I can't imagine a US intelligence official would be wrong on this
November 23, 2022 12:43 PM   Subscribe

A 10-minute miscommunication on Slack between journalists at the Associated Press resulted in an erroneous report last week that appeared momentarily to bring tensions between NATO and Russia to their highest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis ... Last Tuesday, AP posted a news alert saying that a “senior U.S. intelligence official says Russian missiles crossed into NATO member Poland, killing two people,” and noting that leaders in Poland were “holding an emergency meeting due to a ‘crisis situation’” ... The report, which would have represented a Russian missile striking a member of NATO, immediately sparked fear of a dramatic escalation of tensions between the US and Russia. from AP fired a reporter after a dangerous blunder. Slack messages reveal a chaotic process.
posted by chavenet (37 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
the attempt to pin this on the reporter (not the one behind that pull quote!) seems pretty fucked
posted by atoxyl at 12:59 PM on November 23 [35 favorites]

Really seems like the reporter is getting scapegoated for the editors' mistake. It is not reasonable to read that initial statement as "Ron Nixon has vetted this story," and if that is how the editor read it that is a failure of their reading comprehension, not the reporter's communication.
posted by biogeo at 1:01 PM on November 23 [26 favorites]

This isn’t a particularly credible source on this story. The missile strike is still under investigation. It is agreed this wasn’t a deliberate strike and it doesn’t seem to have been launched from Russia.
posted by interogative mood at 1:03 PM on November 23 [3 favorites]

But national security officials said the report was false, and the Associated Press retracted the piece a day later.

Would anyone in government would take responsibility for giving information, however it was presented? A better question might be: who at that time were the individuals in government advising the President on response options to what was then (and might still be) an attack by Russia on a NATO member nation?
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 1:12 PM on November 23 [2 favorites]

"That call is above my pay grade" was the correct thing for the reporter to say, "shit rolls downhill" appears to be the unfortunate outcome here.
posted by Leviathant at 1:27 PM on November 23 [26 favorites]

The phrase "AP fired a reporter after a dangerous blunder" puts the blame in the wrong place, feels like.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 1:38 PM on November 23 [12 favorites]

"A Russian missile has overshot into Poland", shortly followed by "Review suggests it's more likely Ukrainian air defence" seems like a perfectly reasonable sequence of events during a war. I'm literally more surprised that someone was fired.
posted by krisjohn at 1:58 PM on November 23 [15 favorites]

how much of all this can we pin on our collective and ever acclerating NEED for breaking news, which can't help but sometimes be broken?
posted by philip-random at 2:04 PM on November 23 [37 favorites]

I remember the initial reports on this and thought WWIII was about to start; I also wondered why Putin would do such a thing, but I wonder that fairly often these days. But it definitely feels like multiple people were in too big a rush to get the story out and blaming it on the initial report is scapegoating. But in journalism speed all too often trumps accuracy.
posted by TedW at 2:06 PM on November 23 [9 favorites]

All i can think is, for the nth time: Thank flying spaghetti monster that TFG wasn't in the oval office.
posted by Dashy at 2:08 PM on November 23 [13 favorites]

LaPorta was suspended on Thursday morning, according to a source familiar with the situation, and fired on Monday after a review by the wire service.

In a statement to Semafor, he said that he would “love to comment but I’ve been ordered by AP not to comment."

What is the AP going to do? Fire him again?
posted by TedW at 2:13 PM on November 23 [19 favorites]

You would think the one thing that all people can agree on is that we shouldn't rush to judgement about starting _global thermonuclear war and ending human life as we know it_ but you gotta get those scoops.
posted by meowzilla at 2:55 PM on November 23 [6 favorites]

What is the AP going to do? Fire him again?

I had the same thought, TedW. If you fire me, I'm going to say anything that comes to mind. But one possibility is that the former reporter has been promised some extra severance pay or other benefits. If he speaks his mind, those benefits will dissolve. Just a guess.
posted by bryon at 3:01 PM on November 23 [15 favorites]

I would guess that more likely he's worried about being blackballed by other potential employers if he pisses off his former bosses in the AP, who are almost certainly friends with his potential future bosses at any other major international news outlet. But I don't know enough about how journalism as a career operates to know if that's the way things work there.
posted by biogeo at 3:38 PM on November 23 [8 favorites]

If you're fired or laid off, part of the agreement is often mutual non-disparagement. (Or one-sided non-disparagement.) And yes, it can cost you severance, health insurance, a letter of recommendation, etc if you violate it. So when you see people posting on LinkedIn about how great their time at XX was, or refusing to comment after being sacked, there can be very immediate consequences for doing otherwise.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 3:55 PM on November 23 [13 favorites]

It definitely seems like the reporter is the least of the problem here. I hope he lands somewhere decent.
posted by rpfields at 4:10 PM on November 23 [5 favorites]

The article says that this was not an isolated incident with the reporter, but a pattern of behaviour, but all the reporter did was put the report into the system. Others wrote it, still others gave the go-ahead to publish. Even if the reporter has a history of jumping the gun or something, they still seem to have got the short end of the stick in this case.
posted by dg at 4:28 PM on November 23 [5 favorites]

The article says that this was not an isolated incident with the reporter, but a pattern of behaviour, but all the reporter did was put the report into the system.

