Monday, July 16, 2018

Specific Chemical Materials

Is David Sanger of the New York Times playing a Michael Gordon/Judith Miller role in building up a case for hostility to Iran? Massive story in which Sanger shares a byline with the Yedioth Ahronoth analyst Ronen Bergman, reporting Israel's raid last January of an Iranian storage facility stealing documents from 2003, which Prime Minister Netanyahu himself reported last April as part of his personal effort to push Emperor Trump into abandoning the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran's nuclear activities, which paid off a few days later when Trump indeed left. The documents reveal that the Iran nuclear weapons program was more advanced in 2003 than somebody or other thought it was, though it's also clear that Iran totally dismantled it that year, as they claimed.

Why is The Times reporting it now, six months after the raid and three months after the news? Because the Israeli government invited them over for a junket, pumped up with thrilling detail about the bravura of Mossad in the break-in:
TEL AVIV — The Mossad agents moving in on a warehouse in a drab commercial district of Tehran knew exactly how much time they had to disable the alarms, break through two doors, cut through dozens of giant safes and get out of the city with a half-ton of secret materials: six hours and 29 minutes.
The morning shift of Iranian guards would arrive around 7 a.m., a year of surveillance of the warehouse by the Israeli spy agency had revealed, and the agents were under orders to leave before 5 a.m. to have enough time to escape. Once the Iranian custodians arrived, it would be instantly clear that someone had stolen much of the country’s clandestine nuclear archive, documenting years of work on atomic weapons, warhead designs and production plans.
The agents arrived that night, Jan. 31, with torches that burned at least 3,600 degrees, hot enough, as they knew from intelligence collected during the planning of the operation, to cut through the 32 Iranian-made safes. But they left many untouched, going first for the ones containing the black binders, which contained the most critical designs.
Photo credited to Mossad, via New York Times. Actually Mossad didn't take the picture, they merely pulled it out of a safe they cracked.
It was the breathlessness of that "at least 3,600 degrees" that caught me up. Under the picture of a monstrous gray vat of some kind fed by yellow pipes at the Parchin military site, for a second I thought it was the temperature of something that might have been going on in there (it wasn't—the thing was for "neutron experiments", Sanger explains, helpfully noting that "Nuclear explosions start when fast-moving particles known as neutrons split atoms of nuclear fuel in two, producing chain reactions that release more neutrons and enormous bursts of energy").

The answer to the rhetorical question is no, Sanger is no Judith Miller. He knows there's no news in the story—Iran had a very thorough research program from the late 1980s which would likely have led to the production of real nuclear weapons if they hadn't given it up 15 years ago—and makes no effort to hide it, although you have to read all the way down to get a clear picture of how trivial it is. There's even a rare reference to the fact that Israel "has its own undeclared nuclear program", though no clarification that that means an arsenal of between 80 and 400 real bombs.

But I can't help being reminded of my days as a magazine editor in Southeast Asia, where some cosmetics company would round up all us "lifestyle journalists" for an occasion in a hotel function room in which some flack in a lab coat would introduce us to a product that would prevent wrinkling around the eyes—"These are specific chemical materials!"—and maybe a glass of  Champagne afterwards and we'd dutifully write up our little paragraphs on it for our next issues in which the company would run an ad (what the hell, they ran an ad in every issue anyway). If you ask why The Times is running the article, the answer is clear that it's because Israel invited them to. There's nothing corrupt about that! Reporting is acquiring information that somebody wants you to have, after all. But at best there's something profoundly lazy about The Times allowing itself to be used this way, not evidently wondering, and at worse, much worse than that.

Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names.

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