David Albright Responds to my Post and Shows Why He Epitomizes Everything That’s Wrong with the U.S. Nonproliferation Epistemic CommunityPosted: October 5, 2012
I’ve been meaning to post on this general topic for a while now, but David Albright’s comments in response to my recent post about a paper of his just gives me the incentive to finally do it. And it also provides an excellent case study of my point.
First, here’s the first few salvos in my exchange with David Albright, including my original post about his paper. You can see the full thread of comments, in which Albright only gets nastier and shows even more of his true colors, both to me and to another commenter, at the original post here:
Here’s a new article on the USIP site co-authored by David Albright of ISIS. Wow. Just 100% incorrect in its legal interpretations of the NPT. Why is it that in the nonproliferation area everyone, including engineers, physicists, chemists and general policy wonks, think they can do legal interpretation? You won’t find me writing articles about the technical aspects of missile capabilities, or the internal physics of a warhead core. I know these things are outside of my training and qualification to do. But apparently everyone thinks they can do legal analysis. With respect, I think David should stick to obsessing over satellite pictures of tarps at random military bases in Iran.
(David’s comment on the post yesterday:)
I have belatedly read Joyner’s rant about our IranPrimer article with amusement and likewise find his chorus of lackeys a pathetic bunch. Now I understand that Joyner’s blogging is supposed to be an ego trip for him and a safe haven for commentators, but Joyner’s blogging is particularly egotistical and, with respect, off-the-wall. In the comments and in Joyner’s writings, I can see the deep ignorance of the NPT. I certainly see no need to revise our analysis and statements in our IranPrimer article. We have consulted with many lawyers who find Joyner’s analysis deeply flawed and agenda driven. These attorneys actually know something about the NPT and safeguards agreements. With regard to writing about legal matters, all our work is informed and reviewed by lawyers with extensive experience in the field of nuclear non-proliferation. I would recommend that Joyner have his work reviewed by competent lawyers. He would need to revise most of his work. But it is a path I would recommend he follow.
(My response to his comment today:)
What an honor it is to have the great David Albright take time out of his busy media schedule to comment on my blog. Yes, you’re right David, maybe I should have my ten years of legal analysis of the NPT peer reviewed for correctness. Oh wait, that’s right. It has been. In two peer-reviewed university press monographs, which have also then been favorably reviewed by peers in numerous law journals; in peer reviewed journal articles and book chapters I’ve written; and in talks I’ve given at academic events all over. Please feel free to verify all this on my C.V. And BTW David, who has reviewed the work of the lawyers you’ve been consulting? Can you give me the name of even one of them who has published anything that has been truly peer reviewed? Don’t worry, I’ll answer for you. You can’t. Because David, if I was a betting man, I’d bet everything I own that every single lawyer you’ve ever consulted for your studies has at some point worked for the USG, and has had all of the reviews of their work provided to them by other USG lawyers. I’m right, aren’t I? And what else was that you said about my work? Agenda driven? Oh please, David. I think readers who know anything about the work of ISIS will find David Albright, supported by his cadre of USG lawyers, calling my work agenda driven, to be the clearest example of the pot calling the kettle black that they’ve ever heard of. You have got to be kidding. Everybody in this business knows that ISIS is for all practical purposes an agency of the USG, and does everything it can to advance USG policies and interests. And you have the gall to call me agenda driven? David, I’ll put my legal analysis up next to that of your lawyers any day of the week for review by independent international legal scholars from a broad section of countries, and I 100% guarantee you that they will choose mine as being the more correct 9 times out of 10. Oh wait, I forgot, they already have.
A colleague in D.C. once said this to me about the U.S. nonproliferation epistemic community – and by this community we both meant the entirety of the various NGOs and think tanks and the few University based centers that focus on nonproliferation studies in the U.S.: that the community is very D.C. centric, cliquish, incestuous and self-referential, to its detriment. These words have really stuck with me, because I find them to be absolutely true, and both insightful and parsimonious as I’ve observed the community over the years.
