Our story on a possible Burmese nuclear program has resulted in an exchange of letters, one from the National Endowment for Democracy, another in response from ProPublica. Here are the letters:

 

November 22, 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:

On Friday, November 12, the PBS news magazine Need to Know aired a segment produced by ProPublica titled "Burma's Nuclear Puzzle" that we believe is deeply flawed. By engaging in careless and misleading characterizations of both the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), omitting essential information and context, and failing to present a full and accurate description of the claims made in the DVB's documentary, "Burma's Nuclear Ambitions," ProPublica failed to live up to the standards it sets for itself: "[reporting] ...in an entirely non-partisan and non-ideological manner, adhering to the strictest standards of journalistic impartiality."

Mischaracterization of the National Endowment for Democracy
The National Endowment for Democracy is a Congressionally-funded non-governmental organization established in 1983 to promote democracy around the world. Our history and mission is carefully and thoroughly documented on our website. The Endowment is a bi-partisan institution that operates in a transparent and open manner, each year publishing an annual report that lists all of the grants given in the previous year.

ProPublica's characterization of the NED in its video report is crude, erroneous, and irresponsible. Here's what it says: "The National Endowment for Democracy was established by Congress, in effect, to take over the CIA's covert propaganda efforts. But, unlike the CIA, the NED promotes US policy and interests openly."

In the first place, NED was not established by Congress but is a privately incorporated 501©3 organization; the NED Act adopted in 1983 simply authorized funding for it.

Second, the charge that NED was established to take over the CIA's covert propaganda efforts is ludicrous and totally unfounded. This kind of reckless and irresponsible name-calling is generally confined to the political fringe. NED is a grant-making institution and doesn't engage in any kind of propaganda, and the implication that it has a relationship with the CIA is not only utterly false, without a shred of evidence to back it up, but it also puts in danger NED-supported organizations around the world.

And third, the claim that NED promotes U.S. policy is demonstrably false. The NED is a bi-partisan organization with a single mission: the promotion of democracy around the world. It does not and never has taken positions on U.S. foreign policy. It even eschews publishing articles on U.S. policy in its Journal of Democracy. ProPublica could easily have ascertained this elementary attribute of the NED, and its failure to do so is inexcusable.

In keeping with its core mission of advancing democracy abroad, NED has supported the DVB since 1993 in an effort to increase the free flow of information and support the development of independent media in Burma, one of the world's most restrictive media environments. Given the inevitable controversy and technical complexity of a story on nuclear proliferation, NED provided the DVB with additional funds to ensure that its efforts to corroborate, vet, and analyze the wealth of data it had amassed were not hamstrung by a lack of financial resources. The DVB hired Robert E. Kelley, a world-renowned nuclear proliferation expert and former director of the IAEA, and a team of four other experts to review its information. The intent was solely to encourage responsible reporting on the subject of nuclear proliferation, an issue on which other journalists, especially in their reporting on Iraq, had made serious and fateful mistakes.

The visit of Mr. Kelley to Washington and New York had the same purpose: to seek out and encourage debate and raise attention about an important and controversial subject that is both highly technical and poorly understood. During his presentations, Mr. Kelley repeatedly and publicly said that he welcomed additional eyes looking at the material and concluded with the request "for a thorough investigation of well-founded reporting." Neither he nor the DVB advocated a particular policy approach to Burma. Nor was NED, which was neither "promoting" U.S. policy, as the video report claims is its function, nor trying to undermine it, which is ProPublica's explanation for why NED supported DVB.

