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LOL At EMPs? Science Report Tackles Likelihood Of A North Korea Nuclear Capability

May 30, 2017

An April 27 Morning Edition report by Geoff Brumfiel, an NPR science editor, ran just a scant 2 ½ minutes, but it prompted an outsized outpouring of emails.

The emails (some from organized campaigns, including this one) continue to arrive, which is why I am addressing this so long after the fact. But at a time when many listeners worry about "false equivalence" — wishy-washy "on the one hand, on the other hand" reporting — I also think this report illustrates what NPR, and its listeners, should expect of its newsroom staff: solid research and considered reporting that attempts to filter out the noisy debate over hot-button issues and add some facts to the conversation.

Brumfiel's NPR piece assessed whether North Korea had the capability to detonate a nuclear weapon from space, and thereby deal a devastating blow to the U.S. electrical grid. This technique, which has never been used in an actual attack, is known as "electromagnetic pulse" (or EMP for short).

Former CIA director James Woolsey raised such a specter during an April 26 Morning Edition interview.

Here's his quote, referring specifically to North Korea: "The really dangerous thing is that they can both orbit satellites — they've orbited several — and use nuclear weapons. And if they detonate a weapon up some miles above the Earth in a satellite, they can knock out a major share of our electric grid." Morning Edition host David Greene responded: "So that's something I didn't know about."

The assertion that North Korea may soon possess such a capability is highly controversial, it turns out.

The threat from EMPs has been debated for years. A group of scientists and political figures have argued strongly that the United States' infrastructure is not prepared for an EMP threat — from any source — and they want the U.S. to spend more money preparing for such a scenario. EMPs were the subject of a 2004 report to Congress. Woolsey made an argument for increased funding to prepare the U.S. infrastructure in a 2014 Wall Street Journal op-ed he co-authored. The issue of EMPs surfaced in January 2016 Republican presidential candidate debates.

It's not the reporter's job to tell listeners what the federal budget priorities should be; that's for the audience to decide for themselves. Nor is it always possible to know what is going on in secretive weapons development programs in other countries, as illustrated by uncertainty about North Korea's nuclear capabilities and intentions.

But the view of North Korea's capabilities articulated by Woolsey does not seem to be widely shared in the scientific and nuclear weapons community (here's one scientific take). Letting Woolsey's comments stand without an examination of the facts behind them would have been irresponsible, especially on a topic that is so unfamiliar to the general public.

After the Woolsey interview, Brumfiel was asked by editors to report on the potential of an EMP threat — from North Korea specifically — which is what he did.

Contrary to the assertion of some of the critics who have written my office, Brumfiel's report was not about whether EMPs could have real consequences. In the piece, Brumfiel specifically says such attacks are possible and he reiterated that to me in an email. "As somebody with both a physics degree, and a long history of reporting on nuclear weapons, I am fairly familiar with the idea behind Electromagnetic Pulses (EMPs). I know the effect is real and that in a full-scale nuclear exchange, EMPs could be disruptive. Most military hardware is hardened against EMPs to make it more survivable on the battlefield."

Brumfiel sent me a detailed breakdown of his reporting process, and it's everything you would expect of a seasoned reporter. He drew on his own knowledge, read the reports, talked to experts. One suggested that he interview Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey and a leading expert on North Korea's missile and nuclear program. He is frequently called on as a guest on NPR.

Lewis dismissed the threat — not of EMPs, but of North Korea's current ability to launch one. Brumfiel backed up that assessment with reporting of his own on past tests. In other words, Brumfiel did what he should: He researched the issue and came to a reported conclusion. While it was short — and arguably too short for a complex topic — the piece added important context to the previous day's interview. (Even better, time permitting, would have been to tell listeners about the longstanding debate over the issue.)

I have one significant criticism in how the story was told, however. The piece included this exchange:

BRUMFIEL: ...I Skyped Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, and asked him, could North Korea really do this?
JEFFREY LEWIS: (Laughter).
BRUMFIEL: Take that as a no.
LEWIS: This is the favorite nightmare scenario of a small group of very dedicated people.

That laugh ran a full seven seconds. It was ear-catching — and also generated some of the sharpest complaints from those who wrote the Ombudsman's office.

One came from Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, of Tallahassee, Fla., a former member of the Florida House of Representatives. She expressed concern about the "crude laugh track as a supposed counterpoint to comments made by former CIA Director Woolsey on the state of national security. 
Former CIA Director Woolsey has honorably served his country for many years and through both Republican and Democratic administrations. I have never heard such a disrespectful approach to a news report and any interview subject."

Brumfiel told me that the laugh made clear "that many experts consider the threat of a North-Korean-nuclear-EMP satellite as laughable. What better way do so but with a real laugh from somebody with deep knowledge of the topic?"

That seven seconds was just a fraction of Lewis's full laugh, which ran more than 1 minute and 14 seconds of the interview. Given the magnitude of that response, Brumfiel said he "felt that leaving it out would have the effect of sanitizing his reaction to the original statements." The piece's editor, Larry Kaplow, said he agreed with that choice.

Brumfiel added, "We realized the decision to use the laugh would stir things up, but in the end, we agreed it would help drive home the point of the piece in a memorable way. Many people both within and outside of NPR have since remarked on it. I feel it had the desired effect, which was to offer a crystal-clear rebuttal to a statement made the previous day."

I disagree. To many listeners, including me, it came off as disdainful and disrespectful of Woolsey. More important, by effectively treating the subject as a laughing matter, it had the unintended consequence of obscuring Brumfiel's main point: The threat of EMP attacks may be real, but North Korea, in particular, is most likely not capable of such an attack in the near future. This is a weighty topic and NPR listeners deserved a report that invited them to consider it seriously, in style as well as substance.

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