Judy’s Turn to Cry: How the New York Times and a Star Correspondent Led America to War – Published by Salon.com
August 13th, 2006
A journalist trying to convince an editor to allow the use of Ahmad Chalabi as a source had a difficult case to make. While living in exile from Iraq, Chalabi was accused of embezzling millions from his Petra Bank in Amman, Jordan. Leaving the country in the trunk of a car reportedly driven by Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan, Chalabi was convicted in absentia and still faces 22 years in prison, if he ever returns. Evidence presented in the trial indicated Chalabi’s future outside of Jordan was secured by $70 million he stole from his depositors. Chalabi has suggested, however, his prosecution was political because he was involved in efforts to overthrow dictator Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq.
Regardless of the specifics of Chalabi’s resume’, the least able of U.S. editors ought to have brought great skepticism to any information supplied by the exile simply because of his dubious profile. In addition to his criminal conviction, the U.S. State Department had turned its back on Chalabi after his London-based Iraqi National Congress spent $5 million and an audit was unable to account for most of its expenditure.
“Damn right,” he was quoted as saying. “It was covert money.”
Shortly after his 1989 escape from Jordan, Chalabi began to make contact with CIA operatives who, eventually, funneled an estimated $100 million to his organization, which culminated in a failed 1996 takeover of Iraq by Kurdish forces in the north. By the time his door was kicked down by security forces that night in Baghdad, Chalabi had been on the payroll of the Department of Defense at the monthly rate of $340,000 dollars and, by conservative estimates, had burned through an estimated $40 million dollars of Pentagon money, which, of course, comes out of the pocket of American taxpayers.
Even if Ahmad Chalabi would not have survived a background check for a job at Slim’s Used Cars, he was good enough as a source for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other news outlets. Jetting to international capitals with a Rolex shining on his wrist and finely-cut suits draped from his shoulders, the M.I.T. educated Chalabi cultivated the image of a well-informed leader seeking justice for his people. But he was something considerably different and American journalism ought to have been able to reach that conclusion before it burned its own reputation on Chalabi’s pyre of lies.
Even the most seasoned of correspondents and the most august of publications appear to have been as deftly used by Chalabi as were the CIA, DoD, and the Bush administration. Judith Miller, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and authority on the Mid East for the Times, is the only journalist whose reliance on Chalabi became a matter of public debate. During the course of an internecine squabble with Times’ Baghdad Bureau Chief John Burns, an e-mail trail between he and Miller was published in the Washington Post. In the electronic exchange, Miller said Chalabi “had provided most of the front page exclusives for our paper” and that she had been “reporting on him for over ten years.” Miller later told the New York Review of Books that she had exaggerated her claims to Burns in order to make a point. However, in an earlier interview with me, Miller did not discount the value of Chalabi’s insight.
“Of course, I talked with Chalabi,” she said. I wouldn’t have been doing my job if I didn’t. But he was just one of many sources I used while I was in Iraq.”
Miller refused to say who some of those other sources were, claiming their identities were sacrosanct. Nonetheless, her reportage appeared to reflect Chalabi’s intelligence gathering and his political cant. At his behest, she interviewed defectors from Saddam Hussein’s regime, who claimed without substantiation, that there was still a clandestine WMD program operating inside of Iraq. U.S. investigators now believe that Chalabi sent these same Iraqi ex-patriots to at least eight Western spy agencies as part of a scheme to convince them to overthrow Saddam. An unknown number of them appear to have stopped along the way to speak with Judith Miller.
If the double agent, spy business had a trophy to hold up and show neophyte spooks on what happens when their craft is perfectly executed, it would be a story written by Judith Miller on the front page of the New York Times on a Sunday morning in September of 2002. The front page frightener was entitled, “Threats and Responses: The Iraqis, U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts.” Miller and Michael Gordon wrote that an intercepted shipment of aluminum tubes was evidence Hussein was building a uranium gas separator to develop nuclear material. A probable source for the story, in addition to U.S. intelligence operatives, was Adnan Ihsan Saeed, an Iraqi defector Miller was introduced to by Chalabi. Miller had quoted him in a December 2001 report when Saeed had told her he had worked on nuclear operations in Iraq and that there were at least 20 banned weapons facilities undergoing repairs. Saeed was either lying or horribly uninformed. Nonetheless, the big splash in the Sunday Times quoted National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice invoking the image of “mushroom clouds over America” based on specious claims about aluminum tubes. Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Vice President Dick Cheney all did appearances on the Sunday morning talk shows, ironically, pumping up the journalism of the reputedly liberal New York Times.
