A dustup between two New York Times reporters over a story on an Iraqi exile leader raises some intriguing questions about the paper's coverage of the search for dangerous weapons thought to be hidden by Saddam Hussein.
An internal e-mail by Judith Miller, the paper's top reporter on bioterrorism, acknowledges that her main source for such articles has been Ahmad Chalabi, a controversial exile leader who is close to top Pentagon officials. Could Chalabi have been using the Times to build a drumbeat that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction?
Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress and Times source. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
The Chalabi connection surfaced when John Burns, the paper's Pulitzer Prize-winning Baghdad bureau chief, scolded Miller over her May 1 story on the Iraqi without clearing it with him.
"I am deeply chagrined at your reporting and filing on Chalabi after I had told you on Monday night that we were planning a major piece on him -- and without so much as telling me what you were doing," Burns wrote that day, according to e-mail correspondence obtained by The Washington Post.
"We have a bureau here; I am in charge of that bureau until I leave; I make assignments after considerable thought and discussion, and it was plain to all of us to whom the Chalabi story belonged. If you do this, what is to stop you doing it on any other story of your choosing? And what of the distress it causes the correspondent who is usurped? It is not professional, and not collegial."
Miller replied to Burns: "I've been covering Chalabi for about 10 years, and have done most of the stories about him for our paper, including the long takeout we recently did on him. He has provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper."
She apologized for any confusion, but noted that the Army unit she was traveling with -- Mobile Exploration Team Alpha -- "is using Chalabi's intell and document network for its own WMD work. . . . Since I'm there every day, talking to him. . . . I thought I might have been included on a decision by you" to have another reporter write about Chalabi.
Reached by phone, Miller said: "I'm not about to comment on any intra-Times communications." Andrew Rosenthal, assistant managing editor for foreign news, said it is "a pretty slippery slope" to publish reporters' private e-mail and "reveal whatever confidential sources they may or may not have."
"Of course we talk to Chalabi," he said. "If you were in Iraq and weren't talking to Chalabi, I'd wonder if you were doing your job."
According to the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh, Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress was a key source of information about weapons for the Pentagon's own intelligence unit -- information sometimes disputed by the CIA. Chalabi may have been feeding the Times, and other news organizations, the same disputed information.
Miller has drawn criticism, particularly from Slate's Jack Shafer, for her reporting on the hunt for Iraqi weapons while she was embedded with the MET Alpha unit.
In an April 21 front-page story, she reported that a leading Iraqi scientist claimed Iraq had destroyed chemical and biological weapons days before the war began, according to the Alpha team. She said the scientist had "pointed to several spots in the sand where he said chemical precursors and other weapons material were buried."
Behind that story was an interesting arrangement. Under the terms of her accreditation, Miller wrote, "this reporter was not permitted to interview the scientist or visit his home. Nor was she permitted to write about the discovery of the scientist for three days, and the copy was then submitted for a check by military officials. Those officials asked that details of what chemicals were uncovered be deleted."
Since then, no evidence has surfaced to support these claims and the Alpha team is preparing to leave Iraq without having found weapons of mass destruction.
Rosenthal says all embedded reporters agreed to the same restrictions. "We didn't feel this amounted to censorship," he said. "We thought the added burden of the rules was justified by the access we got to what would have been secret operations."
While Miller was not allowed to interview the unnamed scientist on her own, Rosenthal said "she never said she never met him." Army officials "made an argument that his life would be in jeopardy" if he were identified.
Whether or not the unit's initial findings pan out, Rosenthal says, he is "extremely comfortable" with Miller's reporting because "all the information was attributed to MET Alpha, not 'senior U.S. officials' or some other vague formulation."
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