The panicky style of reporting on North Korea doesn't seem to be changing much, if you glance at the front pages of the big papers this morning. The Washington Post headline (4/12/13) blares, "N. Korea Thought to Have Warhead, " while over at the New York Times (4/12/13) it's "Pentagon Says Nuclear Missile Is in Reach for North Korea."
But both pieces, if read carefully, undermine the alarmism–and make you wonder why the stories are on the front page.
The Times piece led:
A new assessment by the Pentagon's intelligence arm has concluded for the first time, with "moderate confidence," that North Korea has learned how to make a nuclear weapon small enough to be delivered by a ballistic missile.
North Korea probably has a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on a ballistic missile, according to a new assessment by the Pentagon's intelligence arm that comes amid growing alarm over Pyongyang’s warmongering.
So what exactly happened? This assessment was a one-sentence statement from a Defense Intelligence Agency report, which was unveiled at a House hearing on the military budget hearing, as the Times reported:
The assessment’s existence was disclosed Thursday by Rep. Doug Lamborn, Republican of Colorado, three hours into a budget hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.
And why was it unveiled this way? Again, the Times:
Republicans in Congress have led efforts to increase money for missile defense, and Mr. Lamborn has been critical of the Obama administration for failing to finance it adequately.
Well, that's rather telling, isn't it?
The Washington Post, which reported that this is "likely to raise fresh concerns about North Korea's capabilities and intentions," also noted that the politician unveiling this intelligence had a clear motive:
Lamborn…said in an interview after the hearing that he chose to slip the assessment into the public domain because he worries the Obama administration is not investing enough in missile defense.
If you read the stories carefully enough, you might conclude that there's not a whole lot to go on here. Various government sources have cautioned that this assessment is not the consensus view among the intelligence agencies. And as a Reuters report helpfully added, "The Defense Intelligence Agency has been wrong before in its WMD assessments. Most notably, it asserted strongly 10 years ago that Iraq possessed nuclear arms."
So where are we, then? Some outlets are putting, on their front pages, unsubstantiated claims from intelligence agencies about the weapons capabilities of certain Official Enemies. This has happened before, right?