Watching the News with a Wary Eye

“Sources Say” Syria Seeks Nuclear Weapons

Newspapers needs facts, not anonymous sources, before reporting that “analysts” believe Syria is seeking nuclear capabilities.

Ever since a group of Israeli fighter jets entered Syrian airspace on Sept. 6 for a bombing raid, theories about the target have run rampant. Israel has confirmed the operation, but has yet to address any specific details. The Israeli Defense Forces even prohibited the Israeli press from reporting on the issue for over three weeks. U.S. officials have been just as evasive. Syria initially contended that Israeli fighters entered their airspace, but on Oct. 1, Syrian President Bashar Assad confirmed that a strike occurred on what he claimed was an unused military installation.

Reluctant to believe Assad’s claim, pundits and the press have rushed to fill this factual vacuum with conjecture. Theories about the mysterious target range from it being a partially constructed plutonium production reactor to a stockpile of fissile materials to a cache of SCUD missiles. The one constant in these theories is that North Korea is somehow involved.

The timing of these accusations against Syria and North Korea is a bit suspicious. After all, the Bush administration—much to the chagrin of former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton and hardliners camped out in the Vice President’s office—is negotiating a deal with North Koreans that looks a lot like the 1994 Agreed Framework, reviled among conservatives for its compromises.

After weeks of speculation, David Sanger of the New York Times wrote the first really substantive piece by a major news outlet. He and co-author Mark Mazzetti published a story in the Sunday, Oct. 14 edition of the Times entitled, “Israel Struck Syrian Nuclear Project, Analysts Say.” One cannot help but notice a lack of on-record quotes. Below is a list of sources from that article:

  • “All insisted on anonymity because of rules that prohibit discussing classified information.”
  • “according to American and foreign officials”
  • “American officials said”
  • “American and foreign officials said”
  • “The officials did not say”
  • “said one American official”
  • “A senior Israeli official said”
  • “But several American officials said”
  • “according to American officials”
  • “They [analysts] suggested”
  • “the American and foreign officials would not say”
  • “some officials said”
  • “According to two senior administration officials”
  • “officials say”

There is undoubtedly a need for anonymous sources in journalism, and it would be difficult for any news organization to report about military and intelligence operations without off-the-record information. However, after stories full of anonymous sources were used in the march to war, caution is needed when using them as a primary source.

The problems with this kind of reporting are exhibited in the aftermath of the Sanger-Mazzetti piece. As one of the most reputable news organizations in the world, the New York Times bears the burden of being emulated and repeated. Subsequent reporting on this issue consistently refers to “Syria’s nuclear ambitions” as though it were an established fact, unfortunately based in large part on this article.

Haaretz, a popular Israeli publication referenced the Times article in a piece called “IAF strike targeted partly finished nuclear reactor in Syria.” The introductory lines of a CNN article included the line, “NY Times claims Israeli airstrike targeted partially-built reactor.” There are no caveats about anonymous sources here. To the reader, these are definitive statements with backing from the New York Times.

Fox News even reported that “The New York Times said the nuclear reactor was modeled on one North Korea had used to create its stockpile of nuclear weapons fuel…” The story is taking on a life of its own and now an uninformed reader can infer that a nuclear facility was indeed under construction in Syria.

Obviously, the New York Times can’t control how other news outlets will use or abuse their story. But they certainly have control over how they edit and report their findings. Editors and reporters might not always anticipate journalistic piggybacking, but perhaps more of an effort can be made to stress the tenuous nature of information when using anonymous sources.

There are further questions that have been missing from the general mainstream media coverage of the Syrian bombing. For instance, why is there such an extraordinary level of secrecy about this? The names and locations of Iranian and North Korean facilities are public knowledge, so why the veil of secrecy surrounding an alleged Syrian program? Why hasn’t the administration been able to provide any satellite photos or agency reports? If there were well-founded suspicions that such a facility existed, why wasn’t the International Atomic Energy Agency contacted first to conduct inspections?

The Washington Post took a good step toward addressing these concerns in the Oct. 19 article by Robin Wright and Joby Warrick. While still relying on anonymous sources, the dissent among experts was clear and the title does not imply a solid nuclear connection.

In the end, with the dearth of physical evidence, the real problem with the issue is not on the front page; it is on the editorial page. Reporters have simply been presenting the available information on the bombing. Pundits and editorialists, however, can use those unverified facts as a basis for policy assertions and drive public opinion in very specific directions.

The Wall Street Journal published a commentary by John Bolton titled, “Syria Joins the Axis of Evil.” Besides the inflammatory title, Bolton, using The Wall Street Journal as a stage, calls for major strategy changes within the administration based on as as-yet unconfirmed report. The Washington Post editorial page has also given too much credence to the unofficial theories, praising the Israeli attacks, and calling into question continuing U.S. negotiations with North Korea. The editorial wings of papers should be aware of their influence and thus especially cautious in how it uses information that lacks unrestricted corroboration.

None of the articles have so far caused the Bush administration to derail the North Korea talks or promote further military engagement with Syria, but relying so heavily on anonymous sources can become a slippery slope. Let’s hope that U.S. and Israeli officials will come forward with some explanations. Let’s also hope that, until then, every news outlet makes sure to report that there has been no verifiable evidence presented in public that Syria had the beginnings of a nuclear reactor, much less any North Korean aid for such a reactor.

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