Monday, May 04, 2009

The Scary NYT Article On Pakistan's Nukes Is Bad Journalism

Goddamn, this is bad journalism. The New York Times manages, at once, to:

1. Scare the crap out of people
2. Provide no evidence for why people should be scared
3. Write a headline which doesn't convey the most important point of the story

Let's start at the beginning, with the scary headline:

Pakistan Strife Raises U.S. Doubts on Nuclear Arms

Hmmm. What, pray tell, are these doubts, and what, pray tell, are these doubts based on? Let's see if we can find out.
...senior American officials say they are increasingly concerned about new vulnerabilities for Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, including the potential for militants to snatch a weapon in transport or to insert sympathizers into laboratories or fuel-production facilities.

Ok. So "senior American officials" are worried something bad will happen to/with Pakistani nukes. Is there any reason to believe so? Well, the next paragraph seems to believe not:
The officials emphasized that there was no reason to believe that the arsenal, most of which is south of the capital, Islamabad, faced an imminent threat. President Obama said last week that he remained confident that keeping the country’s nuclear infrastructure secure was the top priority of Pakistan’s armed forces.

Now, forgive my naivete, but shouldn't that be the end of the story? If "there was no reason to believe that the arsenal...faced an imminent threat", shouldn't we have to not read further? I honestly don't understand. How can the nukes be a worry if they're not a worry?
But the United States does not know where all of Pakistan’s nuclear sites are located, and its concerns have intensified in the last two weeks since the Taliban entered Buner, a district 60 miles from the capital. The spread of the insurgency has left American officials less willing to accept blanket assurances from Pakistan that the weapons are safe.

Oh, I'm sorry! Gosh, why didn't you just say so? You mean all we have to do to allay your concerns about this is release top-secret and confidential information that not even all important elements of the Pakistan government are privy to? You mean Pakistan's "blanket assurances" would mean more to you if we treated "senior American officials" like "senior Pakistani officials"?
Pakistani officials have continued to deflect American requests for more details about the location and security of the country’s nuclear sites, the officials said.

Aww, poor babies! Maybe you should have asked more nicely?
Some of the Pakistani reluctance, they said, stemmed from longstanding concern that the United States might be tempted to seize or destroy Pakistan’s arsenal if the insurgency appeared about to engulf areas near Pakistan’s nuclear sites.

Yes, and on the basis of this article, what an ill-founded and irrational "longstanding concern" that is.

The rest of the piece bandies about things that may or may not happen to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, without any evidence to suggest that any of those possibilities is even remotely likely. But don't believe me, go read the piece yourself.

At the end of the day, this is the bottom line: the headline, and the scary quotes, suggest one set of facts about the safety of Pakistani nuclear weapons. The actual evidence presented suggest something entirely different. What are the odds that the headline and the scary quotes aren't the things that remain embedded in people's minds?

UPDATE: I've very kindly thought of an alternate headline for the piece:

Pakistani Nukes Not Really A Problem, But We'd Feel A Helluva Lot Better If They Told Us Where They Were...You Know, Just In Case

More nonsense from the NYT on Pakistan. Please read this comically reductionist piece and, in particular, cast your eyes to this breathtaking paragraph:
Pakistan has several selves. There is rural Pakistan, where two-thirds of the country lives in conditions that approximate the 13th century. There is urban Pakistan, where the British-accented, Princeton-educated elite sip cold drinks in clipped gardens.

This will be news to urban Pakistanis, who, by and large, are desperately poor and lack real housing, clean water and the knowledge of the fact that their next three meals are guaranteed. And even the elite, which I suspect is what this writer is talking about, are hardly educated -- let alone Princeton-educated. They've generally made their money from (a) connections, (b) land, or (c) the military, none of which require a fancy foreign degree. It's unbelievable that this stuff actually makes it to their pages.

The New York Times: All the news that's fit to print, and caricature.


Emad said...

The reporting in this article is emblematic of NYT's overall coverage of Pakistan over the last few months. It seems to fly well with the experts, though — it did get them the Pulitzer.

What's most entertaining about any article, however, are the comments from radical Indians. Hilarious.

