Burma’s nuclear puzzle

Some say the country's repressive military junta is trying to build nuclear weapons. But can the claims be verified?

Last summer there was a report that the repressive dictatorship in Burma was working on a nuclear weapons program. The claim came from a military defector.


It’s hard to hear about claims like these without being reminded of a 2000 incident involving an Iraqi defector codenamed “curveball.” He alleged that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction, and his claims 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.

We wanted to know if the Burmese nuclear claims could be a similar situation. We decided to investigate with our colleagues at the independent investigative group ProPublica. Burma, which is also known as Myanmar, has been ruled by secretive anti-democratic military dictatorships since 1962.  If the defector’s allegations are true, they are clearly alarming. But can this defector be trusted?

Related:

From ProPublica: Experts, intelligence agencies question a defector’s claims about Burma’s nuclear ambitions

 
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Comments

  • Mac

    Has the US Government actually said “while Burma may have some nuclear work it is NOT nuclear weapons related” Surely this is a very strong statement! And how can they definitely conclude this is the case? The three experts we see here range from concluding that this IS the beginning of a nuclear weapons programme (KELLEY), to saying that there is NOT ENOUGH information to conclude this equipment is “solely for nuclear purposes and nothing else” or to make accusations against Burma- not that the information is completely wrong. Although we don’t want to jump the gun and have another situation like Iraq, surely we should keep open minds and be cautious. It is not just one person making these accusations.

  • Skeptic

    I agree with the previous comment wholeheartedly. Just this week the UN released an alarming report about North Korea illegally trafficing equipment, which could be used in a nuclear weapons program, to Burma. It would seem reckless, at this moment, for the US government to reach the conclusion that Burma is not involved in a nuclear weapons program. Pro Publica and Need To Know here are saying this categorical debunking comes from a “senior Obama administration official.” That’s more than a little vague. Is there some reason that official can’t be named? Did the journalists actually speak to the CIA or the Department of Energy about their findings? Or is this just second hand information from a vague source which is then paraphrased by a reporter as fact?

    Skepticism about allegations around nuclear programs is a good thing. But what concerns me is that Kelley is being cast in this case as a bit of a nut job. When if you actually read his report, its just the kind of measured and thoughtful analysis that was lacking in the WMD situation in Iraq.

    And while Kelley comes across as the lonely expert, out of step with his collegues, it turns out that this is hardly the case. David Albright and Robert Kelley were on the same page just this year when they jointly released a report for Albright’s ISIS organization titled “Burma: a Nuclear Wannabe, Suspicious Links to North Korea and
    High-Tech Procurements to Enigmatic Facilities.” In that report, they jointly conclude that “there remain sound reasons to suspect that the military regime in Burma might be pursuing a long- term strategy to make nuclear weapons.”

    Now we are to believe that the CIA and Department of Energy are rejecting the concerns of both Albright and Kelley and telling us to stop worrying about a pariah state and a military dictatorship’s nuclear ambitions. Something isn’t adding up here. Need To Know is a promising new PBS series, and Pro Publica is doing critical investigative journalism. Bravo for asking tough questions about the defector and Kelleys’ report. But this story seems like it took more than a few short cuts and ironically, in the end, it feels like a curveball.