Fisking a Guardian report assessing Israel’s performance on nuclear security

 A guest post by AKUS

A screaming headline over a January 11th article by Julian Borger in the Guardian once again casts Israel in the worst possible light:


In fact, as even Borger points out, the three worst countries for nuclear security recognized  by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) were no surprise at all:

No surprises about the bottom three when it comes to the overall score. North Korea is worse, then Pakistan and Iran.

The next group from the bottom is more noteworthy. India is 28th out of the 32 nuclear material states, China is 27th and Israel is 25th, below Russia and other former Soviet republics previously thought to be the worst threats in terms of nuclear security.

Make of it what you will, but only Israel and Iran, by the way, are linked to in the Borger article.

The NTI provides what at first sight is an innocuous opportunity for the reader on its website to assign his or her own weightings  to the five “categories” and see how changing a weighting changes each country’s score.  You appear to have the opportunity to play “nuclear regulator” and see how a country you select does depending on changes in these weightings. Here’s a screen shot:


Each “category” has a number of sub-categories or “indicators” – e.g., “Security Personnel Measures” – with a value between 0 (lowest) and 4 (highest) and a weighting.

For the details on the “indicators” and how they are scored, you have to dig in to the spreadsheet you can download via a link by the NTI that lists the “Economist Intelligence Unit analyst qualitative assessment(s) based on official national sources, which vary by country” for a large number of weighted sub-measures of the sub-indicators of the indicators in each category. (Don’t worry about it – it’s easier to check  the spreadsheet for details.)

The reader of the NTI website is not allowed to adjust the “indicator” scores and hidden indicator weightings found in the provided spreadsheet, only the “category” scores.

For example:

The “category” of “Security and Control Measures, which I would rank the most critical, is weighted by the NTI as a 2.

The scoring is based on the four “indicators” shown above, each scored over a number of “sub-indicators” :


The following countries, listed alphabetically, have the highest score possible of 4 for Security Personnel Measures as shown in the spreadsheet:


On a measure of “Security Personnel Measures” NTI ranks Israel in the top league with the world’s best performers. Bringing up the rear are:

Norway, not known as a proliferator, gets 2 points, along with Uzbekistan!

But all is fair in politics and propaganda, so the NTI throws in an “indicator” it calls “Control and Accounting Procedures” intended to show how open a country is about revealing information about materials control and accounting.  Israel refuses to release this information (which does NOT mean it does not have the controls or the information) so gets a score of 0, below even Iran with a 1, while Norway, of course, gets a 5 out of 5!

Thus, Israel’s score on the critical issue of security of nuclear material is distorted because information is not known on how it controls access to nuclear material.

Even worse, the categories of “Domestic Commitments and Capacity” and “Societal Factors” allow the authors of the study to stray from the possibly measurable to the utterly imponderable. Several of the scores awarded to countries for their Societal Factors “indicators” reveal the NTI’s biases. While their biases may be there for others of the countries the report covers, our focus is on Israel.

One of the 5 “categories” is “Societal Factors”, weighted by NTI at 1.5. In this “category” there is an “indicator” of “Political Stability” that has a maximum score of 20 and an indicator weighting of 1, as opposed to 4 for “Security Personnel Measures”, where Israel scores highly. The value of 20 is arrived at by assessing and summing 5 “sub-indicators” such as “sporadic conflict” and “orderly transfer of power”, each with a maximum score of 4.

How many would agree with the following? Israel, a democracy that has never had a revolution nor is it faced with one, brings up the rear by NTI estimates in the “indicator” of “Political Stability”, sandwiched between China and Iran!


Top of the list is – you could have guessed it – is Norway with 20 points:


By favoring bureaucratic issues and introducing what can only be political bias, and eliminating scores where countries do not provide data, the report over-weights areas in which Israel does poorly (e.g., where it won’t, for security reasons, release data). On the other hand, it under-weights more directly critical areas of security in which Norway, for example, (which has currently no security reasons to withhold information) does poorly.

The spreadsheet allows comparisons between countries. Here is a summary it can provide for Israel and Norway, showing Israel ahead of Norway in matters of nuclear security even if behind on various reporting and bureaucratic measures!

As a result the report presents an entirely false view of Israel as a greater threat than Norway (for example) from the point of view of nuclear proliferation. A moment’s thought should suggest that security-conscious Israel is far less vulnerable to theft of nuclear material than a laissez-faire Scandinavian country.

What we have from the NTI is a hodge podge of some genuine assessments of countries’ ability and commitment to safeguard their nuclear facilities mixed in with reports on, for example, compliance with UN resolutions and obviously biased assessments of “political stability”.

The false picture the report presents is reinforced by allowing readers to play with the “category” weightings on the NTI website, but not the critical “indicator” values. The “category” weightings barely move the countries relative to one another because the underlying biases are so strongly baked in to the scoring.

Contrary what the headline states, in the critical and measurable area of actual security of nuclear assets, Israel is ranked among the best.

Of course, it would be too much to expect the Guardian’s expert on Global Security, Julian Borger, to actually dig in and critique the report’s methodology rather than writing a fluff piece that opened the door for another “shocking Israel” headline.

In fact, the Israel-obsessed Guardian should have had this as the headline to Borger’s piece of unresearched fluff:

NTI report ranks Israel among the world’s best for nuclear security

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