The New York Times may still have a Judith Miller problem—only now it’s a David Sanger problem.
Miller, of course, is the former Times reporter who helped build the case for the 2003 US invasion of Iraq with a series of reports based on highly questionable sources bent on regime change. The newspaper eventually admitted its errors but didn’t specifically blame Miller, who left the paper soon after the mea culpa and is now a commentator on Fox News.
Now, Sanger, who over the years has been the recipient of dozens of leaks from US intelligence on North Korea’s weapons program and the US attempts to stop it, has come out with his own doozy of a story that raises serious questions about his style of deep-state journalism.
The article may not involve the employment of sleazy sources with an ax to grind, but it does stretch the findings of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think tank that is deeply integrated with the military-industrial complex and plays an instrumental role in US media coverage on Korea.
“Controversy is raging,” South Korea’s progressive Hankyoreh newspaper declared on Wednesday about the Times report, which it called “riddled with holes and errors.”
Sanger’s story, which appeared on Monday underneath the ominous headline “In North Korea, Missile Bases Suggest a Great Deception,” focused on a new study from CSIS’s “Beyond Parallel” project about the Sakkanmol Missile Operating Base, one of 13 North Korean missile sites, out of a total of 20, that it has identified and analyzed from overhead imagery provided by Digital Globe, a private satellite contractor.
None of the 20 sites has been officially acknowledged by Pyongyang, but the network is “long known to American intelligence agencies,” wrote Sanger.
Sakkanmol, according to CSIS, “is an undeclared operational missile base for short-range ballistic missiles” a little over 50 miles (85 kilometers) north of the border and therefore “one of the closest to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and Seoul.” Pyongyang’s highly publicized decommissioning last summer of the Sohae satellite launch facility “obscures the military threat to U.S. forces and South Korea from this and other undeclared ballistic missile bases.”
Its authors added a huge caveat at the end: “Some of the information used in the preparation of this study may eventually prove to be incomplete or incorrect.”
But the Times ignored the warning and took the report several steps further. According to Sanger, that analysis of the missile base shows that North Korea is “moving ahead with its ballistic missile program” despite pledges made by Kim Jong-Un to President Trump at their Singapore summit on June 12 to eliminate his nuclear and missile programs if the United States ends its “hostile policy” and agrees to forge a new relationship with North Korea.
The “new commercial satellite images” of the undeclared missile sites, Sanger concluded darkly, suggest that North Korea “has been engaged in a great deception.”
While North Korea has offered to dismantle a major launching site, he asserted, it continues “to make improvements at more than a dozen others that would bolster launches of conventional and nuclear warheads.” That finding “contradicts Mr. Trump’s assertion that his landmark diplomacy is leading to the elimination” of the North’s nuclear weapons and missiles, Sanger concluded.
The implication was that North Korea, by continuing to build missiles after the Singapore summit, is lying to the United States and is therefore untrustworthy as a negotiating partner—and that Trump, by proclaiming that he has neutralized Kim’s threats, has been deceived. The Times-CSIS report was immediately picked up by major media outlets and repeated almost verbatim on NBC Nightly News and NPR, with little additional reporting.
A leading Democrat, Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts, seized on the report to argue that President Trump is “getting played” by North Korea. “We cannot have another summit with North Korea—not with President Trump, not with the Secretary of State—unless and until the Kim regime takes concrete, tangible actions to halt and roll back its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs,” he said in the statement.
But even a cursory analysis of the imagery should have raised questions. On Monday night, a Korean news outlet pointed out that all the photos analyzed in the CSIS report are dated March 29, 2018—almost two and a half months before Trump and Kim met in Singapore on June 12.
The dates make Sanger’s claim that North Korea is “moving ahead” on missile production after its pledges to Trump laughable; indeed, they make his story look like a serious attempt to deceive the American public about the real progress that has been made in ending the standoff.
In fact, as discussion swirled on Twitter, it became clear that Sanger was exaggerating the report. Arms-control experts immediately questioned his assertions, arguing that he had ignored the fact that North Korea and the United States have yet to sign any agreement under which the North would give up its nuclear weapons and missiles. And in the absence of an agreement, it’s status quo for both North Korea and the United States.
North Korea’s missile program “is NOT deception,” Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at MIT, posted soon after the story was published. Narang, who writes occasionally for the Times editorial page on North Korea, pointed out that Kim Jong-un has never offered to stop producing ballistic missiles and in fact had ordered more to be produced in January 2018.