But Miller’s story was wrong.
“I had no reason to believe what I reported at the time was inaccurate,” she told me. “I believed the intelligence information I had at the time. I sure didn’t believe they were making it up. This was a learning process. You constantly have to ask the question, ‘What do you know at the time you are writing it?’ We tried really hard to get more information and we vetted information very, very carefully.”
Apparently, not carefully enough.
The aluminum tubes were covered with an anodized coating, which would have been machined off to make them usable in a centrifuge. That change in thickness of the tube wall would have also rendered the tubes useless for a centrifuge, according to a number of nuclear scientists who spoke publicly after Miller’s story. Aluminum, which has not been used in uranium gas separators since the 1950s, has been replaced by steel. The tubes, it turns out, were undoubtedly intended for use as rocket bodies. Hussein’s multiple launch rocket systems had rusted on their pads and he had ordered the tubes from Italy. “Medusa 81,” the Italian rocket model name was stamped on the side of the tubes, and in a factory north of Baghdad, American intelligence officers later discovered boxes of rocket fins and motors awaiting arrival of the tubes of terror.
As wrong as the Times and Miller were, no single story did more to advance the political cause of the neo-conservatives driving the Bush administration to invade Iraq. The paper and its star correspondent were accused of picking up leaked information and rushing it into print, a decision that set up the Sunday morning talk show echo chamber for the Bush White House.
And it was easy.
A few months after the aluminum tubes story, a former CIA analyst, who has observed Miller’s professional products and relationships for years, explained to me how simple it was to manipulate the correspondent and her newspaper.
“The White House had a perfect deal with Miller,” he said. “[Ahmad] Chalabi is providing the Bush people with the information they need to support their political objectives with Iraq, and he is supplying the same material to Judy Miller. Chalabi tips her on something and then she goes to the White House, which has already heard the same thing from Chalabi, and she gets it corroborated by some insider she always describes as a ‘senior administration official.’ She also got the Pentagon to confirm things for her, which made sense, since they were working so closely with Chalabi. Too bad Judy didn’t spend a little more time talking to those of us in the intelligence community who had information that contradicted almost everything Chalabi said.”
Long after the fact, Miller conceded in her interview with me that she wrong about the aluminum tubes, but not that she had made a mistake.
“We worked our asses off to get that story,” she said. “No one leaked anything to us. I reported what I knew at the time. I wish I were omniscient. I wish I were God and had all the information I had needed. But I’m not God and I don’t know. All I can rely on is what people tell me. That’s all any investigative reporter can do. And if you find out that it’s not true, you go back and write that. You just keep chipping away at an assertion until you find out what stands up.”
In that description of her methodology, Miller described a type of journalism that publishes works in progress, and she raises, inadvertently, important questions about the craft. If highly-placed sources in governments and intelligence operations give her information, is she obligated to sit on it until she can corroborate? And how does a reporter independently confirm data that even the CIA is struggling to nail down?
According to Todd Gitlin of Columbia University’s School of Journalism, a reporter in that position needs to ladle on an extra helping of doubt. “Independent corroboration is very hard to come by. Since she’s been around, if you’re aware that such echo chambers effects are plausible, what do you do? I think you write with much greater skepticism, at times. I think you don’t write at all unless you can make a stronger case when you are aware that people are playing you and spinning you for their purposes.”
More than skepticism, though, Gitlin believes that publications have a responsibility to explain possible motivations for whoever is leaking the information to reporters. This can be done without identifying the source, he insists, and the Times, as well as a few other papers, is supposedly in the midst of adopting this protocol.
