relentless public (and undoubtedly private) pressure on the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and other key intelligence agencies to scrap the 2007 NIE. The ink was not dry on that report before it came under blistering attack from every quarter in the anti-Iran camp. Since then, the "debate" over the 2007 NIE reflects a complete national amnesia over the politicization of intelligence responsible for the Iraq invasion and all the later chest-beating about "stove-piping" that consumed dozens of committees and commissions. Quite unlike Cheney’s subterranean Office of Special Plans, the politicization of the Iran NIE has taken place in the middle of Main Street at high noon. With a new NIE reportedly in the pipeline and opponents of the 2007 estimate striving to get it changed, the Times‘ Feb. 19 story does its bit by claiming falsely that even the IAEA’s "conclusions" "contradict" it. Protect the independent judgment of intelligence services? Forget it.
The rest of the Times‘ story continues in the same fashion, taking the equivalent of firecrackers in the IAEA report and converting them through the magic of journalism into 25-megaton nukes. Another of its frightening revelations is that the "report indicated that for the first time Iran told inspectors it was preparing to make its uranium into metallic form – a step that can be explained by some civilian applications, but is widely viewed as necessary for making the core of an atom bomb." Near the end of the story, the authors return to this point, noting that the report "disclosed Iranian work on uranium metal at … Isfahan, where it said Iran planned to build several production lines. The Institute for Science and International Security … said in a report on Thursday that the new lines at Isfahan ‘raise suspicions that Iran could use them to make metal components for weapons’" (emphasis added).
The trouble with this claim is that Sanger and Broad should have put "this decade" after "first time." That is because, as the IAEA reported in 2003, "the design information provided to the Agency in July 2000 described the purpose of [the Isfahan] facility as the conversion of uranium ore concentrate (UOC or U3O8) into natural UO2, UF6, and uranium metal" (emphasis added). This seven-year-old report adds that the Iranians disclosed that the facility would have "the following process lines" – and then lists the same processing lines, including those for uranium metal, that the Times now says the Iranians did not disclose until 2010. Compare the 2003 report [.pdf], Annex 1, paragraphs 3 and 4, with the Feb. 18 report [.pdf], paragraph 25 (both list the same seven processing lines, including those for producing "uranium metal enriched to 19.7% U-235" from UF6 and producing "depleted uranium metal" from UF4).
For almost seven years, the IAEA has been issuing reports roughly every quarter on the findings, issues, and open items from its inspections of Iran’s nuclear activities. Three basic facts can be found in its reports. First, all of Iran’s nuclear material has been and remains under IAEA "containment and surveillance." Second, Iran does not have nuclear weapons or the means to make them. Third, there is no definitive evidence that Iran in fact has or ever had a nuclear weapons program. For as long as the IAEA has been issuing its reports, however, the major American media have been doing their utmost to twist, torque, and torture them into a nightmarish revelation of ghoulish mullahs feverishly building a doomsday machine as they plan to create a nuclear empire, wipe Israel from the face of the map, and conquer the world.
A couple of years ago I suggested that everyone should read the IAEA reports because an educated public might help avert another unnecessary war based on lies. That, however, probably wasn’t inspiring enough. So let me suggest this: If you read the reports and then read the newspaper accounts of them, you can experience firsthand that galvanic shot of astonishment from discovering just how bad – how shamelessly bad – the American media has become.