THE TIMES AND THE LAPTOP….A couple of weeks ago the New York Times ran an article about a stolen Iranian laptop that it said contained “more than a thousand pages of Iranian computer simulations and accounts of experiments [that] showed a long effort to design a nuclear warhead.” Surprisingly, though, readers learned very little about what was on the laptop. In fact, in a 3,000 word article there were exactly three actual facts about the contents of the laptop, summarized in a single paragraph:

One major revelation was work done on a sphere of detonators meant to ignite conventional explosives that, in turn, compress the radioactive fuel to start the nuclear chain reaction. The documents also wrestled with how to position a heavy ball ? presumably of nuclear fuel ? inside the warhead to ensure stability and accuracy during the fiery plunge toward a target. And a bomb exploding at a height of about 2,000 feet, as envisioned by the documents, suggests a nuclear weapon, analysts said, since that altitude is unsuitable for conventional, chemical or biological arms.

Question: was it accurate to refer to this as a “nuclear warhead,” as the Times article does repeatedly? Or should the reporters have said that Iranian missile engineers appeared to be “modifying or designing a reentry vehicle able to hold a spherical object that looks to be a nuclear warhead”?

David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security says that this is not merely a trivial distinction. And there’s more. In a series of emails to the Times, he argues that the story was misleading in at least three different ways:

  • To a layman, “nuclear warhead” is loaded language that implies an actual design for an atomic bomb. In fact, the laptop contains no evidence of a bomb program.

  • Using this language obscures the importance of an obvious question: does Iran really have a bomb program, or did these plans come from an overenthusiastic missile engineering team unconnected with the political leadership of the country? As it stands, the Times story mentions this possibility only in passing.

  • The Times article quotes no one from outside the Bush administration who is skeptical about whether the information on the laptop represents a genuinely sophisticated program, despite the fact that a number of technical reservations exist. See the email exchange for more. (The Times quotes several people who question whether the entire thing was faked or not, but no one who questions the laptop’s information on a technical basis.)

Taken together, all of these things serve to paint a grimmer picture than the evidence supports, and via email, Albright says the New York Times, of all papers, should have taken extra pains not to hype intelligence from the Bush administration:

The NYT should have not used loaded language in order to avoid hyping the Iranian nuclear threat. Such language belies the Times? commitment to be more careful about its reporting and the use of its sources after its faulty reporting on Iraq?s presumed reconstituted nuclear weapon program.

….I do not want to give the impression that I am trying to downplay the significance of the information on the laptop. I believe this information is very troubling and should be fully assessed and investigated. However, I believe that the best party to conduct an independent, credible investigation is the IAEA. It has started its own investigation. However, the IAEA will need more time, and it will need more information declassified by the United States.

I think Albright has a good point. Unfortunately, given the Bush administration’s track record, there’s good reason to be skeptical that they’re telling us the whole story here. The Times should have been more careful.