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PBS Ombudsman

Burma and the Bomb: What Do You 'Need To Know'?

Is Myanmar, formerly and still widely known as Burma, secretly working on producing a nuclear weapon? That's what a defector from the Burmese army, armed with a lot of photographs of equipment, said back in June. And his claims were backed up by the analysis of a highly regarded former U.S. weapons scientist and former UN weapons inspector, Robert Kelley.

Burma is among the world's most isolated and repressive military dictatorships and the idea that it could join North Korea, which already has nuclear weapons, and Iran, which reportedly is working to be in a position to produce them, would add to the global alarm bells already ringing.

But is the evidence from the defector credible and the analysis by Kelley accepted? That's what PBS's six-month-old weekly public affairs program "Need To Know" set out to explore in a segment of its Nov. 12 broadcast.

Whether or not Burma is trying to put a bomb together, the TV program caused a quiet explosion and some pretty toxic fallout among the main characters. I say quiet because at this point I think it remains mostly a battle of letters and accusations that have passed through my office between those promoting the credibility and importance of the allegations and the producers of the segment who are raising the flag of caution.

What's interesting here, aside from where the truth lies, is that the dispute pits against each other people who formerly worked together, and involves well-respected journalistic enterprises and other organizations here and abroad that one would generally assume are on the side of the angels.

A Collaborative Effort

The segment was produced by Need To Know (NTK) in collaboration with ProPublica, the new, independent, non-profit, investigative reporting organization that has earned high-marks — including a Pulitzer Prize this year — since it started almost two years ago. It is led by former Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Paul Steiger.

Aside from Kelley, the segment features interviews by ProPublica with Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and one-time boss of Kelley at the agency, and David Albright, director of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. Both men disagreed with Kelley's analysis. Albright and Kelley along with two others had authored a paper back in January, before the defector surfaced, about earlier but less specific suspicions surrounding Burma's actions.

Also featured in this tale is the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a private, non-profit organization that, with funding from Congress, supports many projects around the world that "are working for democratic goals." One of the organizations that NED supports with some financial aid is a group of Burmese exiles who are based in Norway and operate the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) as a source of news about their tightly-sealed homeland.

It was this group that produced a documentary film in June that focused on the defector, Burmese Army Major Sai Thein Win, and his photographic evidence. Kelley, at the suggestion of the NED, had traveled to Norway at the NED's expense, according to the broadcast, was a consultant on the film and vetted the defector's material. Then, the NED paid for Kelley, who lives in Austria, to travel to Washington and present his findings at what turned out to be a widely covered NED press conference in June.

A Pre-Nuclear Explosion

The subsequent investigative collaboration between Need To Know and ProPublica produced a roughly 17-minute segment on PBS and also produced a series of very strong criticisms of the program from the NED's Director of Public Affairs, Jane Riley Jacobsen, and from Robert Kelley. Steiger served as the point-man for the PBS/ProPublica collaboration in responding to the critical points.

Many of the details that Kelley challenges are actually aimed at a separate but accompanying online story by ProPublica Managing Editor Stephen Engelberg, who played an important role in the broadcast, that was published on that organization's website. I'll come back to this article farther down in the column.

These exchanges are too long and too numerous to record in full here, much less try to analyze. But ProPublica, to its credit, has posted all of it on its website and it is worth reading. As far as I can tell, none of this dispute is posted on the NED site, or on the Need To Know site as of this time. And, if you missed the segment, it is also definitely worth viewing.

I'm in no position to join in the arguments over the technical merits of this debate. It's the journalism that is of interest, so here are some general observations about this segment and the way it was handled.

My Take

First, this was definitely a worthy subject to put before a television audience. If Burma is indeed seeking to develop a nuclear weapon, that is important news. The producers gave plenty of time to Kelley and his critics to lay out their positions. And they also sought to capture the differences between journalistic investigation and the kind of investigation, analysis and presentation resulting from the combination of the Burmese defector and the Burmese exile group in Norway with the funding linkages and press conference roles of Kelley and the NED.

The journalistic approach to this subject is laid out most specifically in an interview with ProPublica's Engelberg conducted by NTK co-host Jon Meacham at the end of the segment.

As a viewer, and as a journalist, it seemed clear to me what the program producers were doing and what they were trying to convey.

On one hand, this is obviously a very serious subject and the program made that clear. And they also made clear that Kelley is a serious and well-respected figure in the tricky business of nuclear inspection and analysis.

