Miller's Latest Tale Questioned - When Will 'NY Times' Get Her off WMD Trail?
Published on Tuesday, September 23, 2003 by Editor & Publisher Online
Miller's Latest Tale Questioned - When Will 'NY Times' Get Her off WMD Trail?
by William E. Jackson Jr.
 

A New York Times story on Sept. 16, "Senior U.S. Official to Level Weapons Charges Against Syria," was the most important to appear under the sole byline of Judith Miller since her mea culpa of July 20 in which she revised history as previously published by the Times.

But her latest story subjected the slant of her reporting to new criticism, as it appeared that she was, once again, the "drop" of choice for a politically motivated leaker.

There was no follow-up by Miller in the Times the next day. Rather, in an apparent attempt to balance her report, the Times Web site on Sept. 17 ran a longer International Herald Tribune story on the actual Congressional testimony under the heading: "Despite Concerns About Syria, Powell Aide Opposes Sanctions." It revealed that "individuals who sought to publicize these criticisms (of Syria) had provided an advance copy to The New York Times." (The IHT is owned by the Times.)

Did Miller break credible hard news -- or only flack for hawks in the government, an all-too-familiar role for her over the last two years as she wrote a batch of stories supporting allegations that Iraq was developing and producing chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons?

Months later, it is still a mystery as to what convinced both the Bush administration and the Times (one cannot be sure which is the chicken and which is the egg regarding the WMD hysteria) that Saddam was still loaded with such weapons on the eve of the war.

Was it a case of defectors telling U.S. intelligence agents, and Miller, what they wanted to hear -- or just a matter of imperfect high-tech spying on Iraq? Sometimes, in any case, you can't blame it on electronic glitches. On Dec. 3, 2002, Miller aired in the Times the allegations of an "unnamed informant" who said that a deceased Russian scientist ("Madam Smallpox") might have given Iraq a virulent strain of smallpox. Nine months later, Dafna Linzer of the Associated Press authoritatively reported: "U.S. Weapons Hunters Find No Evidence Iraq Had Smallpox" (Sept. 18).

But as with many of Miller's speculative news reports, the Times as of this week has failed to follow up with admission of error or an accounting of new evidence. If informants' or defectors' revelations were news when Miller reported them, surely they should qualify as news if the government or the Times now believes they were disinformation. There has been no follow-up story that amends the record: say, a prominent piece entitled: "Times Erred in Suggesting That Iraq Posed Smallpox Threat."

When I interviewed military officials and journalists located in Iraq regarding the conduct of Miller during the quest for WMD, they did not mince words: "Nobody could stand her." She had an "imperious manner." "She's lucky we didn't shoot her." "She wore a uniform." "She had an exclusive deal with the Pentagon" -- which undoubtedly caused resentment all around.

There would seem to have been no better-qualified American reporter than Miller to follow the quest for WMD in Iraq. However, Miller's journalistic product, and not just her personality and methods, became the most criticized of the war (with the exception of Geraldo Rivera) and the succeeding occupation.

There is some irony in New York Times' Baghdad correspondent John Burns' pronouncement (E&P Online, Sept. 15) that "there is corruption in our business," when he then proceeds to illustrate the underreporting of Hussein's crimes against Iraqis before the war but fails to comment on the over-reporting of administration falsehoods and half-truths in hyping the WMD threat posed by Iraq -- by his own newspaper.

Defectors' Dodgy Dossiers

A growing number of experts endorse this theory: that Saddam ordered the destruction of his WMD well before the war to deprive the U.S. of a rationale to attack and to hasten the eventual lifting of UN sanctions. But, as Michael Gordon wrote in the Times Aug. 1, "the Iraqi dictator retained the scientists and technical capacity to resume the production of chemical and biological weapons and eventually develop nuclear arms." It is a new way "to make sense of the testimony of captured Iraqi officials who claim that weapons stocks were eliminated." Call this Saddam's macro strategy.