Mischaracterization of the Democratic Voice of Burma
Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica's managing editor, makes the following charge: "If you're the Democratic Voice of Burma, you're an advocacy group. You want this to be true. You go out and hire somebody and they tell you it's true. Maybe that's as far as you want to go." This accusation is gratuitous and totally unfounded. The DVB is not an advocacy organization but an independent media organization funded by international foundations, similar to ProPublica. Although it had its origins in the pro-democracy movement, over the past two decades it has developed into one of Burma's most widely respected and internationally-acclaimed media organizations. It aspires to meeting the highest standards of rigorous, objective journalism. Of course, as DVB's name makes it clear, it wants a democratic future for Burma, with a government that actually tolerates a free press. But to question their legitimacy as bona fide journalists on this basis is unfair, even malicious.

Mr. Engelberg also reveals his bias in reporting only on the NED's funding of the DVB, suggesting that the organization is a propaganda instrument of NED, by implication its major donor. In fact, NED provides less than 15 percent of DVB's overall annual budget. The bulk of the funding comes from European foundations and governments, as well as the Open Society Institute funded by George Soros. The DVB has also received support from the U.S. Department of State, which would be surprising to viewers of the program who have been led to believe by Mr. Engelberg that the purpose of NED support to the DVB is to undermine the U.S. policy of engagement with Burma.

Burma's Nuclear Ambitions
The Democratic Voice of Burma does not claim, as alleged by Mr. Engelberg, that Burma possesses a nuclear weapon. The documentary, the written report Mr. Kelley produced to accompany the film, as well as his presentations in Washington and New York are consistent on this point. The evidence points only to Burma's nuclear ambition. It was ABC News and Al-Jazeera which introduced sensationalized pictures of mushroom clouds and ProPublica which introduced claims of actual weapons, not the DVB or Mr. Kelley. We would also note that those media reports came out prior to Mr. Kelley's trip to Washington and New York, and were not part of any "bounce" from NED's public forum.

Kelley's conclusions in the DVB report are very serious, but measured: "We have examined the photos of the Burmese nuclear program very carefully and looked at Sai's evidence. The quality of the parts they are machining is poor. The mechanical drawings to produce these parts in a machine shop are unacceptably poor. If someone really plans to build a nuclear weapon, a very complex device made up of precision components, then Burma is not ready. This could be because the information brought by Sai is not complete or because Burma is playing in the field but is not ready to be serious. In any case, nothing we have seen suggests Burma will be successful with the materials and component we have seen. What is significant is intent."

Throughout the segment, ProPublica seeks to sow doubt about Kelley's conclusions, yet it fails to introduce compelling evidence that Burma in fact does not have nuclear ambitions or disclose that one of the experts it interviews who directly questions Kelley's conclusions co-authored a report with Mr. Kelley in January 2010, titled "Burma: A Nuclear Wannabe: Suspicious Links to North Korea and High-Tech Procurements to Enigmatic Facilities." ProPublica also fails to mention that a new UN Panel of Expert's report on North Korea that hit the news wires on November 9 concludes that there is serious concern about "continuing DPRK (North Korea) involvement in nuclear and ballistic missile related activities in certain countries including Iran, Syria and Myanmar (Burma)."

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In conclusion, while each of the points above may be minor or excusable in isolation, taken as a whole they paint a clear picture of irresponsible journalism that does not meet the rigorous standards that the public expects from PBS. It is our hope that ProPublica, Need to Know, and PBS will take these concerns seriously and, at the very least, retract their harmful mischaracterizations of NED and the DVB.

Sincerely,

Jane Riley Jacobsen
Director, Public Affairs
National Endowment for Democracy

 

November 23, 2010

Mr. Michael Getler
Ombudsman
PBS

Dear Mr. Getler:

This letter is in response to that of Jane Riley Jacobsen, director of public affairs of the National Endowment for Democracy ("NED"), dated November 22.

Essentially, as we read it (and following her subheadings), Ms. Riley Jacobsen's letter makes three principal points about the ProPublica and Need to Know stories of November 12 regarding a possible Burmese nuclear program. We will address these in the order raised by Ms. Riley Jacobsen's letter.