On the other hand, there is that collection of linkages that unfolded during the program: Congressional-funding of NED and NED's financial support for the exile group. The matter of the interests and motivations of the exile group, which clearly has been a source of important news about Burma in the past. And NED's support of Kelley and of the press conference in Washington to present this analysis. Those elements, along with the on-screen interviews with two critics, produced the blinking yellow light that tells the viewer to be careful.

I thought that the program, however, illuminated some missteps by both sides.

Some Missteps

For example, an interview with NED's top Asia program officer, John Knaus, by NTK's Ned Hallway made clear that the Endowment had not consulted other experts or sought other verification before promoting Kelley's findings at the Washington press conference in June.

Knaus argued, "The fact that somebody like Robert Kelley, who was the former director of the IAEA, was willing to come out publicly with this type of information was very reassuring to us to say the least."

I didn't find this attitude very reassuring on such an important and complex issue, and this interview, together with an interview later in the broadcast by Engelberg with NED Director Carl Gershman, served to illustrate the contrast between journalistic verification and the NED approach.

But I also think the broadcast co-producers are vulnerable to criticism of some aspects of their presentation — two points, in particular, struck me.

A Burmese 'Curveball'?

Right off the bat, the program's co-hosts tell you something that is true, and important, yet can easily be seen to color everything that follows.

One of NTK's co-hosts, Alison Stewart, introduces the program with two lines: "Last summer, there was a report that the repressive dictatorship there in Burma was working on a nuclear weapons program. The claim came from a military defector."

Then Meacham jumps in and says: "It's almost impossible to think about defectors these days without remembering the Iraqi defector code-named 'Curveball.' He alleged that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction and his claims, as you know, were used by the Bush administration to help justify the invasion of Iraq. But nearly everything he said was later revealed to be a fabrication."

Then Stewart says: "We wanted to know if the Burmese nuclear claims could be a similar situation . . . If the defector's allegations are true, they are clearly alarming. But can this defector be trusted?"

Later in the program, after on-the-record interviews with two critics of Kelley's assessment — Albright and Heinonen — the program's narrator asks rhetorically: "So, on balance, does it appear that Robert Kelley is correct about Burma's nuclear weapons program? ProPublica reporter Dafna Linzer asked sources inside the U.S. government about the allegations."

Who Are These People?

Linzer then says: "Senior administration officials in this administration, the Obama administration, who deal with weapons of mass destruction, who deal with nuclear issues, took Bob Kelley's report very seriously. And so they did task nuclear experts at the CIA and at the Department of Energy's nuclear division to do a full analysis . . . Their findings were that while Burma may have some nuclear work it is not nuclear weapons related."

Then Engelberg puts a question to NED Director Gershman this way: "The first step that we did in terms of vetting it was going to the American intelligence community, which takes frankly a very dim view of these allegations. You aware of that?" Gershman says, "No, I'm not."

So here we have an example of the NED, on one side, seeing no need to gather additional verification of Kelley's assessment, but the journalistic approach relying on anonymous comments to bolster its case and diminish Kelley's assessment. This struck me as weakening the on-air presentation of Need To Know and ProPublica.

The report by Linzer using unidentified administration officials for attribution takes the case against Kelley and the defector well beyond a dispute among former colleagues, neither of whom works for the U.S. government. The power of investigative reporting, especially on television where there is precious little of it, seems to me to depend heavily on on-the-record material.

A Website Amplification

As I mentioned, the complaints by the NED and Kelley, and responses by Steiger, are on the ProPublica website linked to above. But the question of what U.S. — and German — intelligence believes was also explored in the accompanying article by Engelberg, which carried a strong headline: "Experts, Intelligence Agencies Question a Defector's Claims About Burma's Nuclear Ambitions."

In that report, Engelberg writes: ". . . a senior American official said the Central Intelligence Agency and Department of Energy had reviewed Kelley's report 'line by line' and had rejected its findings. In Germany, officials said they were aware that Burma had bought the equipment shown in the defector's pictures (some of it was exported by German companies) but have concluded it is not being used to launch an atomic weapons program."

In his letter to Steiger and Meacham, Kelley sharply challenged both the reported U.S. and German assessments, along with some other issues. Steiger, in response, said "we stand by" that assessment by a senior U.S. official, and said of the assessment from German officials, "This was reflected in a statement we received from the German Federal Office of Economics and Export Controls. The German view of this issue was also described to us by knowledgeable German officials. Again, we stand by our article."

On Dec. 1, in response to some of the challenges to the online story, ProPublica posted the following clarification: "This post has been clarified to more accurately paraphrase references to a device known as a 'glove box' in a report about possible Burmese nuclear weapons development by Robert Kelley. Our story has also been updated to reflect a revised assessment about the device by Olli Heinonen, a nuclear expert who was quoted in our story."

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