Journalism in the Public Interest


Another Response to Our Burma Nuclear Story—and Another Answer from Us

Dec. 1: This post has been corrected.

Our story on a possible Burmese nuclear program has resulted in another exchange of letters, one from the scientist Robert Kelley, the principal author of the report discussed in the story, another in response from ProPublica. (An earlier exchange of letters, with the National Endowment for Democracy, was published here.) Here are the latest letters:

Klosterneuburg, Austria, Europe
24 November 2010

Mr. John Meacham
Co-Anchor, Need to Know

Mr. Paul Steiger
Editor-in-Chief, President, CEO, ProPublica

Mr. Michael Getler
Ombudsman, PBS

Dear Mr. Meacham, Mr. Steiger, and Mr. Getler:

Your 12 November 2010 report entitled “Experts, Intelligence Agencies Question a Defector’s Claims About Burma’s Nuclear Ambitions" is flawed, and in some cases highly misleading. I am requesting that you correct both innuendo and factual mistakes in a way that clears my name.

  1. You claim that the CIA and DOE reviewed my report “line by line” and rejected its findings. You put this information forward as if there is unanimity within the intelligence community in the USG about the report. Yet, senior officials of the Department of Energy intelligence unit who have done bomb reductions of uranium discussed my technical findings and agreed they are reasonable. In addition, IAEA experts agreed with me. Moreover, no one from these communities who read the whole report has challenged the technical evidence I present. Please correct this and make it clear that there is even disagreement in the intelligence community, including some who find the evidence compelling.
  2. You claim German officials rejected the claims. Germany is quite a big country and no doubt you can find some who have not read the report and do not know what I have written. The Germans are defensive and embarrassed that some of the equipment they exported was used to make components for missiles and nuclear programs so you are not likely to find someone willing to discuss this openly. Customs officials are concerned about machine exports and are not experts examining what was made with them. Furthermore, as I have said repeatedly, it is not the German machines that are important; it is the items that were made with them and the certainty of the locations we are showing. Please correct this publicly. Please disclose what German government department you consulted at the very least, and explain both their competence and biases in this area.
  3. You claim that I said that I said a glove box could be used to make uranium metal. I said no such thing. Nuclear industrial chemistry is a highly technical field where precision and expertise is essential. For you to make such a stupid misquote, particularly given how easy it should've been to check this fact, is indefensible. The written record clearly shows it to be patently false. All my briefings show both the glove box and the bomb reactors and clearly differentiate them. Please correct this.
  4. You have Olli Heinonen on the record trying to figure out the difference between a bomb reactor and a glove box. Heinonen was the senior official at the IAEA responsible for directing the team assessing my accusations against Burma. He has not read the report well enough to know the difference between these two industrial uranium devices. Do not mix up my precise explanation in the report with his bumbling attempt to explain something I never said. He is your only “technical” source to criticize me and he is lost in this topic. You have provided no credible source to say I am wrong.
  5. You quote Olli Heinonen as saying there is no single piece of information in our report that convinces you this is nuclear. If you read our report, you would find that was also our conclusion. We instead relied upon debriefings of several sources, German photographs, statements by German manufacturers, satellite imagery, hand-held imagery from several different sources, and many documents to reach our conclusions. You do not report this but imply throughout that we are dependent on one “Curveball” type source. I was the IAEA Director responsible for analysis of Curveball and Judith Miller in 2001 -2003 so I do not need a lecture on incompetent and prejudiced debriefing and reporting. I would also note that I find it particularly offensive and damaging that you suggest that I would lend my name to this report lightly - I have never rubber stamped a report for political reasons and I certainly did no such thing this time.
  6. Heinonen says that Burma’s work thus far could be used as fuel for nuclear power plants. He is willing to forgive too much. Read our report and note that in so doing Burma may have crossed the line regarding international legal agreements and would be obligated to report research on nuclear fuel for power plants to IAEA. Please make this clear.
  7. Mr. Heinonen dismisses the similarity between Sai Win and Mordecai Vanunu. Did you ask him why? All we see on the screen is Heinonen smugly dismissing the comparison but offering no explanation as to why, maybe because there is none. Let me give you one example comparing the two: Vanunu could not prove where he took his photos. Thanks to German diplomatic inspections we can see exactly where Win was standing. You need to explain this to your audience.
  8. Did Mr. David Albright disclose to you that he was offered the chance to review the most recent DVB source information in April 2010? Did he disclose to you that he rejected the opportunity to review the material or even find out where it was coming from? Did he disclose to you that he stated in a telephone conversation that he regarded all defector source information as “crap” and not worth reviewing?
  9. Would you have interviewed him and used his statements criticizing my work in your documentary if you had known he had this prejudice and expressed it to me?