I would take it even further and say that in addition, in my opinion, the whole U.S. based nonproliferation experts community – with few exceptions – is systemically biased toward support of USG positions on all the top nonproliferation issues. They maintain an essentially common narrative and set of emphases that is in line with, and that provides support for, the narrative and emphases of the USG, with only the smallest amounts of quibbling around the edges (Albright will talk all day long about his “aluminum tubes” work). I think that there is in the work of the U.S. nonproliferation epistemic community far too little real, independent evaluation and criticism of USG positions. As I see it, the U.S. nonproliferation community almost acts as a second wave of apologists for U.S. policy, after the USG itself – though it sometimes shrouds this effort in a lot of technical and sometimes academic-looking jargon. But in the end what the U.S. nonproliferation community ABSOLUTELY DOES NOT DO is serve in the role of an independent, rigorous, analytical check on USG nonproliferation positions, as it could and should do, and as the nongovernmental nonproliferation community in other countries does.
And I think there are some clear reasons for this. Much moreso than in other countries, the members of the U.S. based nonproliferation community tend, with very few exceptions, to
1) have been employed by the USG in the past;
2) want to be employed by the USG in the future;
3) be funded by or hope to be funded by the USG; and/or
4) want to maintain the access and good favor they have with USG officials, for the sake of information and for the sake of invitations to cool events, etc.
Basically what I’m saying is that they are biased towards the positions of the USG, because of their overly close personal and institutional associations with the USG, and because they see their own professional success as being tied to the favor of the USG.
I think there’s also a significant degree of media whorishness at work here as well. As a colleague once wrote to me while we were discussing this topic: “I think there is another — very important — aspect you may be missing that may even over-ride the ones you mention: aside from taking USG positions, the non-proliferation community likes the high-media profile allotted it, when it loudly tut-tuts 3rd world nuclear arms capacities (or enemies of the west’s nuclear arms capacities), whether or not such capacities are consistent w/ NPT and/or CSAs. People like being quoted, appearing on TV, and generally feeling important. The Non-proliferation community *loves* the attention and basks in this glow, and though they would *privately* acknowledge that Iran is not so far outside bounds (if at all), they nonetheless pass on statements and innuendo to media indicating the alleged dangers and thus wittingly or not, fan the flames. Others like ISIS simply pass on opinions dressed as expert findings. It just would not do for Non-proliferation types to tell the media: “well, no, Iran’s program is actually not a threat to world peace yet” like the DNI did.”
As this colleague implies in his observation, I also think David Albright is a perfect example of someone that fits all of these descriptions. And it comes through so clearly in his work. In addition to the Iran Primer article I criticized previously, look for example at Albright’s “analysis” in this article. All he really does is make provocative speculations about what “could” be happening at locations in Iran, and what “maybe” Iran will do in the future. And it’s so clear that he’s working on the basis of a set of unproven, but firmly held assumptions about Iran – the same assumptions he had about Iraq, for which his work has been widely discredited – that they have a nuclear weapons program, and he is ginning up all the evidence he can that might support that assumption, speculating about what that evidence may mean, but only in a direction that would tend to support his preexisting assumption. There’s no rigor here in thoroughly considering and evaluating other possible explanations for the same observations – like a real academic or even a real, quality NGO analysis would. Maybe it’s because David has never done PhD level academic work, and so he doesn’t understand what is expected of quality scientific analysis. But this is an assumption-driven piece of provocative speculation that serves only to provide support for the USG’s contentions about Iran’s nuclear program. That’s just what he infamously did in the lead up to the 2003 Iraq war too. That’s not rigorous and independent analysis. That’s biased and low quality work, and it’s classic Albright.