Anonymous said...


Get it?

AKS said...

I thought NYT's reporting from Pakistan has been pretty all right, but this is a stupid article.

But then you've got to expect such unfounded alarmist reporting from Sanger, check out his article from January titled "Obama's Worst Pakistan Nightmare"

Its 7 pages of assumptions and conjecture based entirely on highly classified intelligence reports, the contents of which, Sanger admits, have not been revealed to him.

Consider this passage:

“Please grant to Pakistan that if we can make nuclear weapons and the delivery systems,” [says Gen. Kidwai] “we can also make them safe. Our security systems are foolproof.”

“FOOLPROOF” IS MOST likely not the word Barack Obama would use to describe the status of Pakistan’s nuclear safety following the briefings he has been receiving since Nov. 6, which is when J. Michael McConnell, the director of national intelligence, showed up in Chicago to give the president-­elect his first full presidential daily brief. For obvious reasons, neither Obama nor McConnell will talk about the contents of those highly classified briefings.


The crux of Sanger's argument is that Pakistani security personnel and scientists, especially recently returned expats, cannot be trusted. However, this is based entirely on two events: 1) A. Q. Khan acted independently; and 2) there are others like A. Q. Khan.

Re: 1) I still can't get myself to believe that AQK worked without the complicity of the Pakistani military.

Rs: 2) Sanger bases this solely on the case of Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood - a crackpot scientist who was kicked out in 1999 for harbouring pan-Islamic ideals.

1999 is also around the time that Gen. Kidwai took over as DG Strategic Plans Division of the National Command Authority. Since then Pakistan's nuclear arsenal has been virtually controlled by him and the army chief.

There's no chance they're letting Gillani anywhere near the red button SPD that's for sure, then why the hell would they let Holbrooke near it?


Its exactly this sort of idiotic thinking and subsequent posturing by the Americana that will get Pakistan into deeper trouble. The army's distrust of the Americans will grow making them even more reluctant to weed out the Islamists and they're going to get even more impatient with civilian leaders who they'll feel can't stand up to the American bullies.

Americans are terrible at understanding the world. They really need a better handle on things.

P.S. I blame anti-nuclear weapons and pro-India lobbyists for this shortsighted and imbecilic approach towards Pakistani nuclear weapons. More on my experience with and distaste for American lobbying soon.

Peace said...

Well we choose to believe you, like we believed when you said,

.AQ Khan was such an innocent scientist that he did not even know a name outside Pakistan let alone be in touch with them
.That Gauri was nothing but a Pakistani missile and that it did not even have the remotest connection with North Korea
.That none of the soldiers killed in Kargil was pakistani’s
.That none of them responsible for the Mumbai attack were pakistani’s

Hmm , now you will call me a radical Indian. Be it, I just want to live in peace so I am bothered.

Jaydev,India said...

scattered components of nuclear weapons across Pakistan is a scary and legitimate concern. Its been reported that a segment of Pak scientists have links and sympathies with Al-Qaeda and some of the guys have personally met with bin laden. The American concern is loosing a military location to Taliban/Al-Qaeda which US is not aware of which stores fissile materials. That could be a dangerous development short of actual device..coz dirty bombs can be made out of radioactive fissile materials. The worst case scenario is a Pak military or scientific community sympathizer "in the know" tipping off Taliban with materials in transit or actual locations. And given the unresolved AQ Khan affair and precedent for proliferation, it is quite a legitimate concern. Like Zakaria says never invest on the four words:"This time it's different."

Anonymous said...

Now, forgive my naivete, but shouldn't that be the end of the story? If "there was no reason to believe that the arsenal...faced an imminent threat", shouldn't we have to not read further? I honestly don't understand. How can the nukes be a worry if they're not a worry?Wow you're working really hard at being obtuse about this. Not all threats are "imminent." They're just saying that the security of Pakistan's nukes is a long-term worry but not a short-term worry. If you don't like alarmist reporting about Pakistan maybe you should be glad that they chose to clarify this.

Given that your next three comments after this are just talking back to the article's sources it seems like your beef is more with the US government than with the NYT.