Mr. Albright’s comments are very unprofessional and I believe are clearly evidence of his bias particularly given that he never reviewed the evidence. He never contacted me again regarding Burma prior to my 4 June publication date nor has he contacted me since.

Mr. Albright accuses me in writing and on camera of reviewing only part of the information in a biased way to support a prejudgment. I naturally dispute this but that is irrelevant because Albright had no way of knowing what I knew, what I reviewed, OR what my judgments were.

It is on the record that Mr. Albright and I published two papers together at ISIS in January of 2010 and again in May 2010 in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists discussing rumors of nuclear programs in Burma. We cited troubling evidence but concluded that we did not have enough facts yet to make an accusation. I offered to show Albright the new information from DVB as soon as I saw it (and with DVB’s permission.) I was extremely disappointed that Albright refused to even look at the information, judging it useless without even knowing the source or the content.

I believe Mr. Albright should have disclosed his bias to you and recused himself without appearing in your documentary. I most strongly urge you to retract all statements by Mr. Albright that are not substantiated by fact, evidence or reason. I believe if there is libel in your documentary, it is in this portion, and am considering pursuing appropriate avenues to address it

Robert E. Kelley
Registered Professional Nuclear and Mechanical Engineer
State of California

November 29, 2010

Mr. Michael Getler

Dear Mr. Getler:

This letter is in response to that of Robert Kelley dated November 24, and is further to my letter to you of November 23 in response to that of Jane Riley Jacobsen, director of public affairs of the National Endowment for Democracy (“NED”), dated November 22. I will not repeat points made in my earlier letter, but want to incorporate them here by reference. (We’ve also published the earlier exchange of letters here.) The numbered paragraphs below correspond to those in Mr. Kelley’s letter.

1. As our article stated, a senior U.S. official told us of the “line by line” review and its findings. We stand by that.

2. Our article said that German officials “have concluded [the equipment] is not being used to launch an atomic weapons program.” This was reflected in a statement we received from the German Federal Office of Economics and Export Controls. The German view of this issue was also described to us by knowledgeable German officials. Again, we stand by our article.

3. Kelley’s report says that “Our interpretation for this glove box is that it is used for mixing UF4 with magnesium metal for the bomb reduction to uranium metal.” Shorthanding this for non-technical readers as “the box could be used to make uranium metal” seems to us appropriate since the combination of the two substances is a crucial step in the process of making uranium metal. [A subsequent clarification of the original story supersedes this statement. The clarification can be found here.]

4-7. Clearly, Kelley and Olli Heinonen see these matters very differently. We reported these varying views. We would note that Heinonen, for years Kelley’s boss, is not generally regarded as “bumbling.” We never suggested that Kelley “lightly” lent his name to his report or acted as any sort of “rubber stamp.”

8-9. As Kelley notes, he and David Albright worked together on these issues for some time. They co-authored a paper on Burma and nuclear weapons as recently as May. As our article states, it was Kelley who suggested that we contact Albright for his views. We did so. It is clear, again, that the two men now have very different opinions on these important questions. But for Kelley to now call Albright “unprofessional” and biased is confusing at best. Again, Albright’s professionalism is generally accepted.

Once again, please let me know if you have any additional questions about this matter.

Very truly yours,

Paul E. Steiger

cc: Robert Kelley
Jon Meacham

Correction: As noted above, the third point in ProPublica's letter has been superseded by an earlier clarification that can be found here.