But much damage has already been done, and not just to journalism. The failures of Judy Miller and the Times reporting on Iraq are far greater sins than those of the paper’s disgraced Jayson Blair. While the newspaper’s management cast Blair to the indignities he had earned with his deceptions, Miller and other reporters who contributed to sending America into a war have been shielded from full scrutiny. The Times plays an unequalled role in the national discourse and when it publishes a front page piece about aluminum tubes and mushroom clouds, that story very quickly runs away from home to live on its own. The day after Miller’s tubes narrative showed up, Andrea Mitchell of NBC News went on that national broadcast to proclaim, “They were the kind of tubes that could only be used in a centrifuge to make nuclear fuel.” Norah O’Donnell had already told the network’s viewers the day before of the “alarming disclosure,” and the New York Times wire service distributed Miller’s report to dozens of papers across the landscape. Invariably, they gave it prominence. Sadly, the sons and daughters of America were sent marching off to war wearing the boots of a well told and widely disseminated lie.
Even though the Times has been, by its own admission, deluged with e-mails and letters criticizing Judith Miller and the paper’s coverage of WMD, management has consistently defended her and refused to make statements about her work in impartial public forums. The only time there has been any hint Miller’s journalism was deconstructed by editors was in a note posted on an obscure blog run by the paper’s new ombudsman, Daniel Okrent. Times executive editor Bill Keller wrote that a, “fair amount of the mail on this subject seemed to me to come from people who had not actually read the coverage, but had heard about it on the cyber-grapevine.” Keller, who was not executive editor at the time Miller was filing her questionable dispatches, said, “I did not see a prima facie case for recanting or repudiating the stories. The brief against the coverage was that it was insufficiently skeptical, but that is an easier claim to make in hindsight than in context.” Rather than scrutinize his correspondent’s work, Keller chose to base his assessment of Miller’s WMD work on her past performances. Describing her as “smart, well-sourced, industrious, and fearless,” Keller dismissed criticisms that her work was fatally flawed.
If her boss had bothered to do a little cursory reporting of his own, he might have discovered evidence of a political predisposition in Miller’s copy. For as long as two years, the Middle East Forum, an organization that has openly advocated that the U.S. overthrow Saddam Hussein, listed Judith Miller as an expert speaker on its Web site. The MEF was run by Daniel Pipes, a regular contributor to the New York Post, who also wrote his perception of Muslims in 1990 in The National Review, “West European societies are unprepared for the massive immigration of brown-skinned peoples cooking strange foods and not exactly maintaining Germanic standards of hygiene.” Miller’s name was not pulled from the MEF’s Web site until Pipes was confronted by Daniel Forbes of the Globalvision News Network. Pipes refused to answer questions about whether Miller was paid for speaking. Hid did admit, however, the MEF held a launch party for Miller’s book on the Mid East, God Has Ninety-Nine Names and that it was excerpted in his publication, The Middle East Quarterly.
More recently, Miller has been represented by Benador Associates, a speakers’ bureau and media relations company in Washington, D.C., which specializes in conservative thinkers with Middle East expertise. The firm’s present list of experts includes neo-conservative Richard Perle, James Woolsey, Victor Davis Hanson, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Charles Krauthammer, Frank Gaffney, Jr. and others of a similar political persuasion.
If Miller’s politics were not discernible for her editors through her associations, reading her books has been revelatory for some critics. While God Has Ninety-Nine Names was given favorable notices by her own paper, which called it a “rich tapestry of Middle Eastern society and politics as intricate as a Persian carpet,” the late Edward W. Said, Columbia University’s former Professor of English and Comparative Literature, accused Miller of trading in the “Islamic threat.” “It is,” Said wrote in The Nation, “made to seem disproportionately fearsome, lending support to the thesis (which is an interesting parallel to anti-Semitic paranoia) that there is a worldwide conspiracy behind every explosion.”