But at the micro level, false information out of Baghdad that tended to enhance the estimates of an immediate threat from WMD may have been planted wittingly or unwittingly by some Iraqi defectors and made its way into the Times and official channels, thereby serving to trick U.S. intelligence. National security reporter Bob Drogin of the Los Angeles Times broke this story on Aug. 28: "U.S. Suspects It Received False Iraq Arms Tips."

Or was it simply a matter, as intelligence reporter John Diamond of USA Today recently wrote me, of "the Iraqi National Congress, having failed to convince the CIA of the veracity [of stories about WMD in Iraq], shopping them around to the media which, in too many cases, ran with them with insufficient caveats? Often these leaks appeared timed to coincide with appearances on the weekend shows by senior Bush administration officials, suggesting a degree of coordination" between the Iraqi exiles and the government.

If so, they certainly found a willing buyer in Miller and Times editors, as her May 1 e-mail correspondence with then-Baghdad bureau chief John Burns -- reported by Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post -- proves. No mainstream journalist bit harder. We know that she led the Times into never-never land by a heavy reliance upon stories channeled to her by Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress (an opposition group) that in turn became front-page stories on WMD. (The documentary trail is laid out in Jack Shafer's Aug. 29 column on Slate: "Judith Miller: Duped?").

he real problem: Miller had a virtual monopoly in reporting on WMD in "the newspaper of record." Here we get to the most disturbing thought of all. Did Times' editors under Howell Raines make a conscious decision to have one of their stars regularly report the administration line on WMD in Iraq, without serious challenge other than by Times columnists and editorials?

And did that reporter, believing in the same foreign policy agenda, use her stories to make more credible to the public the claims pertaining to the WMD threat, in cahoots with some Pentagon sources? This question has to be asked, given the long run in the Times' news pages of Miller's hyped accounts. She was not a passive recipient of leaks.

We know that some reporters in the Times newsroom complained after her infamous front page April 21 "baseball cap" story, partly because of the thin attribution behind it but also because of the journalistic concessions she made to the weapons hunters in the field in hot pursuit of a scoop. Miller has offered the facile claim that even this story -- an Iraqi "scientist" identified only as wearing a baseball cap and pointing to places in the sand where chemical precursors of WMDs were allegedly once buried -- was "world-class news." But there is no evidence, until the summer, of a Times decision to turn to more skeptical coverage of the glitches and gaps in the WMD story as told by the White House. All the news that's fit to print?

When Did Miller Fall Out of Bed?

After months of enjoying "embedded" status (and then some), Miller unexpectedly returned to Baghdad via Kuwait in the middle of the night in early June, military officials and journalists told me, but was denied permission to rejoin the weapons-hunting teams and was put on the next plane out.

According to a public affairs officer (PAO) on the scene, she sought an embed arrangement different from the "terms of accreditation to report" which she had originally signed. Most of her contacts had been replaced by new people from David Kay's Iraqi Survey Group (ISG). Col. Richard McPhee, commander of the 75th Exploitation Task Force in Iraq, whose teams had been looking for evidence of WMDs in the spring, refused an interview with her.

Howard Kurtz's various revelations undoubtedly have impacted negatively on her already strained relations with the U.S. military in Iraq. "General Judith Miller" -- as Shafer has dubbed her -- was accused by a half dozen officers of intimidating soldiers searching for WMD. An Army officer told Kurtz: "Judith was always issuing threats of either going to The New York Times or to the Secretary of Defense." Another charged: "She ended up almost hijacking the mission" of the Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha (META), which was charged with examining potential Iraqi weapon sites after the war.

Based on several negative comments by military personnel to me, it is unlikely that Miller will again be given such unique access to those in the hunt, or that they will even talk to her. An e-mail message to me from her PAO sergeant escort regarding a three-week trip with META in April stated: "She did not have a SECRET clearance." She was "high maintenance and came to the field badly prepared. The problem I had with her was that whenever other members of the press showed up, which they did as embeds from other units or as unilaterals, she would insist that I get rid of them and that the 75th's story was her story, exclusively. She didn't seem to have any idea that the Army needed as much coverage of the 75th's mission as possible and that excluding everyone else was detrimental to the credibility of what the 75th was trying to accomplish. Never mind that we didn't find a damn thing ... She could not understand why Michael Gordon, covering the war at ground force headquarters, could have his stuff read and cleared at any time of the day or night while she had to wait. She would talk about the 'news cycle' and how important it was, and threaten me or my boss with the wrath of the NYT or her buddies up at DoD."

