New York Times reporter Judith Miller played a highly unusual role in an Army unit assigned to search for dangerous Iraqi weapons, according to U.S. military officials, prompting criticism that the unit was turned into what one official called a "rogue operation."
More than a half-dozen military officers said that Miller acted as a middleman between the Army unit with which she was embedded and Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi, on one occasion accompanying Army officers to Chalabi's headquarters, where they took custody of Saddam Hussein's son-in-law. She also sat in on the initial debriefing of the son-in-law, these sources say.
Since interrogating Iraqis was not the mission of the unit, these officials said, it became a "Judith Miller team," in the words of one officer close to the situation.
Reporter Judith Miller and Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi, at whose offices a relative of Saddam Hussein was taken into custody while she was present.
In April, Miller wrote a letter objecting to an Army commander's order to withdraw the unit, Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, from the field. She said this would be a "waste" of time and suggested that she would write about it unfavorably in the Times. After Miller took up the matter with a two-star general, the pullback order was dropped.
Times Assistant Managing Editor Andrew Rosenthal dismissed the notion that she exercised influence over the unit as "an idiotic proposition."
"She didn't bring MET Alpha anywhere. . . . It's a baseless accusation," he said. "She doesn't direct MET Alpha, she's a civilian. Judith Miller is a reporter. She's not a member of the U.S. armed forces. She was covering a unit, like hundreds of other reporters for the New York Times, Washington Post and others. She went where they went to the degree that they would allow."
Viewed from one perspective, Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent, nationally recognized expert on weapons of mass destruction and co-author of a best-selling book on bioterrorism, was acting as an aggressive journalist. She ferreted out sources, used her long-standing relationship with Chalabi to pursue potential stories and, in the process, helped the United States take custody of two important Iraqis. Some military officers say she cared passionately about her reporting without abandoning her objectivity, and some of her critics may be overly concerned with regulations and perhaps jealous of the attention Miller's unit received..
"We think she did really good work there," Rosenthal said. "We think she broke some important stories."
Miller declined to be interviewed for this article, saying it was unfair of The Washington Post to have published an internal e-mail of hers last month. She said only that "my past and future articles speak for themselves."
In a May 1 e-mail to Times colleague John Burns, The Post reported, Miller said: "I've been covering Chalabi for about 10 years, and have done most of the stories about him for our paper. . . . He has provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper."
Miller's role with MET Alpha was controversial within the Defense Department and among some staff members at the Times, where one reporter was assigned to check up on whether other embedded journalists followed similar procedures.
The MET Alpha team was charged with examining potential Iraqi weapon sites in the war's aftermath. Military officers critical of the unit's conduct say its members were not trained in the art of human intelligence -- that is, eliciting information from prisoners and potential defectors. Specialists in such interrogations say the initial hours of questioning are crucial, and several Army and Pentagon officials were upset that MET Alpha officers were debriefing Hussein son-in-law Jamal Sultan Tikriti.
"This was totally out of their lane, getting involved with human intelligence," said one military officer who, like several others interviewed, declined to be named because he is not an authorized spokesman. But, the officer said of Miller, "this woman came in with a plan. She was leading them. . . . She ended up almost hijacking the mission."
Said a senior staff officer of the 75th Exploitation Task Force, of which MET Alpha is a part: "It's impossible to exaggerate the impact she had on the mission of this unit, and not for the better." Three weapons specialists were reassigned as the unit changed its approach, according to officers with the task force.
Several military officers say Miller led MET Alpha members to Chalabi's compound in a former sporting club, where they wound up taking custody of Sultan, who was on the Pentagon's "deck of cards" of the 55 most wanted Iraqis. The April trip to Chalabi's headquarters took place "at Judy's direction," one officer said.
Chalabi said in a brief interview that he had not arranged the handoff with Miller in advance and that her presence that day was "a total coincidence. . . . She happened to be there."
A top aide to Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress, Zaab Sethna, said he didn't know whether Miller arrived that day "because she's old friends with Dr. Chalabi or because she wanted to introduce that team she was working with to the INC." But he said the idea of transferring Sultan to the MET Alpha squad originated in a conversation with Miller.
"We told Judy because we thought it was a good story," Sethna said. "We needed some way to get the guy to the Americans." He said his organization had no previous connection to MET Alpha: "We didn't even know of their existence until they showed up with Judy."