First, she asserts that NED "was not established by Congress." We think any fair reading of NED's history will make clear that she is wrong. We would especially refer you to this link from NED's own web site: http://www.ned.org/about/history. In a nutshell, the idea of what was to become NED arose as a response to revelations about covert CIA efforts to promote democracy, and was debated periodically in Congress between 1967 and 1983. NED was funded initially entirely by Congress, chaired initially by the chairman of the relevant congressional committee, and formally incorporated on the day a congressional conference committee finally decided to authorize spending for it.

In the FAQs on its site, NED acknowledges its ongoing relationship with lawmakers, saying that its "continued funding is dependent on the continued support of the White House and Congress." Those who spearheaded creation of NED have long acknowledged it was part of an effort to move from covert to overt efforts to foster democracy. President Reagan said in 1983 that "this program will not be hidden in the shadows. It will stand proudly in the spotlight, and that's where it belongs." Allen Weinstein, a former acting president of NED and one of the authors of the study that led to its creation, told David Ignatius in a 1991 interview that: "A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA. The biggest difference is that when such activities are done overtly, the flap potential is close to zero. Openness is its own protection."

Next, Ms. Riley Jacobsen asserts that the Democratic Voice of Burma ("DVB") is "an independent media organization" and not "an advocacy group." But NED acknowledges that it provides nearly 15% of DVB's funding, that DVB also receives "support from the U.S. Department of State" and that European governments also provide funding. Moreover, NED's own letter now appears to speak for DVB and demands correction of our story on behalf of DVB, which is hardly a sign of independence.

Additionally the DVB's own website (www.DVB.no) clearly indicates that the organization has objectives beyond journalism. Two of the four stated parts of the organization's mission are to "promote understanding and cooperation amongst the various ethnic and religious groups of Burma" and "to impart the ideals of democracy and human rights to the people of Burma." These are laudable goals, to be sure, but they are not the goals of a news organization.

Finally, Ms. Riley Jacobsen's letter mischaracterizes our story. She writes that Mr. Engelberg attributed to the Democratic Voice of Burma the allegation "that Burma possesses a nuclear weapon." This is demonstrably false. The question here from the beginning, as our story carefully and correctly explains, is the intent of the Burmese regime with respect to the development of nuclear weapons. Mr. Kelley left no doubt on this question. Our story quotes him -- and there is no dispute about the accuracy of the quotes -- as saying publicly, and without qualification, "this is a clandestine nuclear program," that the evidence "leads to only one conclusion." In fact, as our story makes clear, others doubt that such a program exists, and doubt that the evidence presented by Kelley and DVB proves that it does. NED now attempts to change the question to whether we have proved the negative that no Burmese nuclear program exists. But our story makes no such assertion. It is a cautionary tale -- and notes that our recent national experience in Iraq highlights the importance of caution in such matters.

We do not see the need to engage in a tit-for-tat response to each detail in the NED letter. But one stands out as worthy of explication. Ms. Riley Jacobsen writes that ProPublica omitted evidence that would have bolstered Kelley's credibility. She notes, without providing a link, that Kelley and David Albright co-authored a paper earlier this year on Burma's possible nuclear activities. In fact, this paper debunks the claims of the defectors who had surfaced up to that point and called for rigorous review before taking such claims seriously. The relevant passage follows:

ISIS does not want to overweigh the importance of debunking a few claims about secret nuclear facilities in Burma. There remain legitimate reasons to suspect the existence of undeclared nuclear activities in Burma, particularly in the context of North Korean cooperation. But the methods used in the public domain so far to identify existing suspect Burmese nuclear facilities are flawed. Identification of suspect nuclear sites requires a more rigorous basis than is currently evident. http://isis-online.org/isis-reports/detail/burma-a-nuclear-wanabee-suspicious-links-to-north-korea-high-tech-procureme/

Please let me know if you have any additional questions about this matter.

Very truly yours,

Paul E. Steiger
Editor-in-Chief
ProPublica

cc: Jane Riley Jacobsen
Jon Meacham