I know very well how the D.C. nonproliferation crowd feels about me. Albright’s comments here are just the most recent example. They think my work is pro-Iranian and generally pro-developing country, and anti-U.S. They say I’m biased and agenda driven. I see myself as being actually independent and objective – i.e. not on the payroll of, or particularly concerned about the favor of, the USG – and willing to say what I genuinely think an independent and rigorous analysis of the applicable legal sources produces. I value my independence and my role as a legal academic more than anything else in my professional life, and I am professionally offended by bad legal argumentation. Especially bad legal arguments that go unanswered. Now, it would be naïve of me to say that there is no bias in my work. Every human being has sympathies and preferences based on their life experiences and identity, and academics are no exception. We don’t always know when those biases are at work, although sometimes we do. And when we do, I think it’s our job to weed them out, and to try and stay as objective and comprehensive, thorough and rigorous as we can. That’s the only way we can maintain our credibility as being independent and objective authorities in our areas of expertise.
Am I personally sympathetic to or biased towards the policies of the Iranian government? Absolutely not. As I was just saying to a good friend over lunch, if I woke up tomorrow and the people of Iran had overthrown their current leaders and instituted a democratic, liberal, secular government, I would be absolutely thrilled. That’s the best thing that could possibly happen to Iran. However, do I think that the legal arguments of the current government of Iran deserve a fair and independent and rigorous hearing and analysis by the international community, just as the legal arguments of any other government do? Yes I do, for many reasons, not least of which is the prevention of unnecessary and unjust economic sanctions and possibly war against the Iranian people, and the fairness and perceived legitimacy and relevance of international law. I don’t see anyone else stepping up to make these arguments, and make sure that they are taken seriously in the West, and that’s why I keep doing it.
Am I sympathetic to developing countries’ positions in the nuclear energy area generally? Yes I am. I admit that freely. And it’s because I genuinely think that they are bullied by the West in the nuclear area, as in many other areas, for a whole range of political and economic reasons, and that the legal advisors of Western governments have concocted erroneous legal arguments to give perceived credibility to these policies. I can’t change the policies and the politics they’re based on, but I think there is a real need to lend whatever professional abilities I have to making sure that their legal arguments are made at a high level of competence and sophistication, and are given due consideration by the international community. Again, noone else seems to be doing this in the West, and so I keep doing it. But I maintain that my legal analysis is independent and essentially objective, and that I follow the proper analysis of a legal source to its most persuasively correct conclusion, no matter what that conclusion is.
I think that the U.S. nonproliferation community, linked so closely as it is to the USG itself, generally takes a negative view of my work for a number of reasons. One of the primary reasons is that they are so used to being able to effectively tell the rest of the world what to think about the NPT regime, and how to interpret the law associated with it, that when someone independent comes along and poses a genuine intellectual challenge to the warped and USG driven legal views of the NPT regime that they’ve been spouting for decades, they genuinely don’t know what to do about it. With the errors and intellectual bankruptcy of their legal arguments laid bare, they make only feeble attempts to defend themselves substantively because, honestly, they don’t have very good substantive arguments to make and they never have. The only argument they have left to make is to argue in desperation that the challenger is biased and agenda driven – which is in the end the ultimate irony, because it’s precisely their own bias and USG-centric agenda that has made their arguments so weak, and has provided the legal errors that the challenger now corrects, to the persuasion of everyone else in the world.
This accusation against me has been made many times, most notably by Norm Wulf in his review of my 2011 book in Arms Control Today (to which I responded here), and now by Albright. Although in Albright’s case, he adds a delightful soupçon of ad hominem attack against me, and some condescending language about my readers, to complete the recipe. Unfortunately, the ad hominem tack does seem to be Albright’s go-to M.O. when he’s challenged about his work. Have a read of this article about Albright, including an exchange that a reporter had with him. Look at how Albright responds to criticism by Scott Ritter and by the reporter. Wow. I have to say that Albright comes across as a pretty nasty piece of work. I’m finding that in my own communications with him as well. At the moment I would say that he’s the nastiest, most uncollegial person I have yet to come across in this business. And that’s saying something.