A Eureka Moment for Two Times Reporters: North Korea’s Missile Launches Were Failing Too Often
WASHINGTON — The launches were failing too often.
That was the topic of the conversation I was having one day late last spring with Bill Broad, one of The Times’s premier science writers. Just about every time the North Koreans tried to launch an advanced missile, it seemed to end up in the ocean seconds later. Maybe it was bad luck, we said to each other, or bad parts, or bad welding. After all, the North Koreans are not known for quality-control. Or maybe something else was going on.
That was the beginning of an eight-month-long investigation into public and not so public evidence that the United States was experimenting with a new form of missile defense, one that didn’t rely exclusively on trying to hit a warhead in midflight with another warhead. It was a fascinating journey that took us from defense-contractor conferences to the inner sanctum of cyber experimentation to, in the end, the Trump White House.
Bill specializes in all things nuclear, including missile technology — he’s written three books on the subject. I specialize in national security policy, and have a particular interest in cyber conflict and how it is changing the ways in which countries compete with each other. We have worked together for 30 years, since the cold day in January 1986 when we were both thrown onto a team that investigated the technological and political roots of the space shuttle Challenger disaster. (The Times won a Pulitzer the next year for that investigation.)
Our biggest stories usually live at the intersection of technology and national security. Back during the last Bush administration we spent 14 months investigating how Abdul Qadeer Khan, the head of Pakistan’s nuclear program, created a black market for these weapons — and our reporting helped lead to his arrest. During that investigation, from the back of a smoky bar in Vienna, we extracted the story that Libya had obtained an early Chinese blueprint for an atomic bomb. (Don’t ask — and yes, The Times picked up an impressive bar tab.) Together, we also plunged into the details of the Iranian nuclear program.
我们最重要的文章通常涉及技术和国家安全的交叉点。在小布什政府期间，我们花了14个月时间调查巴基斯坦核计划负责人阿卜杜勒·卡迪尔·汗(Abdul Qadeer Khan)如何为这些武器建立了黑市——他的逮捕和我们的报道不无关系。那次调查中，在维也纳一个烟雾缭绕的酒吧的后面，我们听到了利比亚获得中国原子弹早期蓝图的故事（不用问——是的，《纽约时报》收到的酒吧账单令人难忘）。我们还一起调查了伊朗核计划的细节。
So when we saw what was happening to those North Korean launches, we had a hunch about what was going on. My last book, “Confront and Conceal,” detailed the secret American- and Israeli-led cyber attacks on Iran’s nuclear program using the Stuxnet worm, a sophisticated self-replicating malware computer program aimed at the kind of industrial equipment that controls nuclear facilities, among other sites. That prompted the question: Could there be a Stuxnet for North Korea? (When a savvy National Public Radio reporter once asked that of John Brennan, the former director of the C.I.A., he laughed and said, “Next question.”)
所以，当我们看到朝鲜发射导弹的效果，不免感到有些怀疑。我的上一本书《面对和隐瞒》(Confront and Conceal)详细描述了美国和以色列领导的针对伊朗核计划的秘密网络攻击，当时美国使用了一种复杂的、自我复制的恶意软件计算机程序Stuxnet蠕虫，旨在控制核设施的工业设备以及其他网站。这就提出了一个问题：有没有专门针对朝鲜的Stuxnet呢？（之前一个精明的全国公共广播电台记者问前中情局局长约翰·布伦南[John Brennan]这个问题时，他笑着说：“下个问题。”）
So Bill did what Bill always does: He dug into the literature. Soon he showed up at my desk in Washington with a grin, toting an inch-and-a-half-thick pile of Pentagon testimony and public documents from companies like Raytheon, which makes missile defenses, describing a program called “left of launch” that allows for the sabotage of an adversary’s systems before anyone presses the big red button. These blended old-style electronic warfare and new-style cyber attacks, with some loud echoes of the techniques used in “Olympic Games,” the code name for the Iran sabotage. At the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July, I briefed Dean Baquet, our executive editor, and Matt Purdy, a deputy managing editor, about our line of reporting, and they immediately urged us to dig deeper.
