UPDATED: Los Angeles Times Corrects Misattributed Statement on Uranium

Update with Nov. 27 Correction Follows.

Nov. 24, 2008 — In a news article about the origins of uranium particles found at the Syrian site bombed by Israel in September 2007, Borzou Daragahi of the Los Angeles Times severely distorts last week’s report issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Since the particles’ existence was documented last week, Syrian officials have been claiming the Israeli weapons that attacked the site were the source of the uranium. Daragahi falsely elevates that Syrian claim into an IAEA conclusion.

Daragahi, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, began his Nov. 20 report (“Speculation grows over Syria site”):

An investigation into a remote Syrian site bombed by Israel 14 months ago has provided no conclusive answers so far, but sparked speculation about the source of the trace amounts of radioactive material found at the site.

Several paragraphs later, also referring to the origins of the discovered uranium, he writes:

But no one could explain the presence of a “significant number” of uranium particles “produced as a result of chemical processing,” the report said.

Diplomats first reported the existence of the uranium last week. Syrian officials have said that not even U.S. officials claim that they were already operating a plutonium plant.

He then immediately goes on to contradict himself, falsely stating that the report does indeed have an explanation for the uranium’s origins. He writes:

“The only explanation for the presence of these modified uranium particles is that they were contained in the missiles dropped from the Israeli planes,” the report said.

What Does the IAEA Actually Report?

A perusal of the IAEA, published on the GlobalSecurity.org Web site, finds the IAEA report did not make this statement. Rather, as a matter of record, the IAEA report quotes word for word a Syrian letter which included this statement. Thus, paragraph 8 of the report’s “Chronology of Events” states:

8. In a letter dated 11 November 2008, Syria confirmed its compliance with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (the NPT) and provided the following clarifications5:

• “The American allegation presented to the Agency for verification referred to a building under construction and not in operation;”

• “The analysis results of the samples taken from the destroyed site do not show any materials belonging to the construction of a nuclear reactor, confirming that the site which was under construction was for military purposes;”

• “We find it strange that there are a very limited number of humanly modified uranium particles in the analysis results of some samples, taking into consideration that the site was destroyed by Israeli missiles, the component parts of which are not known;”

• “It is necessary to draw attention also to the fact that the result of the analysis of one sample points to three uranium particles, whereas the results of four other samples taken from the same place within a 30 metre range contained no uranium particles;”

• “The only explanation for the presence of these modified uranium particles is that they were contained in the missiles that were dropped from the Israeli planes onto the building to increase the destructive power. Based on this, we hope that the Agency will verify the nature of the materials used in these missiles.” [Emphasis added.]

The IAEA addresses the uranium’s unknown source in two other places in the document, but nowhere does the author (IAEA’s director general) confirm the Syrian claim that the uranium found is the result of the Israeli attack. Thus, paragraph 12 of “Agency’s Verification” states:

12. Analysis of the environmental samples taken from the Dair Alzour site carried out by a number of the Agency’s Network of Analytical Laboratories revealed a significant number of natural uranium particles. The analysis of these particles indicates that the uranium is anthropogenic, i.e. that the material was produced as a result of chemical processing. As indicated above, Syria stated that the only explanation for these particles was that they were contained in the missiles used to destroy the building. [Emphasis added.]

Finally, paragraph 18 of “Current Assessment” makes abundantly clear that so far the IAEA has not accepted Syria’s claims about the uranium. It states:

18. The Agency is assessing Syria’s explanation of the origin of the uranium particles found at the Dair Alzour site and intends to request Syria to permit the Agency to, inter alia, visit the locations where the debris from the building and any equipment removed from the Dair Alzour site are, for the purpose of taking samples. The Agency also intends to request Israel to provide information pertaining to Syria’s claims regarding the origin of the uranium particles.

More Background on IAEA and the Uranium Find

In his analysis of the IAEA report, Ephraim Asculai of the Institute for National Security Studies provides some additional interesting background on what the IAEA does and does not say about the uranium particles (“So it Really was a Reactor in Syria,” Nov. 23, 2008). According to Asculai, the IAEA deliberately maintains ambiguity in the interest of pleasing all sides — the West as well as Syria. To that end, the report omits two key pieces of information, says Asculai, including “the technical details of the sampled uranium particles found in the vicinit y of the Syrian reactor site at Dair Alzour.” He explains:

Although not essential for the evaluation, the visit to the site and the results of the samples taken showed the presence of a few natural uranium particles that had undergone chemical processing. Natural uranium is used in the North-Korean-type reactor, assessed by the US to have been constructed in Syria. The IAEA chose not to divulge the composition and other characteristics of the uranium particles (information it certainly has, since it assessed the chemical processes), yet thereby confirmed the relationship between the particles and nuclear fuel. Otherwise, it would have certainly noted it. Although the Syrians did their best to clean the area around the site, they evidently did not do a good enough job and a few particles remained on the surface, some of which were detected by the very sensitive analytical methods of the IAEA laboratories.

It is possible that the fact that no graphite particles were found indicates that the bombs did not penetrate the reactor’s core, and the source of the uranium particles were the fuel rods waiting to be loaded into the core. If true, this could indicate that the reactor was a short time away from its startup, when hitting it could already cause environmental damage.

Thus, while the IAEA itself has apparently not been as forthright as it could be in bringing answers to the public, the Los Angeles Times’ misidentification of a Syrian claim as an IAEA conclusion is a further disservice to public understanding. While obfuscation is understandably a Syrian intention, surely it is not the Los Angeles Times’. That being the case, an immediate, explicit and forthright correction should make clear that although a Syrian letter asserted that “The only explanation for the presence of these modified uranium particles is that they were contained in the missiles dropped from the Israeli planes,” this is not an assessment shared by the IAEA.

Nov. 27, 2008 Update: LA Times Promptly Corrects

The day after receiving notification from CAMERA staff concerning this erroneous misattribution, the paper commendably corrected it. The correction, printed in today’s paper, follows:

Uranium particles: A Nov. 20 Section A article about International Atomic Energy Agency reports on Syria and Iran misattributed an explanation for the presence of uranium particles in Syria to the IAEA. The explanation that the modified uranium particles must have been “contained in the missiles dropped from the Israeli planes” was from a Syrian government letter that was quoted by the report.

In a separate matter, CAMERA still waits for a correction an error in a Nov. 21 Los Angeles Times editorial.

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