“Unless and until there is a deal” with Trump, he wrote, “Kim would be a fool to eliminate and stop improving [them].… So the characterization of ‘deception’ is highly misleading. There’s no deal to violate.” (Like other US analysts, Narang did not question the CSIS report itself, calling it “excellent.”)
The CSIS report was denounced by the government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in as “nothing new,” and Kim Eui-kyeom, its chief spokesperson, took particular exception to the Times’ use of the term “deception.” To his credit, Sanger acknowledged the criticism and quoted the statement in full.
“North Korea has never promised to dismantle its missile bases, nor has it ever joined any treaty that obligates it to dismantle them,” said Kim. “So calling this a ‘deception’ is not appropriate. If anything, the existence of these missile bases highlights the need for negotiation and dialogue, including those between the North and the United States, to eliminate the North Korean threat.”
Hankyoreh, in its analysis, objected to Sanger’s claim that Sakkanmol and other missile bases are “hidden.” It reported that South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff had identified the base as the source for a short-range missile launched by North Korea on March 10, 2016. “South Korean and overseas news outlets at the time dedicated significant coverage to the launch, noting the presence of an underground Scud missile base in the Sakkanmol area.”
Leon Sigal, the author of a book about North Korea and a former member of the New York Times editorial board, sharply disagreed with Sanger’s assertion that North Korea is now “moving ahead with its ballistic missile program.” Writing Tuesday in 38 North, Sigal said the CSIS report notes that “only minor infrastructure changes were observed” at the missile site since Kim came to power in December 2011. That’s hardly progress.
Sigal also noted the absence of a US–North Korea agreement inhibiting the “deployment of missiles by Pyongyang, never mind requiring their dismantlement. Nor has Washington yet offered the necessary reciprocal steps that might make such a deal possible.”
In a biting comment on his former employer, he added that “substituting tendentious hyperbole for sound reporting may convince editors to feature a story on page one, but it is a disservice to readers.”
Taking note of the response from the Moon government and arms-control experts, Christine Ahn, the founder of Women Cross DMZ and a strong advocate for engagement with the North, called on the newspaper to correct the story. “The @nytimes should write a retraction,” she said. “They just made real Trump’s allegations of #fakenews.”
On Tuesday, as she predicted, Trump used the story to launch another attack on the media. “The story in the New York Times concerning North Korea developing missile bases is inaccurate,” he tweeted. “We fully know about the sites being discussed, nothing new—and nothing happening out of the normal. Just more Fake News. I will be the first to let you know if things go bad!”
Less than two hours later, the Times communications office put a short statement out on Twitter defending Sanger’s reporting. “The New York Times stands by our story, which is based on satellite imagery analyzed by experts,” it stated in a post that linked to Trump’s earlier blast.
Sanger, who is interviewed frequently for national security conferences and documentaries on North Korea, did not respond to e-mails asking for comment on his story.
Like many of his North Korea stories over the years, Sanger’s account of what he basically described as a betrayal by Kim Jong-un seemed perfectly timed to interject public skepticism of the North at a crucial moment for the US negotiations with both Koreas to resolve the nuclear standoff and pave the way for a final peace settlement on the Korean Peninsula.
Over the past month, while the two Koreas have made spectacular leaps in reducing military tensions along their border, the US dialogue with North Korea has stalled. The primary issues dividing them are Trump’s insistence on keeping his pressure campaign of economic sanctions in place until the North denuclearizes, and the North’s demand that Trump join the two Koreas in publicly declaring an end to the Korean War.
South Korea has also pushed for such a declaration, saying that it would assure the North that it can eventually disarm without fear of attack or invasion from the United States (its position on the end-of-war declaration has been harshly criticized in Washington, including by CSIS analysts).
The differences came into stark relief last week, when North Korea abruptly canceled a planned meeting in New York between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean Workers’ Party Vice Chairman Kim Yong-chol. In a bid to get them back on track, President Moon this week sent his unification minister, Cho Myoung-gyon, to Washington, where he is meeting with Pompeo, congressional leaders, and, according to Yonhap News, top officials at CSIS.
South Korean officials are confident the US–North Korea talks will resume, and point to the steps Pyongyang has taken since the Singapore summit. They include North Korea’s decommissioning of a major satellite launch facility; its destruction of the tunnels where its nuclear weapons were tested; its return of American dead from the Korean War; and its unprecedented cooperation with South Korea and the US-controlled UN Command to remove guard posts and firearms in the DMZ.
On Tuesday, John Bolton, Trump’s hawkish national-security adviser, told reporters in Asia that Trump “is prepared to have a second summit” with Kim in early 2019. And on Thursday, in a brief meeting in Singapore with President Moon, Vice President Mike Pence asked that South Korea “communicate and talk more closely with North Korea” to help bring this about, Moon’s spokesman told reporters.
