What could possibly go wrong with this?
US and South Korean special forces have been parachuting into North Korea to gather intelligence about underground military installations, a US officer has said in comments carried in US media.
Army Brigadier General Neil Tolley, commander of US special forces in South Korea, told a conference held in Florida last week that Pyongyang had built thousands of tunnels since the Korean war, The Diplomat reported.
“The entire tunnel infrastructure is hidden from our satellites,” Tolley said, according to The Diplomat, a current affairs magazine. “So we send (South Korean) soldiers and US soldiers to the North to do special reconnaissance.” [....]
Among the facilities identified are 20 air fields that are partially underground, and thousands of artillery positions. [AFP]
But can this really be true? First, given the way gravity works — yes, even in North Korea — how would these guys get back out again? Jet packs? Second, this would be an act of war, and haven’t we sort of reserved that as North Korea’s exclusive privilege since 1953? Third, assuming that this is true, why would a serving general officer would say it in a room full of people — any room full of any people — thus increasing the risk of compromise and capture? Fourth, even if it is true, why would we hand the North Koreans a propaganda gift like this? Fifth, North Korea’s underground airfields aren’t necessarily invisible to our satellites, which makes the story’s premise questionable.
The report seemed so suspicious to me that I went back to the original source to see if there was more context for the quotation. Although it does name BG Tolley as its original source, it doesn’t claim that Tolley actually said this on the record or in the presence of the reporter, David Axe; instead, it says that Tolley told this to “a conference in Florida.” We don’t know what conference, where, or who was present, which means that this could be third-hand information (and thus, a misunderstanding, or outright disinformation). Nor does it say when these missions occurred.
Within the next few days, we can expect to see an official denial, but a story like this one can’t be untold. No matter how implausible it all sounds, there are just too many people who would never believe a denial. I haven’t decided whether I’m one of those people, but given how little our government does about the things it knows damn well North Korea is doing, you have to wonder why we’d take such profound risks to gather yet more intelligence to not act on.
UPDATE: David Axe seems to acknowledge that he misunderstood BG Tolley. Interesting that AFP, whose story has already circulated globally, quotes the Army’s denial but fails to note that Axe, the original source, now doubts what he wrote, and that it also appears to have misquoted the National Defense Industrial Association journal. I don’t think Axe made this up intentionally, but it’s a case study in how sloppy and false reporting gets around the world before the truth catches up. Why were so many papers so quick to believe this before asking obvious questions and going back to reread the original source?
UDPATE 2: Damn. Just look at all the gullible news sources that ran with this completely implausible story without checking or questioning it. The chatrooms at Naver, Indymedia, and Prison Planet will probably be talking about this all year. Congratulations, AFP. You’ve managed to misinform millions of people all over the world, based on a blog post that should have aroused immediate suspicions by anyone remotely familiar with the subject matter. In retrospect, I’m sure AFP will agree that it ought to have asked for USFK’s reaction or corroboration from someone else who heard BG Tolley’s remarks before rushing to print. Now, having failed to do that, the AFP owes the public more than an Army-denies-secret-war update. It should admit that the whole story was baseless and retract it.
As for Axe, I probably feel sorrier for him than I should, maybe because I’ve enjoyed a lot of other things he’s written. And unlike AFP, Axe has at least published a correction. I know that when you’re scribbling notes at events like this, it can be easy to miss things, but as he’s no doubt realized by now, this isn’t the kind of story you print unless you’re sure.
UPDATE 3: David Axe says he’s stepping down as a regular contributor to The Diplomat, which saddens me. He made a very big mistake, realized it, clarified it, and will now suffer consequences to his career and reputation. Meanwhile, the wire service that reported the since-corrected story globally still hasn’t retracted it or even mentioned The Diplomat‘s “clarification.” In fact, the original story, without USFK’s denial, is still available online. Sometimes I wonder if journalism is the last unaccountable profession.
UPDATE 4: Some of the links to the army-denies version of the AFP story are starting to come up “page not found.” Well, good, but a correction would be better. Why does it sometimes seem that the media are so reluctant to tell the truth and so quick to retract it, yet so quick to spread falsehoods and so slow to retract them?
UPDATE 5: Since I last posted this morning, David Axe has gone back on the defensive and has reverted to standing by the retracted report. He’s even claiming “victory” because a Pentagon media spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel James Gregory, and another unknown reporter say that Axe transcribed LTG Tolley’s words correctly. That’s interesting, but if it doesn’t quite convince me, it may be because Axe seems a lot more certain of the accuracy of the quote now than he did when he started updating that post. For example, I wonder how certain Axe can really be that BG Tolley really said “we,” as opposed to “we’d.”
Whether Axe transcribed BG Tolley’s words accurately is still only one part of the real question — whether Axe reported the meaning of Tolley’s words accurately. I agree with Paul Woodward:
Sorry, but a report shouldn’t run just because the reporter is confident about the grammatical accuracy of his note-taking. Even if the general said in the present tense that U.S. special forces were being sent into North Korea, this statement demanded some follow-up questions and corroboration. Too often, journalists end up chasing quotes instead of gathering facts.
The story still doesn’t ring true, and the story of the admission of the story doesn’t ring true, either. As the expression goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This entire story was implausible to begin with, and it’s based entirely on an alleged admission that the speaker now denies. It’s a sensational claim, and the language of Axe’s original post tells me that Axe knew that this was “a big deal” when he posted it.
USFK also went too far when it accused Axe of making up the quote. That was a reckless and mean thing to say, and it’s likely that that accusation and Axe’s story are both untrue. The defensiveness of both USFK and Mr. Axe are understandable but disappointing, because they bring us no closer to the truth. If Gregory’s concession is meant to take some of the pressure off of Axe, that’s probably a better way to get Axe to make a concession of his own.
Having said that, I know I make mistakes, too. Axe links to this post in his, in a way that might be read as suggesting that I accused him of fabricating the quote. I hope no one draws that conclusion, because I’ve never believed that Axe fabricated anything. When I put up the original post, Axe had not yet clarified that he was there to hear BG Tolley’s remarks. I considered the possibility that someone had misinformed Axe about what BG Tolley said, but I never suspected Mr. Axe of fabricating; I suspect him of misunderstanding. I don’t expect him to be infallible, and I wouldn’t want anyone to expect that of me. I do expect his most honest reassessment of the evidentiary support for his extraordinary claim. Maybe when his embarrassment subsides, he’ll agree that this was probably just a regrettable misunderstanding. I hope that happens before North Korea decides to use this as a pretext for some terrible act, or before this story is forever engraved in Korea’s rich conspiracy lore. That is, if it’s not already too late.
UPDATE 6, 31 May 2012: I want to direct you to two new posts on this topic: one explains how North Korea will take advantage of this report for its domestic propaganda, and the other explains why the story itself is so technologically theoretical and implausible.