A very strong "the intern deleted the database" flavor, here.
posted by mhoye at 5:07 PM on November 23 [11 favorites]

All i can think is, for the nth time: Thank flying spaghetti monster that TFG wasn't in the oval office.
posted by Dashy at 5:08 PM on November 23 [9 favorites +] [!]

Agreed of course. He probably would’ve launched US missiles at Poland and Ukraine.
posted by zoinks at 6:21 PM on November 23 [4 favorites]

"I believe that this was a Russian missile, based on our military reports," Zelenskyy said in televised remarks.

I believe Zelenskyy. I'll tell you why.

If you draw a line north from Lviv, and a line west from Kyiv, they intersect on farmland 7km southeast of Przewodów, just over the border. The Russians have proven their incompetence before. I think they had a list of cities, Kyiv and Lviv were adjacent on that list, and some idiot input the longitude of one and the latitude of the other. This corresponds to where the missile hit.

Check for yourself.

Kyiv: 50°27′00″N 30°31′24″E
Lviv: 49°50′33″N 24°01′56″E
Przewodów: 50°32′N 24°0′E
Target: 50°27′00″N 24°01′56″E

This Estonian soldier explained the s300 self destruct mechanism on Estonian TV

Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) Air Defense Inspector Lt. Col. Tanel Lelov said many surface-to-air missiles, including the identified S-300, feature a self-destruct mode that can be triggered in case of errors or missed targets, Wednesday's "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reported.

"If the fired missile misses or loses the target within a certain time limit, the missile will self-destruct in the air. This time will depend on the range or capability of the missile, but generally, once the maximum range has been exceeded," Lelov said.

Factbox: What is the S-300 missile that is reported to have hit Poland? (reuters)

Russia has appeared to use repurposed S-300 missiles to strike ground targets during the war in Ukraine - a sign of potentially dwindling missile supplies, military analysts say.

They're not designed to hit the ground. For obvious reasons, that's what they're defending. If you wanted to use them for ground attack, you'd have to disable the self-destruct. Ukraine has no reason to do this, they need those missiles for air defense and they don't have many.

I understand why NATO would want to cover this up, no-one wants WWIII. I think Zelenskyy would be honest if it were their missile though. I trust Zelenskyy.

I heard that the two men lost were assisting refugees crossing the border. The land they worked was the first foreign soil some of those fleeing came to. I mean no disrepect with my theory. Those coordinates lining up so perfect, as the kids would say, is sus.
posted by adept256 at 8:04 PM on November 23 [26 favorites]

I understand that tensions are high and anxiety is reasonable. It's a tragedy that people lost their lives. Russia needs to go home and stop murdering people.

But I have a really hard time with considering this an attack. It's so much more likely to be a fuckup than anything else. You don't attack a superpower with one missile in the middle of nowhere. In the purest technical sense, yes, Russia can be said to have attacked Poland. (Assuming that it was indeed Russian.) But.... Really, even calling it any sort of creeping provocation seems stretching the logic pretty significantly.

Now, if it got near Warsaw, that's one thing. If there was multiple launches into NATO territory, yet another thing. This was a somebody goofed or a Soviet rocket did a dumb or the pigeon guidance system fell asleep. This is at most diplomatic scolding and apologies and weregild. This just isn't the type of offense that should trigger aggression.
posted by Jacen at 10:17 PM on November 23 [7 favorites]

You best believe the tankies on my Mastodon instance have grabbed onto this as an example of the West hating Russia and their justified war against the Holocaust -denying anti-Semite Zelinskyy...

I fucking hate this world.
posted by prismatic7 at 12:11 AM on November 24 [5 favorites]

All i can think is, for the nth time: Thank flying spaghetti monster that TFG wasn't in the oval office.

If TFG was in office there would have been no misslie because he would have gift wrapped all Ukraine for his primary man crush in February.