Ahsan said...


I think it's been a mixed bag to be honest. There's been some good reporting, but also some laughable analysis.


Yes, I'm afraid I do.


Sanger is a complete choot.


The Pakistani military is an institution known for self-preservation more than anything else. As yourself where their interests lie on this issue.


Fair point, except the headline and the playing up of the speculation (and playing down of facts) are editorial and reporter choices, not source choices. We've seen this game from mainstream media sources before (witness the run-up the Iraq war, for instance).

Raza said...

What do mean? These reporters are great, they can even rhyme:

"...and the bigger the gap between rich and poor, the more likely are major social unrest and war."

foolsparadise said...

If there is no "N" word, the story would be different and Obama is all about Change!!
If you could have faith in Pak Army, we would also try to have some, looks like you forgot about Musharraf/Zia-ul-Haq/Ayub Khan and "IF" yes IF, you can sell these products of Pak Army to people of Pakistan itself on their "Trustworthiness" others could take few word of assurance.

Jadev,India said...

The question is not of self-preservation. Elements of Pak Army is reverse-indoctrinated in jihad studies and those guys like Hamid Gul r not the real rational types. Scattering of nuclear device components is a normal practice and India too does the same. The point is tipping off locations of fissile materials by radicalized elements in the scientific community or military. There is enough material that suggests that there are a good number of "insiders" who sympathize with goal of al-qaeda.

This "self-preservation" question is itself a thing of great debates.Pak military is known for its obsession for "extreme sports" aka huge risk-taking appetite.
There are speculations that Taliban is allowed to take over Swat and shock Americans into loosening their purse..Kargil misadventure is another example..etc.etc..Very stupid idea that could have gotten out of control..same goes for Mumbai attacks..which is termed as brilliantly stupid by some commentators..

The Pakistani military is an institution known for self-preservation more than anything else

Yawar said...

I agree with the author quite a bit actually. The duoplicity/hypocrisy you see in Pakistani society is quite apparent.

But then again, it's a worldwide phenomenon where the rich-poor disparity has widened quite a bit.

PS: I think by Princeton-educated, he's referring to Mohsin Hamid (who also writes articles for the NYT and WP from time to time).

Ahsan said...


I agree that the gap between the rich and poor is very wide in Pakistan, but that's not what the author said. The report basically said that urban Pakistan is populated by Princeton-educated yuppies. That's simply not true -- as I said, most of urban Pakistan is poor or middle class at best.

Anonymous said...

It's time to consider the option of helping the people of Pakistan bring a formal end to the country. It is widely discussed within Pakistani society that the foundation that their country was built on doesn't apply anymore, in fact it is one of the reasons that Pakistan is a nuclear armed failed state.

Afghanistan has never accepted the way it's eastern border, the Durand line, was demarcated, the people who actually live there, don't recognize it, the government has never done much to make it's presence there be anything more than a formality. This is exactly the place where the Taliban have found their refuge. The people who live in Waziristan, or Pakhtoonistan as it's also known, don't consider the Taliban to be foreigners, even though they are associated with Al-Qaeda, which is an Arab organization. The people of this region feel that the Pashtun ethnicity doesn't need to restrict itself to any particular side of the current Afghan-Pakistan border.

Meanwhile, in the southern province of Baluchistan, which borders Afghanistan and Iran; the Baloch population has also grown weary of being under represented in the traditionally Punjabi run central government in Islamabad. Balochistan has already revolted once in seventies, which was put down after much civilian deaths. And the province has also turned out to be a refuge for fleeing senior Al-Qaeda figures after 2001. This is mainly because the people have no love for the central government. In fact, the government is in the process of keeping a lid on a potential rebellion after having killed several prominent Baloch leaders a few weeks ago.

That essentially leaves the province of Sindh, in the south, which is where the economic capital of Karachi is located; the central province of Punjab and the northern province of Kashmir, half of which is controlled by India and the status of which is disputed by all.

