Diamonds or Bombs? WaPo Is Only Skeptical on One Side

Joby Warrick’s Washington Post article (11/14/11) on the new International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran goes wrong from the first sentence:

When the Cold War abruptly ended in 1991, Vyacheslav Danilenko was a Soviet weapons scientist in need of a new line of work.

Well, no. Danilenko is allegedly a nuclear weapons scientist–but neither the IAEA or Warrick present any actual evidence that he was any such thing.

Rather, the documents disclosed so far suggest that Danilenko is what he says he is: an expert on the use of explosions to make tiny, industrial-grade diamonds known as nanodiamonds. His area of specialization goes back half a century, to the early 1960s, when the scientist was in his mid-20s (Inter Press Service, 11/9/11).

Warrick’s story is a step forward from his earlier article (11/7/11) on the IAEA report, which refers to Danilenko as a “former Soviet nuclear scientist” without mentioning the field he’s actually been publishing in for decades at all. Still, Warrick works hard to give the impression that the scientist’s career-long interest in nanodiamonds is some kind of fly-by-night cover story:

Danilenko struggled to become a businessman, traveling through Europe and even to the United States to promote an idea for using explosives to create synthetic diamonds…. The scientist’s synthetic-diamonds business provided a plausible explanation for his extensive contacts with senior Iranian scientists over half a decade…. Danilenko’s work in Iran initially centered on his diamond-making scheme. But over the course of a six-year relationship, UN investigators later concluded, he provided expertise that would help Iran achieve something of far greater value.

OK–so what’s the evidence that Danilenko was helping the Iranians make bombs, not diamonds?

The IAEA’s report cites “strong indications” that the unnamed “foreign expert” [apparently Danilenko] assisted Iran in developing a high-precision detonator as well as a sophisticated instrument for analyzing the shape of the explosive pulse.

Right–because creating industrial diamonds requires high-precision detonation, which you would presumably want to monitor and analyze. The evidence that this is actually a cover for nuclear weapons research boils down to a lack of proof that it is not a cover for nuclear weapons research. Or as weapons analyst David Albright puts it–who is a major source for the Post story, both directly and through his Institute for Science and International Security think tank–“It remains for Danilenko to explain his assistance to Iran.”

There’s such a degree of spin in the Post‘s case for Iranian nuclear research that it really makes you want to check to be sure your wallet is still in your pocket. After relaying Danilenko’s assertions that he had nothing to do with a nuclear program, Warrick adds, “In private conversations, however, the scientist allowed that he ‘could not exclude that his information was used for other purposes,’ the ISIS report said.” Of course, no scientist can guarantee that their information was not repurposed, so the admission has zero evidentiary value–but it does function as an effective tension-raiser, like mood music in a horror movie.

The Post story concludes: “‘Synthetic diamond production is unlikely to have been a priority’ for Iran, ISIS said. ‘Although it has obvious value as a cover story.'” Actually, Iran has a serious, long-standing nanotechnology program (Moon of Alabama, 11/7/11)–and one of the chief uses for nanodiamonds is in oil drilling, an activity that provides the bulk of Iran’s exports earnings, so it’s not actually all that remarkable that the country would be interested in producing them.

Of course, the Post should be skeptical of Iranian claims–but where is the same skepticism of assertions that an official enemy state is secretly researching weapons of mass destruction–particularly given the very recent history of such claims being manufactured and distorted for political ends? It’s worth recalling that Albright, the Post‘s main witness for the idea that Danilenko is not what he says he is, was taken in by the last major WMD propaganda campaign, telling CNN (10/5/02; Extra!, 7-8/03): “In terms of the chemical and biological weapons, Iraq has those now. How many, how could they deliver them? I mean, these are the big questions.”

We need the news media to be asking bigger questions this time around about the Iranian nuclear allegations.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.