I expect in 10 years or so we might learn the full details about the missiles that landed in Poland.
posted by srboisvert at 4:01 AM on November 24 [2 favorites]

But I have a really hard time with considering this an attack.

Right but “senior U.S. intelligence official says Russian missiles crossed into NATO member Poland” is not the same as “Russia attacks Poland”. Anxieties are high so people may interpret it that way — but it's not what the AP reported.

If we're being patient then the investigation is still ongoing, so it's also a leap to say it was a Ukrainian missile or that the AP even made a mistake. Some officials have said it's not Russian, others say it is. Time may tell.
posted by UN at 4:54 AM on November 24 [2 favorites]

I think the issue is the AP has a policy on not running single-source articles where the single source is anonymous, no?
posted by subdee at 4:59 AM on November 24 [3 favorites]

My semi-tankie dad, for what it's worth, believes this was a bid by Ukraine to draw Poland and NATO into the war against Russia, but it didn't work because Biden "to his credit" and the Polish government "who hate Ukraine for historical reasons (although they hate Russia more)" refused to play along. And he's citing some other things about the direction of the missile and where it landed to support his argument that it couldn't have been launched by Ukraine in self-defense because it was headed the wrong way to intercept any Russian missiles.

Either way, he says, the US and Russia monitor the airspace so they would know whose missile it was and where it was launched from.
posted by subdee at 5:04 AM on November 24 [3 favorites]

I think also a lot of anxiety stemmed from a broad misunderstanding of how NATO's Article 5 works—a misunderstanding shared by the reporters in that Slack chat, who asked, "Wonder if this triggers Article 5."

Article 5 cannot be "triggered." An attack on a NATO member does not simply result in, "Okay, all NATO members are at war with the aggressor now." Rather, Article 5 must be deliberately invoked, and it can't be invoked solely by the country (or countries) that have been attacked. Rather, it must be invoked by the entire North Atlantic Council—that is, every member of NATO. And there's no voting. All decisions must be made by consensus.

So at most, had there actually been an attack, Poland could have asked the NAC to invoke Article 5. But based on the (ultimately incorrect) reporting, I doubt they'd even have done that, since the "strike" didn't appear to be deliberate. And even if Poland felt especially aggrieved, it's even more unlikely that the NAC would have assented to invoking Art. 5.

To be charitable, it's possible these reporters were using a shorthand to describe all this. But given the huge lapses at AP surrounding this story, it's hard to be charitable. I think the public would be well-served, though, if major media outlets did a better job of explaining how exactly NATO works and why it's not on some kind of hair-trigger.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 9:43 AM on November 24 [10 favorites]

Ukraine says it was a missile fired by Russia. The difference is NATO does not want to start WWIII and they are not above spreading a little disinformation to avoid that outcome. Ukraine is already fighting a war so they don’t have the same incentive to lie that NATO leaders do.
posted by metatuesday at 10:01 AM on November 24 [4 favorites]

Ukraine is already fighting a war so they don’t have the same incentive to lie

I'm no military expert, but I'm pretty sure that's not how that works.

A government at war absolutely has strong incentives to lie and spread disinformation. I'm not saying Ukraine is wrong to lie if they are, but the idea that Zelenskyy has no incentive to try to deceive or manipulate the opinions of people in Ukraine or abroad is a fantasy. This is war. Don't assume anyone is being totally honest. Just because Zelenskyy is likeable and we believe in his cause and support the people of Ukraine, doesn't mean he or the Ukrainian government are above trying to manipulate us for their own ends. Hell, it would be irresponsible of them not to try, just as it would be irresponsible of us to trust them blindly.
posted by biogeo at 11:34 AM on November 24 [14 favorites]

1. The phrase “that’s now how that works” is not an argument against the differing incentives of two parties.

2. “Zelenskyy is likeable” distracts from my statement about differences in incentives between NATO (not currently in a conflict) and Ukraine (currently in a conflict). You set up an argument I did not make, then attack your own argument.

3. Your statement “Irresponsible to trust them blindly” applies to all parties here, including NATO. Until there is proof, I am skeptical that the bombing originated from Ukrainian forces. Given the posterior probability of the number of missiles fired by Russia on Ukraine and the number of missiles fired by Ukraine on its own territory, the Bayesian odds alone favor the missile originating from Russia.
posted by metatuesday at 1:15 PM on November 24 [1 favorite]

Let’s be thankful this didn’t turn into a Gulf of Tonkin situation.
posted by interogative mood at 1:21 PM on November 24 [1 favorite]

Hey metatuesday, I'm not trying to pick a fight with you or anything. I'm going to respond in some detail just to clarify my thoughts on this.

