Ten days ago, the New York Times and its sister paper, the International Herald Tribune, ran a pair of breathless stories, warning us that North Korea's long-range Taepodong-2 missile was being fueled for "take off." Worse, the weapon could have the ability to "deliver chemical, biological or perhaps nuclear warheads to targets as far away as the continental United States."Worldwide hysteria followed. Condi Rice called it a "provocative act." The Japanese prime minister said they would "respond harshly" to a launch. The Pentagon shouted that its missile defense system was ready to go. A former SecDef and a former VP called for preemptive strikes on North Korea.But cracks in the story appeared almost immediately. No one could really say what this Taepodong-2 really looked like, or what it could do. Responsible reporters recalled North Korea's history of saber-rattling stunts -- and its anemic track record for testing missiles.And then there was the fuel and oxidizer supposedly being loaded into the missile. Corrosive stuff, it could eat through a missile's metal casing in two or three days. Which meant that the Norks had to launch quickly, or not at all. With every day this missile "crisis" dragged on, the less likely it became.By the beginning of this week, it became clear that a world-class hoax had gone down. Either Pyongyang had hoodwinked the globe into thinking it was about to launch -- or the Times was once again hyping up a national security threat.Today, finally, the Times admitted the obvious. Well, kinda sorta. And on page A9 -- not the font page, where the Taepodong "scoop" had been originally published.
On Monday and Tuesday, two officials said the intelligence could, at best, be interpreted as offering only a prudent assumption that the missile was fueled, and that intelligence analysts had described an already fueled missile as a worst-case scenario."It is impossible to know for certain whether or how much fuel is moving between a closed container through a closed line to another closed container," one official said.Citing intelligence gathered by "overhead systems" photographing the missile, Senator Warner said, "We are not certain if it's fueled."(Big ups: TP)UPDATE 07/06/06 12:11 PM: Well, so much for hoaxes! See here for coverage of the Nork's actual launch.