Journalism in the Public Interest

The National Endowment for Democracy Responds to Our Burma Nuclear Story—And Our Response

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] 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)."


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.


Jane Riley Jacobsen
Director, Public Affairs
National Endowment for Democracy


November 23, 2010

Mr. Michael Getler

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: 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 ( 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.

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

Very truly yours,

Paul E. Steiger

cc: Jane Riley Jacobsen
Jon Meacham

While I know nothing about what is going on in Burma, I DO know a lot about the NED—and Pro Publica is on target:  NED is a congressionally-created and funded operation, with some Board members having experience at the top levels of the US Government—especially State Department—of a number of administrations over the years.  The NED promotes elite (or in technical terms, “polyarchal”) democracy, WHICH DIRECTLY CONTRADICTS WHAT MOST AMERICANS AND PEOPLE AROUND THE WORLD CONSIDER TO BE DEMOCRACY—the NED’s type of “democracy” requires elites to decide what is acceptable and, within the constraint of their determination, then and only then, do people get to express their position. 

The purpose of NED is to maintain and expand the US Empire.

I have extensively written on the foreign policy program of the AFL-CIO, and have carefully examined its Solidarity Center’s role as one of the four key institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy (along with the International Democratic Institute, headed by Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; the International Republican Institute, headed by US Senator John McCain; and the US Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Private Enterprise).

For more details, see my 2010 book, AFL-CIO’s Secret War against Developing Country Workers:  Solidarity or Sabotage (Lanham, MD:  Lexington Books).

Chip Chasterton

Nov. 24, 2010, 11:27 p.m.

i don’t know much about this either, but i’ve watched the DVB documentary recently and it says the defector came out in February 2010 with the bulk of the evidence. so the fact that Albright/Kelley report - which was published in Jan 2010 - urges further investigation, which DVB then did using several experts, kinda debunks what ProPub are trying to say.

i also thought the PBS film was pretty dirty journalism. the fact that the presenters cast immediate doubt - comparing the burmese defector to ‘curveball’ in the first line - shows a bias form the word go that viewers not really down with the specifics of the issue would find hard to recover from. implication by accusation, which is what the film did, doesn’t meet the ‘rigorous’ standards that both PBS and ProPub, who have done some grt stuff before but muddied their name here, espouse.


So an organisation is funded by US tax dollars and gets lashed for being a cia proxy and gets money from OSI and is part of a communist plot to take over the world…..grow up America, grow up PBS, why don’t you investigate Al Jazeera who not only screened and presumably payed for it (are they CIA as well?) but also shock horror mr responsible journalist actively promote human rights in their broadcasting and guess who funds them? An oil state….and is also the target of regular US and other state attack…

Alfred Openschauer

Nov. 25, 2010, 2:36 a.m.

For ProPublica -

The Kelley/Albright ISIS paper was produced BEFORE the Sai Win revelations came out, so using it to point out agnosticism about what may or may not be going on in Burma NOW is futile.

The Sai Win revelations, if not a smoking gun, take the issue much further than hitherto. As do the revelations over the weekend about North Korea’s nuclear programme..North Korea is hand in glove with the Burmese junta as outlined in the recent UN experts report which has now gone to the UN Secrity Council,  and has a proven track record in nuclear proliferation

As a journalist, Mr Steiger should understand full well the nature of military rule in Burma. That means that there is no media there, aside from censor-approved journals and state-run TV and newspapers.

DVB and others exist to service this yawning gap, and DVB reporters and others have taken huge risks to point out the nature of military rule, including getting 25 year jail terms for merely taking photos! There are 14 journalists among Burma’s 2200 political prisoners.

Nobody needs to apologise for having “an agenda” opposed to one of the world’s longest-running military dictatorships!!! That is what media is for!

Clearly Mr Steiger has never seen the parodies of journalists straining for bogus ‘neutrality’ when reporting on the Khmer Rouge, Rwandan genocide etc. And before anyone says the situation in Burma was never so bad, a Harvard report in 2009 pointed out that the destruction wrought in eastern Burma by the Burmese Army exceeds that wrought on Darfur!

The notion of the 4th estate role for media, which Mr Steiger and ProPublica should know well, means that in the context of authoritarian rule, there can be no real divide between a freely-expressed media and supporting democracy!

ProPublica is setting up bogus non-sequiturs and straw men to try portray Burma’s exile media in a dark light.

Also, neither ISIS nor ProPublica seem to realise that they are being used by Senator Jim Webb, who is a longtime advocate of ‘engagement’ with the Burmese junta - and who has unusual access to dictator Than Shwe -  to debunk the DVB report.

Hence ISIS ‘Letter’ to Webb in response to his request. Useful idiots is the term used..sorry ProPublica, it is you who failed to do your background checks.

After meeting the dictator, Webb has sought the removal of US sanctions on Burma, which the Obama admin subsequently offered, if the junta undertook some reforms. Obama got squat for his offer.

“The notion of the 4th estate role for media, which Mr Steiger and ProPublica should know well, means that in the context of authoritarian rule, there can be no real divide between a freely-expressed media and supporting democracy! “
Gee, when do you think we’ll get real “democratic” press distribution in this country????
NED is a covert/overt policy arm of the “black” ops part of our government….and like one writer stated above is arm in arm with labor’s AIFLD (American Institute for Foreign Labor Development) that scurries around the globe in the interests of capital elitism AND has gone arm in arm in the past with many “military dictatorships”......a true “equal opportunity” exploiter.
There are some Americans that are knowledgeable about the nefarious side of our government and NED is one crooked entity we could do without.  It is not about spreading democracy; it’s about spreading the American Empire…if you believe in an American Empire so well and good.  I don’t. 
A pox on this entity!!

If the American people believe that all of the media are speeking 100% truth and are not being controled by government,I will sell you a bridge in New York. Look at the control of the press in iraq with “embedded"journalists. I prefer the term “in bed”! This and other organizations are no more than propaganda tools and while some may mention Al Jazeera,what’s the dif! I wonder how much mis being given to the military regime in Nepal so they can buy US arms? It’s not about Democracy,It’s about Capitolism!

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