1. Agreed, it's not an argument at all. It's just an expression of incredulity. My argument, to the limited extent that I made one, began in the following sentence.

2. I wasn't really trying to set up an argument on your behalf. Rather, I was using your statement as a jumping off point for a more general comment about how trustworthy anyone in this conflict is, as the most recent example of someone indicating that Ukraine/Zelenskyy are more reliable sources of information than anyone else. For example, adept256 previously said, I understand why NATO would want to cover this up, no-one wants WWIII. I think Zelenskyy would be honest if it were their missile though. I trust Zelenskyy.. Now, I like Zelenskyy. I think he's doing everything he can to serve his country and defend it from Putin's imperialist invasion, and that is a good goal, and I want my own government to support that as much as possible within the serious constraints that Russian power, international politics, and modern warfare technologies impose. But to me at least it is obvious that Zelenskyy, and the rest of the Ukrainian government, would be dishonest if they thought doing so would aid their war effort. Obviously blatantly lying would not serve their interests well, but they would be derelict in their duty to their country if they valued honesty over pragmatic advantage. To me, it seems obvious that the government of a country at war has at least as much incentive to lie as one that is trying to avoid war. That is the only argument, such as it is, that I was trying to make. More generally, I'm approaching this not as a debate but as a conversation.

3. Yes, of course I agree that all parties in war have incentive to lie. That's really the point I was trying to make, so I think you and I are on the same page here. As citizens, none of us should blindly trust statements from any government official on any side of a conflict, without considering the incentives, and opportunities, that each has to lie. Ideally, journalists should be part of the public's check on government officials, limiting their opportunities to get away with lying by questioning what they say. This is partly why the AP's behavior in this story is concerning; if they are blindly repeating "tips" from government officials with no further vetting, within 10 minutes of hearing of them, they are not acting as a proper Fourth Estate, but just as mouthpieces.

I'm afraid I don't really understand what you mean by referencing Bayesian statistics or what the probability distribution of number of missiles fired, prior or posterior, has to do with this. As a good Bayesian, the posterior probability should depend on your priors, anyway, and if we disagree on the priors then we'll disagree on the posterior distributions as well. Personally I don't think we have enough information for any sort of formal analysis here, and I maintain an attitude of skepticism towards any conclusions until further information is available. My only point is that the US and NATO may have incentives to lie, Russia certainly has incentives to lie, and Ukraine also has incentives to lie. Whether anyone and who actually is lying is a question I don't think any of us can answer right now.
posted by biogeo at 5:22 PM on November 24 [4 favorites]

If you draw a line north from Lviv, and a line west from Kyiv, they intersect on farmland 7km southeast of Przewodów, just over the border


Not only does Wikipedia report different coordinates for the strike (50°28′28″N 23°55′23″E), it's also unclear where the missiles would have come from, given that S300 missile range for ground attacks is about 120km. There aren't any Russian forces near enough.
posted by dmh at 1:46 AM on November 25

This is one of those... I actually don't care as much about the truth, I'd prefer we decrease the likelihood of an exchange of Nuclear weapons attacks between Russia and NATO and am pretty comfortable with the compromises that may be necessary for that.

So, the story will be interesting with time, the fired reporter probably is getting a raw deal, but... yeah, whether or not the conspiracy theories are plausible isn't something I'm going to put much energy into exploring.
posted by midmarch snowman at 8:08 AM on November 25 [2 favorites]

war kills truth -- I'm pretty sure that's rule #1.

Which doesn't mean that it's always the case. But if we're not always entertaining the possibility, we're setting ourselves up to be taken for a ride. Which may well prove to have been necessary. World War Two was full of brilliantly applied lies and obfuscations.
posted by philip-random at 9:13 AM on November 25 [1 favorite]

Accidents and miscommunications like this will happen - the details don’t matter. This is why it is VERY dangerous to be in a hot war with Russia.
posted by haptic_avenger at 9:25 AM on November 25 [1 favorite]

For those living in the area, they need to know if bombs are coming down. Yes, news organizations need to be careful. But they also need to inform. Spreading the word that the war is or may have crossed the border quickly could save tens or thousands of lives. They need to strike a balance and, IMO, firing this reporter is the wrong call.

Deciding whether to retaliate or not is something governments need to do. If they're deciding it on a news report, that's a problem in itself. It's a related but nonetheless separate issue.

The war is just across the street. Russia has struck within a few kilometers of the Polish border a number of times. Not only could it spill over to the other side, it already has
— whether it was a Ukrainian or a Russian missile, accident or not.

There is an urgency required in this kind of reporting.
posted by UN at 10:38 AM on November 25 [2 favorites]

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