Asked why Chalabi didn't simply call his official Pentagon liaison to turn over an important Iraqi, Sethna said they wanted to make sure that Sultan was transported quickly and safely and that he was "very surprised" when MET Alpha agreed to take the prisoner.
In reporting the handover of Sultan and an associate, Khalid Abdullah, Miller wrote that the two men "were questioned by an American intelligence official and then handed over to Chief Warrant Officer Richard L. Gonzales, the leader of a Pentagon Mobile Exploitation Team that has been hunting for unconventional weapons in Iraq." She wrote that Gonzales "happened to be meeting tonight with Mr. Chalabi to discuss nonproliferation issues."
In another case, Miller wrote of her exclusive interview with Nassir Hindawi, a former top official in Iraq's biological warfare program. The interview took place while Hindawi was "in the protective custody of Iraqi opposition leader Ahmad Chalabi," Miller wrote.
On April 21, when the MET Alpha team was ordered to withdraw to the southern Iraqi town of Talil, Miller objected in a handwritten note to two public affairs officers. It said:
"I see no reason for me to waste time (or MET Alpha, for that matter) in Talil. . . . Request permission to stay on here with colleagues at the Palestine Hotel til MET Alpha returns or order to return is rescinded. I intend to write about this decision in the NY Times to send a successful team back home just as progress on WMD is being made."
One military officer, who says that Miller sometimes "intimidated" Army soldiers by invoking Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or Undersecretary Douglas Feith, was sharply critical of the note. "Essentially, she threatened them," the officer said, describing the threat as that "she would publish a negative story."
An Army officer, who regarded Miller's presence as "detrimental," said: "Judith was always issuing threats of either going to the New York Times or to the secretary of defense. There was nothing veiled about that threat," this person said, and MET Alpha "was allowed to bend the rules."
Times editor Rosenthal strongly disagreed, saying Miller's note sounded routine and that characterizing it as a threat is "a total distortion of that letter."
Miller later challenged the pullback order with Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne. While Petraeus did not have direct authority over Col. Richard McPhee, the commander of the 75th task force, McPhee rescinded his withdrawal order after Petraeus advised him to do so. McPhee declined two requests for comment.
"Our desire was to pull these guys back in," said an officer who served under McPhee, adding that it was "quite a surprise" that the order was reversed.
As for MET Alpha's seeming independence, this officer said: "The way McPhee phrased it for [staff] consumption was, 'I know they have gone independent, I know they have gone rogue, but by God at least they're doing something.' But if they're doing something, where's the meat? It didn't pan out."
That wasn't for lack of trying. In early May, Miller reported on MET Alpha's search for an ancient Jewish text that wound up unearthing Iraqi intelligence documents and maps related to Israel. In this case, too, Sethna said, the information was passed from Chalabi's group to Miller. "We thought this was a great story for the New York Times," Sethna said. "She discussed it with her team. . . . That came from us."
Asked if MET Alpha had gone astray, Col. Joe Curtin, an Army spokesman, said that "commanders make decisions based on developing situations" and that the unit had the approval of its headquarters. He said that any lead provided by a reporter is deemed "open source, and we're going to use it."
But Curtin said of one MET Alpha foray: "Interrogating prisoners is usually left to military intelligence people who are trained in that art and do it right, under the laws of land warfare."
Miller formed a friendship with MET Alpha's leader, Chief Warrant Officer Gonzales, and several officers said they were surprised when she participated in a Baghdad ceremony in which Gonzales was promoted. She pinned the rank to his uniform, an eyewitness said, and Gonzales thanked Miller for her contributions. Gonzales did not respond to a request for comment.
Like other embedded reporters, Miller agreed to allow military officials to review her stories as a condition of traveling with the unit, and in at least one case wrote that information had been deleted on security grounds.
Miller's coverage of MET Alpha has drawn some critical press scrutiny for optimistic-sounding stories about the weapons hunt, generating headlines including "U.S. Analysts Link Iraq Labs to Germ Arms," "U.S. Experts Find Radioactive Material in Iraq" and "U.S.-Led Forces Occupy Baghdad Complex Filled With Chemical Agents." These potential discoveries did not bear fruit.
After returning from Iraq, Rosenthal noted, Miller and a colleague filed a report skeptical about claims that two trailers found in Iraq served as mobile germ labs. Her reporting was "very balanced," he said, even though she and other embedded reporters in Iraq had a limited perspective while traveling with the troops.
"Singling out one reporter for this kind of examination is a little bizarre," Rosenthal said.
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