Pakistan as a country has been kept together mainly out of a fear of India. The military has used it's eastern neighbor as a bogey man to keep much needed resources going specifically to their own coffers. This has led to severe deficiencies in Pakistani civil society. There is no money for a decent public education, so parents feel they have no choice but to send their child to a madrassa run by extremists, where they are fed and clothed.
There is no money for infrastructure development, so the people in the rural areas don't feel they owe any allegience for an abscent government.
There is no money for civil institutions, so the people of a village are devoid of any courts and a honest policeman, and feel they have no choice but to acquiesce to the demands of the Taliban who bring with them an orderly society, even if it's not one we would like.
The solution to this would a greater autonomy for all the provinces away from the central government. Whether we like it or not, the country of Pakistan, exists in name only. We in the US need to learn the lessons of Yugoslavia and help the people of Pakistan reform their society to one which will serve the needs of the local populations rather than any central authority fixated on keeping old fantasies alive.

— Rex, New York, NY

Anonymous said...

Not sure if you have seen this post outlining the rationale for seizing Pakistan's nuclear weapons: It provides evidence that the Pakistanis are justified in keeping the locations of their nuclear weapons private - even if it is for no other reason than to garner attention.

karachi khatmal said...

dear rex from new york

generally i avoid reactionary responses to pakistan bashing, and i hate pointing fingers at others. but you are a classic example of the global bullshit syndrome - your liberal arts education provides you with some historical perspective, which you couple with your selective reading of intellectual blogs and magazine editorials to churn out a heap of tripe consisting of a collection of rag-tag stereotypes.

first of all, south waziristan is not pakhtoonistan - the pashtuns prefers the name pakhtunkhwa. its the domain of american FP advocates, hollywood scriptwriters and standup comedians to give every eastern sounding place an -istan, but it's not true here.

"That essentially leaves the province of Sindh, in the south, which is where the economic capital of Karachi is located; the central province of Punjab"

this is where more than 75% of the population resides, it is the breadbasket of the country, it is the political powerbase etc etc. it is luda-criss to conveniently lump these two provinces as "what's left behind" but i think you've done so because the NYT hasn't provided some arm-chair analysis, and more importantly, easy to remember cliches about these places.

"parents feel they have no choice to send their kids to extremists madarssas"

ah - the lovely madarssa. when will you fucken idiots realise that a negligible percentage of pakistan's population attends madarssas - according to statistics its less than 5%. more kids go into sweat shops and bonded labour and begging on the street than attend madarssas.

as for the villagers acquiescing to the taliban - so far the taliban only control the tribal areas, and the malakand division. in the case of the latter, there was no instance of the villagers acquiescing or any such bullshit - they were actually fighting the talibs until their army proved to be a bunch of spineless assholes. more importantly, the vast majority of pakistani villages have no contact with the taliban.

finally, you offer that you in the US can help pakistan. perhaps that's because you guys believe you haven't been helping yet. i would refer you to reading "friends not masters" and renting a copy of "charlie wilson's war"

all in all mr. rex, your thesis that pakistan needs to be dismantled might have some credence. but the "facts" you recycle via your google searches are typical of the usual bullshit that armchair activists who spend their days signing online petitions and inflating their egos via comments threads put out.

but if its the taliban you're worried about, here's an idea. please send us some blankets for the cold season, sprinkle them with some smallpox, and viola! we would've learnt the american way of dealing with insurgent menaces.


Ahsan said...

You know, if we ever collate the top ten comments in Rs.5's history, this Karachi Khatmal character would have about five all to himself.

Gigi said...

There are multitude of experts on CNN, PBS and FOX opining on the issue of Pakistan. Anybody who knows anything about military or foreign affairs, whether he knows anything about Pakistan or not, has become an expert. Picture in the media being painted on Pakistan is that Pakistan is essentially a ‘Banana Republic’.

It is true Pakistan has a weak leadership but it definitely is not Afghanistan or Congo .It sure has a history of corruption and general tendency to favor Islamic life but the Pakistan Military is trained and brought up in the British school. It knows well the perils of Talibanization of their country. These so called 'experts' tend to paint the picture that one of the largest army in the world will suddenly capitulate to Taliban and will let Taliban flag fly high in the Pakistan.