The most glaring problem with the Times story was Sanger’s characterization of CSIS as a neutral organization (“a major think tank”) and his failure to disclose that it receives enormous funding from the US government as well major military contractors. Nor did he mention that CSIS and its key analysts provide a kind of anchor to the Times’ coverage of Korea; they often appear near the lead of a story to explain its political significance. That is particularly true of Victor Cha, one of the authors of the report.
Cha, the director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council in the George W. Bush White House, was briefly considered last year by President Trump for US ambassador to Seoul (apparently his hawkish views weren’t enough to get him the job).
In his interview with Sanger for the Times article, Cha seemed to be pushing for a more aggressive stance against North Korea. “It’s not like these bases have been frozen,” he said. “Work is continuing. What everybody is worried about is that Trump is going to accept a bad deal—they give us a single test site and dismantle a few other things, and in return they get a peace agreement” that formally ends the Korean War.
Cha continued to defend the report as the criticism intensified, and took special umbrage at South Korea’s response. “How can [South Korea] defend NK’s undisclosed operational missile bases?” he asked in a heated exchange on Twitter that caught the attention of Charles Knight, an analyst with the Project on Defense Alternatives. “Seriously, how contorted can these rationalizations for NK weapons possession get??”
Knight, in an e-mail, said he had concluded that Cha has been “enabled” by Sanger and the editors of the Times to “be the agent of the opening salvo of an offensive by the most reactionary elements of the US national security and foreign policy establishment against the Korean diplomacy of both the Trump administration and South Korea.”
Here’s where the contractor money that pours into CSIS comes in: Providing the justification for a tougher policy of sanctions and military threats would be very much in tune with the defense and intelligence companies that support the think tank.
According to the CSIS page for “corporation and trade association donors,” they include Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, L-3, Rockwell, General Atomics, and Booz Allen Hamilton. CSIS is also funded by several Asian defense giants, including Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and South Korea’s Samsung Electronics and Korea Aerospace Industries.
All of these companies have a stake in US military options focused on North Korea, including monitoring its military activities, building missile-defense systems and providing weapons, ships, drones, and aircraft for offensive military operations when they become necessary.
As I reported in 2017 for Newstapa/The Korea Center for Investigative Journalism, “As the South Korean and US militaries have become more integrated in the face of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, CSIS has become an important forum where military collaboration—especially on the industrial side—is thrashed out and decided.”
In 2016, for example, CSIS sponsored a conference on “U.S.-Korea Defense Acquisition Policy and the International Security Environment” that drew high-ranking officials from the South Korean government and its military industry. In opening the conference, CSIS’s CEO John Hamre, a former Deputy Secretary of Defense, declared, “We’ve been military partners for 70 years but we are now going to be business partners in a very new way.”
Digital Globe, the satellite company that supplied the imagery for the CSIS report, is not a donor to the think tank. But it has a special relationship with US intelligence as an important contractor for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, one of the primary collection agencies for the US government. According to CSIS report, Joseph Bermudez Jr., its primary author, is a former “senior all-source analyst for DigitalGlobe’s Analysis Center.”
The Moon government, while a donor to CSIS, did not seem impressed with the Digital Globe imagery. In his critique of the Times story, Moon’s spokesperson Kim Eui-kyeom pointed out that the source for the CSIS analysis is a “commercial satellite” vendor. “The intelligence authorities of South Korea and the U.S. have far more detailed information from military satellites and are closely monitoring [it],” he said.
In the end, the Sanger story was widely derided in the circle of people who closely follow North Korea. Once these doubts were voiced, both The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post avoided the Times’ claim of deception and played down its dire conclusions that North Korea is cheating on the agreement it reached with Trump last June.
That’s a good development, indicating that Sanger’s questionable scoop probably won’t mushroom out of control and add fuel to a conflict, as Judith Miller’s phony reporting did at the advent of the Iraq War. And Sanger’s role as a leading expert on North Korea and US intelligence may take a hit.
“In an age of baseless allegations of fake news devaluing the work of journalists worldwide, it’s extremely lamentable that the New York Times—which is meant to be a nuanced and quality outlet—spun the CSIS story in the egregious way it did,” Chad O’Carroll, the CEO of Korea Risk Group, a Seoul-based organization that analyzes North Korea, tweeted on Tuesday.
Correction: The passage discussing a Twitter exchange involving Victor Cha and Charles Knight was garbled in the editing process; it has now been corrected.