所以，比尔做了他遇到这种情况总是会做的事情：挖掘文字资料。不久，他面带笑容出现在我华盛顿的办公桌前，拿出了一英寸半厚的五角大楼证词以及一些公司的公开文件，比如制作防御导弹的雷神(Raytheon)公司。这些文件讲述了一个名为“发射残留”(left of launch)的项目，可以在任何人按下红色大按钮之前，破坏敌人的系统。这种攻击混合了旧式的电子战和新式的网络战，与破坏伊朗核计划的“奥运会”(Olympic Games)项目所使用的技术存在很强关联。在7月的克利夫兰共和党国民大会上，我向主编迪恩·巴奎(Dean Baquet)和执行主编马特·珀迪(Matt Purdy)介绍了我们的进展，他们立即敦促我们进行更深入的调查。
So we did. In documents and interviews, we found plenty of evidence that North Korea was a target; the hard scientific problem was determining whether the cyber and other electronic attacks — and not engineering incompetence or insiders working for the West — were actually responsible for the failed launches. With more digging, we arrived at some theories about the mechanics of how it was all happening.
Then came the sensitive part of these investigations: telling the government what we had, trying to get official comment (there has been none) and assessing whether any of our revelations could affect continuing operations. In the last weeks of the Obama administration, we traveled out to the director of national intelligence’s offices: a huge complex in an unmarked office park a few miles beyond the C.I.A.’s headquarters in Fairfax, Va. Such conversations are always fraught. Understandably, government officials don’t want to confirm or deny anything — in fact, they can’t. But it’s still important to listen to any concerns they might have about the details we are planning to publish so that we can weigh them with our editors.
I had been distracted by other stories — including a reconstruction, in collaboration with my colleagues, of the Russian hack of the election — so our reporting continued past Inauguration Day. That meant it would need to incorporate President Trump’s options for dealing with the North Korean threat. It also meant going through those discussions about the program again, this time with a new administration whose key officials had barely had time to understand their new jobs, much less develop a Korea strategy. Like the Obama officials we dealt with before them, they engaged the subject deeply and professionally.
As Dean often says, we do not take lightly the publication of secret information, especially in national security cases. We also fully expect that the government’s first reaction will usually be some variant of: “You shouldn’t print anything, because the subject is so sensitive, the diplomacy so delicate and the reaction of nations like North Korea so unpredictable.”
We take a somewhat different view: If America is going to have an informed public discussion about how to deal with the nation’s most looming threats, this kind of investigative journalism is essential. In this case, that meant uncovering, and explaining, both the dimensions of North Korea’s nuclear program and the American struggle to defeat it. If America’s old concept for missile defense isn’t working and if throwing high-tech malware at the North Koreans isn’t a silver bullet, those are critical facts about the choices a new president faces.
We’ve been there before: At the height of the nuclear arms race, The Times covered the debate over nuclear strategy, including what kind of global rules should be established to govern how the world’s most terrible weapons are controlled, without delving too deeply into the “how” of building a bomb. The same careful navigation is necessary when it comes to cyber attacks.
Our story went through dozens of drafts, as we tried to make an enormously complicated subject clear. In the Washington bureau, Bill Hamilton, who oversees national security reporting, turned his editing talents to helping us shape a narrative that mixed news, analysis and a long history of efforts to deal with a North Korean program that has bedeviled the last five presidents. David McCraw, the Times lawyer who is a veteran of many big stories on national security issues, read draft after draft to help us navigate a raft of complex issues. A talented team of graphics and photo editors put together a powerful package that helped explain the reach and progress of North Korea’s weapons programs. Translations were prepared in Korean and Chinese, giving the story a broader reach.
为了讲清楚这样一个极为复杂的主题，我们的稿子经历了几十个版本的修改。在华盛顿分社，负责国家安全报道的比尔·汉密尔顿(Bill Hamilton)施展自己的编辑才华，帮助我们形成了一种叙述方式，其中融合了各种信息、分析，以及困扰了之前五位总统的朝鲜核项目的漫长应对历史。经历了许多有关国家安全大报道、经验丰富的时报律师戴维·麦克劳(David McCraw)一轮一轮地读草稿，帮我们解决了大量复杂的问题。富有才华的绘图与图片编辑团队合力打造了一组有力的作品，帮助说明了朝鲜核武器项目的进展和覆盖能力。韩文版和中文版的翻译也准备就绪，好让这个故事获得更广泛的受众。
On Sunday, over the phone, Bill Broad said to me what he always says after a big project: “This was great. Let’s never do it again.” And then, of course, he started talking about where we might take the story next.