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Media Analyses





BBC Corrects Misrepresentation of Iran Nuclear Program


In response to a formal complaint filed by CAMERA, the BBC has updated an online piece that had misleadingly exonerated Iran of producing highly enriched uranium.

The July 2008 Web piece by BBC World Affairs Correspondent Paul Reynolds had relayed, as an undisputed fact, that "Iran is not making highly enriched uranium suitable for a weapon, only low-enriched uranium useable as nuclear power fuel." But because Iran is thought to have hidden a covert nuclear weapons program, and is believed by some to still be secretly working on this program, the BBC's statement of fact that Iran "is not making highly enriched uranium" was untenable.

The initial version of the BBC story stated:

The first would be the production by Iran of enough highly-enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb and the second would be its acquisition of a new Russian anti-aircraft system, the S-300.
However, Iran is not making highly enriched uranium suitable for a weapon, only low-enriched uranium useable as nuclear power fuel.
The International Atomic Energy Agency would probably spot any move to change this. So exactly how and when this "red line" might be reached is unclear. (Emphasis added throughout)

On July 4, shortly after the piece was first published, an update, ostensibly providing "evidence" to back the reporter's assertion, was added to the above passage. It read:

However, Iran is not making highly enriched uranium suitable for a weapon, only low-enriched uranium useable as nuclear power fuel. (Update 4 July: the evidence for this comes from the 26 May 2008 report from the IAEA, released on 5 June. This states that "the results of the environmental samples... indicate that the [enrichment] plants have been operated as declared. The samples show low-enriched uranium... particles.")

In its complaint to the BBC, CAMERA noted this "evidence" cited by Mr. Reynolds was deceptively modified with ellipses, and in fact failed to prove his questionable statement about Iran's enrichment activity. Moreover, other evidence was brought to the BBC's attention noting that, contrary to the BBC's assertion, it is possible that Iran is indeed making highly enriched uranium.

Misleading Quote Not "Evidence"

The sentence Mr. Reynolds partially quoted as "evidence" — or rather the portions of the sentence that were omitted — reveals that the IAEA was not making a blanket statement about Iran's enrichment activities, but rather was referring only to samples from two specific facilities, the Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) and the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP), at which Iran overtly enriches uranium (albeit in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1696) and permits IAEA inspections.

The full quote from the IAEA document reads:

The results of the environmental samples taken at FEP and PFEP indicate that the plants have been operated as declared. The samples showed low enriched uranium (with up to 4.0% U-235), natural uranium and depleted uranium (down to 0.4% U-235) particles.

The document does not claim that Iran is not producing highly enriched uranium. It merely notes that it is not doing so at these two declared nuclear sites.

Other Evidence Ignored

In addition, the BBC article ignored suspicions expressed in the IAEA report that Iran might be secretly enriching uranium as part of a covert program called "Project 4." Section B of the report notes:

Iran was also asked by the Agency to clarify the so-called "Project 4", which could be related to possible uranium enrichment (GOV/2008/4, para. 41). Iran repeated its earlier statements that there had never been a Project 4 and that there had not been any uranium enrichment project in Iran except that carried out by the AEOI. The Agency continues to assess the information provided by Iran.

This IAEA suspicions are all the more relevant in light of the assertion in the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that U.S. intelligence believes Iran would probably not produce highly enriched uranium at its declared facilities (such as the FEP and PFEP), but would instead do so at covert facilities. The NIE states:

We assess with moderate confidence that Iran probably would use covert facilities– rather than its declared nuclear sites–for the production of highly enriched uranium for a weapon.

The NIE report explains that while the U.S. judges with "high confidence" that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program, including covert enrichment, in 2003, it is only "moderately" confident that the country hasn't restarted the program through mid-2007. The report says nothing about what may have happened between mid-2007 and the present.

According to the NIE, the assessment of "moderate confidence" means that while the intelligence suggesting Iran had not restarted the program as of mid-2007 is "credibly sourced and plausible," it is "not of sufficient quality or corroborated sufficiently to warrant a higher level of confidence." (See the report's "Explanation of Estimative Language" on page 5 of report.)

That is, the evidence is not of sufficient quality to give "high confidence" that Iran has not restarted secret enrichment of uranium. "High confidence" would have signaled that it is "possible to render a solid judgment," albeit with a risk of being wrong. In other words, the NIE deems that it is not possible to render a solid judgement that Iran is not currently making highly enriched uranium.

CAMERA pointed out that, as that U.S. intelligence does not feel it is possible to render a solid judgment on the question, Mr. Reynold's clearly cannot himself be certain that "Iran is not making highly enriched uranium suitable for a weapon."

Finally, CAMERA noted that Israeli intelligence does not fully agree with the NIE's assessment. A December 19, 2007 story in the Jerusalem Post asserted:

The former head of IDF (Israel Defense Force) Millitary Intelligence, Maj.- Gen. Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash, said Iran became aware in August 2002 that the US, UK, Germany, France and Israel "had strong information that under its broad civilian cover Iran was conducting a clandestine nuclear programme." ...
Recognizing that the international community had discovered the covert programme, Ze'evi-Farkash said, the Iranians set about hiding its traces, but then resumed their activities.

The article also quoted Ze'evi-Farkash explicitly saying that "the Iranian clandestine military programme is continuing."

And according to the New York Times,

Israeli intelligence estimates say Iran stopped all its nuclear weapons activities for a time in 2003, nervous after the American invasion of Iraq, but then resumed those activities in 2005, accelerating enrichment and ballistic missile development and constructing a 40-megawatt heavy-water reactor in Arak that could produce plutonium.
Israel believes Iran continues to work, however limited by international pressure and economic and technical difficulties, on all phases of building a nuclear weapon. (Dec. 11, 2007, "Iran Is Still a Nuclear Threat, Israel Tells U.S. Military Chief")

In its complaint, CAMERA pointed to the BBC's Editorial Guideline on Accuracy, which states:

Our output must be well sourced, based on sound evidence, thoroughly tested and presented in clear, precise language. We should be honest and open about what we don't know and avoid unfounded speculation.
For the BBC accuracy is more important than speed and it is often more than a question of getting the facts right. All the relevant facts and information should be weighed to get at the truth. If an issue is controversial, relevant opinions as well as facts may need to be considered.

Updated BBC Story

The BBC and its correspondent, to their credit, quickly responded to the complaint. Although he did not feel that the quotes were misleading, Reynolds acknowledged that the assertion about Iran not enriching to high values was too firm, and modified the piece. On Aug. 28, the piece was updated as follows:

... Iran is not, openly at least, making highly enriched uranium suitable for a weapon, only low-enriched uranium useable as nuclear power fuel. (Update 4 July: the evidence for this comes from the 26 May 2008 report from the IAEA, released on 5 June. This states that "the results of the environmental samples... indicate that the [enrichment] plants have been operated as declared. The samples show low-enriched uranium... particles.")
(Further update 28 August: it has been pointed out that some people are sceptical of the claim by Iran that it is enriching only to low values. For example, the US National Intelligence Estimate stated: "We assess with moderate confidence that Iran probably would use covert facilities rather than its declared nuclear sites for the production of highly enriched uranium for a weapon."
And the former head of Israeli Military Intelligence Maj-Gen Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash told the Jerusalem Post that, recognising that the international community had discovered their covert programme (in 2002), the Iranians set about hiding its traces, but then resumed their activities.)

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