Yes, Taliban is sixty miles away from Islamabad but in reality Buner district and even Swat valley is not Islamabad. These areas are generally ignored as North east region of India. Although, Buner is sixty miles far from Islamabad but in strategic terms, it is 6000 miles away from Islamabad.

I agree that putting pressure on Taliban and Pakistan government to contain the Taliban threat is helpful but please spare us the generalizations that Pakistan is as weak state as present Afghanistan is or as Afghanistan was when Taliban came to power.

The concept that when sun rises up tomorrow or something in the near future, Pakistan government will be displaced and Taliban will take over is juvenile at best. These simplistic assessments only create more resentment and defeat the purpose.

Let us give the army of the Pakistan and people of the Pakistan their due and please get us some real experts.

Anonymous said...

wooooooooooooooooooo go khatmal!!!

NB said...


Thanks for that comment dude. And so you know, you had me at 'global bullshit syndrome'.

foolsparadise said...

@khatmal, you opened the box of worms

What do you mean by this,


as for the villagers acquiescing to the taliban - so far the taliban only control the tribal areas, and the malakand division. in the case of the latter, there was no instance of the villagers acquiescing or any such bullshit - they were actually fighting the talibs until their army proved to be a bunch of spineless assholes. more importantly, the vast majority of pakistani villages have no contact with the taliban.


All, your govt (ANP is part of), media(all major news anchors went there (SWAT)and presented shows from, portraying how happy people were after Nizam-e-aldal-e-Shriya was implemented), people (who distributed sweets on street and went back to their businesses) were very very happy & excited with Sufi Mohammad and his gang.

But the bigger question was never-ever answered by anybody, did people actually wanted nizam-e-a-shariya??

I am of my opinion this is yet another Pak-Army drama which we are watching right now paid by poor ex-bus-conductor, Sufi Mohammad and gang, who might even were/are good-boys of Pak-Army..

Damn its like WATCHING "Sidney Sheldon" live.. :-)

karachi khatmal said...

@ fool's paradise

are you related to rex?

firstly, the anp has been loath to travel to swat - please look up afzal khan lala's bitterness towards his own party to get an idea of things.

secondly, other than talat hussain of aaj tv, i can't think of any anchor who went to swat to do a show, certainly not of late.

thirdly, i personally spoke to some civilians after the implementation of sharia law - yes, they were very happy, but it was cuz it meant there wouldn't be any more fighting. it was impossible to honestly determine whether they wanted sharia law or not because they were far more concerned about the mindless violence that they expected to take place otherwise.

finally, mangal bagh, who ran the insurgency from the outskirts of peshawar, was the ex-bus conductor, not sufi mohammad. and it's nizam-e-adl, not nizam-e-sharia.

yet again, while your opinion that this is an army ploy may still hold true, the rest of your information is the typical self-serving bullshit that i regaled about earlier in this post.

i would also like to ask you how you feel about acting smug over an issue that is actually causing the deaths of hundreds of people.

@ the 5 rupees guys

you're too kind :)

foolsparadise said...

@karachi khatmal

Thanks for replying!

Firstly, I am not "acting smug" but trying to have a better understanding of the whole scenario. Like you said, I also don't rely much on reports in American(read:western)media, but few thing which raises an eye brow, why its too secretive mission? why don't we see much of pictures, reports from Pakistani media? why Army is so quietly acting? why do you need tanks, fighter crafts to fight an insurgency which is of medieval sort? is Sufi Mohammad, why not Baithulla Masood (or several of his kinds)? why and for whom army waited this long to finally act? etc. etc.

Actually there are so many Ifs, that this whole story makes all of us just bystanders (or arm chair analysts, suffering from Global BS Syndrome(GBSS) :-), in that way you can relate me to Rex and yes I agree with him on some of his points).

But seriously, my interest lies in Pak-army, because I think(again, GBSS) their are under currents and would reveal only with due course.
Interestingly, this time its acting behind the scene, keeping a civilian face in front if nothing for "better begging skills" giving funny reasons (as an analyst once said rightly, Pakistanis bargain pointing gun of there head).