Team leader Navy Cdr. David Beckett of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, in a brief phone conversation, sarcastically dismissed the idea of her "supposedly having some sort of clearance." However, Colonel McPhee, the overall task force commander, is known to have said that Miller was "cleared at the secret level." Regardless, it was generally believed and commonly said in the field that Miller was cleared for information classified "secret." Either she pulled off a hoax, or a very unusual clearance for a journalist was granted by some Pentagon authority.

Miller at Work in the Desert

Charles Layton wrote about the "Miller Brouhaha" in the latest issue of the American Journalism Review, and succeeded in getting her on the record.

Defending every aspect of her reporting and expressing pride in her exclusives, Miller argued that the criticism would "blow over" because "my reporting was accurate." Critics from competing publications were expressing "a lot of sour grapes." She said that she had had to fight repeatedly with a commanding officer who didn't want her there in the first place "because he was not comfortable with my access to the information." So, did Pentagon civilian officials to whom she was close then smooth things out because they knew where she would try to come out in her conclusions?

Incidentally, she now says she has "no way of knowing" whether or not the anonymous fellow in the baseball cap pointing at the sand was correct in what he claimed.

There were other equally skilled reporters covering the search. Miller did not "beat everybody in the field," despite her bragging to Layton. Her journalistic coup lay, rather, in talking her way into getting clearance from the Pentagon and being allowed to embed with the 75th. As Drogin told Layton, "she was in a great position to get the initial confirmation in the field" when WMD were found. But they were not found, despite her best efforts to make readers think that they were or were about to be.

The Others

Together, Bart Gellman of The Washington Post, Dafna Linzer of the AP, and Bob Drogin of the L.A. Times constituted, along with Miller, the universe of four mainstream American journalists reporting for several months in the spring on the WMD quest in Iraq. The latter three provided markedly more skeptical accounts as to the success of the search than Miller.

They all scooped Miller in that their reporting was closer to "the facts on the ground," which did not corroborate her misleading reports. Despite great pressure, they did not fail the test of sound reporting.

Declining to speak otherwise about Miller and her work, Gellman replied to a specific question about the strictures under which he operated in the field and which had been mischaracterized by Catherine Mathis of the Times. Gellman told me: "I was surprised that the Times spokeswoman said I had the same arrangements that Judy did. My military press credential said 'unilateral,' not 'embedded,' and I specifically declined to sign a nondisclosure agreement." In fact, he had a sort of hybrid status which allowed him to spend time with the search teams, but did not bind him to a long-term commitment or special restrictions on what he wrote.

Gellman spent one day on the scene with Miller, accompanying a nuclear survey team at the Tuwaitha site at the beginning of May. Some of the soldiers asked whether Gellman had a "secret" clearance, "as Judy did."

"I said I had no such clearance, but did have the commander's permission to be there," Gellman told me.

The ISG Story

David Kay of the Iraqi Survey Group is back in this country providing an interim report to his superiors who continue to express confidence of major discoveries to come. Will Judith Miller be given the ISG beat at the Times rather than, say, a more balanced colleague such as James Risen? Has the Times conceded this territory to other news outlets, rather than take the WMD star role away from Miller?

So far the CIA is denying access to the ISG in the field, according to reporters with whom I have spoken. But Drogin, Gellman, and Linzer are on the case. The dog will bark, even if The New York Times fails to probe deeply and skeptically into what is bound to be a thick and complex Kay report.

William E. Jackson Jr. was executive director of President Carter's General Advisory Committee on Arms Control. He writes about American foreign policy and hosts a TV political talk show in Charlotte, N.C.

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