May 7, 2011 2
Eli Lake, national security correspondent for the Washington Times, has written a terribly awful story on concerns about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Lake’s overzealousness in pursuit of a sexy Pakistani angle in the wake of the Osama bin Laden (OBL) raid comes to trump his journalistic professionalism.
There are five sources in the piece.
Three are unnamed U.S. officials who simply comment on the OBL raid. They do not make any statements regarding Pakistan’s nuclear program, though this is the article’s focus and they would be the ones who’d have the best access to the latest intelligence that would raise fresh concerns over the safety of Pakistan’s nukes. Their purpose in the piece is to give it some meat with their sheer presence, though they do not offer Lake any information on Pakistan’s nuclear program. Their presence, in a way, allows Lake to write this in his lede:
…while U.S. officials and analysts raise concerns about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear materials.
U.S. officials never actually raise those concerns with Lake. But Lake cites concerns about Pakistan’s nukes expressed in 2009 State Department cables revealed by WikiLeaks. So no U.S. officials ever say anything to him about Pakistan’s nukes after the OBL raid.
So who actually makes comments to Lake about Pakistan’s nuclear program? The remaining two sources. And they prove to be quite weak.
The two remaining sources are Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA official, and Steve Rothman, a congressman who serves on the House Appropriations Committee.
In light of allegations that the ISI or elements within it helped OBL hide, Heinonen expresses his concern that similar personnel within Pakistan’s security apparatus could assist al-Qaeda or other terrorist organizations in gaining access to “sensitive nuclear materials.” It is a legitimate concern, but it is laden with assumptions (e.g. that a person who would help OBL hide would also give him access to nuclear material and have the ability to do so). And it is not based on any new information.
Rothman’s quote is really the heart of the piece. And it’s completely wrong.
Mr. Rothman said al Qaeda operatives in 2009 “came within 60 kilometers of what is believed to have been Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal,” though he could not elaborate on the incident.
Rothman — a consumer, not a producer, of intelligence analysis — incorrectly relates information he heard in a briefing two years ago. Blame it on fuzzy memory. And though Rothman “could not elaborate on the incident,” Lake certainly could have done his own research. Unfortunately, some journalists become overly dependent on governmental sources (especially unnamed ones).
The enroachment of the TTP may have “resulted … in new safeguards and new measures taken by the United States and Pakistan and others to minimize any possibility of anyone acquiring the Pakistani nuclear weapons or material.” But there is no evidence that these changes were made on the basis of specific threats to the nuclear program, rather than fears based on an overall deterioration of security.
Lake’s packaging of the article is very clever. But once one takes it apart, it becomes clear there’s nothing inside.