In a curious case of rigorous denial, the Times last week was continuing to blame everyone other than its own editors and reporters for its lapsed journalism. The paper failed to point out that much of its reporting was dependent on Ahmad Chalabi and Iraqi defectors provided through the exiled Iraqi National Congress, the same operation that was getting the Bush White House to gobble up its lies and distortions. In fact, as late as May 21, in an opinion piece on the disgraced Chalabi, entitled, Friends Like This, the paper contradicted its own behavior and amplified its hypocrisies by an order of magnitude.
“There’s little to recommend Mr. Chalabi as a politician, or certainly as an informer. But he can’t be made a scapegoat. The Bush administration should have known what it was doing when it gave enormous credence to a questionable character whose own self-interest was totally invested in getting the Americans to invade Iraq.”
Why weren’t Times editors as intellectually disciplined on the subject of Chalabi when Miller and other reporters were trotting in with stories based on spurious allegations from the Iraqi National Congress and Chalabi’s merry band of defectors? The fact that Chalabi was able to feed disinformation to America’s most widely-recognized publication and have it go relatively unchallenged as the electorate was whipped into a get-Saddam frenzy ought to be keeping Times’ editors awake all night. Nobody wanted a war against Iraq more than Ahmad Chalabi and the biggest paper in the U.S. gave it to him almost as willingly as the White House.
Much too late, the paper of record discovered its conscience, and this week published a mea culpa about its editorial collapse on the subject of Chalabi and the Iraq invasion. In a piece from the editors, The Times and Iraq, the paper finally accepts responsibility for screwing up. “In some cases,” the editors write, “information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge.” The editors concede what intelligence sources had told me and numerous other reporters; that Chalabi was feeding bad info to journalists and the White House and had set up situation with Iraqi exiles where all of the influential institutions were shouting into the same garbage can, hearing the same echo.
“Complicating matters for journalists, the accounts of these exiles were often eagerly confirmed by United States officials convinced of the need to intervene in Iraq. Administration officials now acknowledge that they sometimes fell for misinformation from these exile sources. So did many news organizations — in particular, this one.”
The paper insisted the problem did not lie with any individual journalist, though several of the failures cited in the editorial were Judith Miller bylines. The most stunningly egregious of the publication’s mistakes is finally acknowledged within the editors’ declarations. A Miller story, “Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert,” was based on a source she never met or even interviewed. In fact, Judith Miller watched a man in a baseball cap from a distance, who pointed at the desert floor, and used that as a basis for filing a piece that confirmed the U.S. had discovered “precursors to weapons of mass destruction.” According to her sources in the Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha of the U.S. Army, this unnamed scientist from Hussein’s WMD program had told them the “building blocks” of WMD were buried in that spot. Miller explained to me several months later that she had seen a letter from the man, written in Arabic and translated for her, that gave his claims credence.
“I have a photograph of him,” she explained. “I know who he is. There’s no way I would have gone forward with such a story without knowing who my source was, even if I got it from guys in my unit. You know, maybe it turns out that he was lying or ill-informed cannot be independently verified.”
Yes, Ms. Miller, that is how it turned out.
Nonetheless, the next day she was on national television, including PBS’ the Newshour with Jim Lehrer, proclaiming that what had been discovered was “more than a smoking gun” and was a “silver bullet in the form of an Iraqi scientist.” In an interview with Ray Suarez, Miller began using the plural of “scientists” and implied there was more than one source. She gave the Bush administration credit for creating a “political atmosphere where these scientists can come forward.” The story was trumpeted by conservative broadcast ideologues like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh and, once it was zapped off to regional newspapers via the Times wire service, it acquired even more dramatic purchase. “Illegal Material Spotted,” the Rocky Mountain News blared with a subhead that distorted even more: “Iraqi Scientist Leads U.S. Team to Illicit Weapons Location.” “Outlawed Material Destroyed by the Iraqis Before the War,” was the headline of the Seattle Post Intelligencer.
Unfortunately, none of it was true.
The Times finally admitted Miller’s “informant also claimed that Iraq had sent unconventional weapons to Syria and had been cooperating with Al Qaeda — two claims that were then, and remain, highly controversial. But the tone of the article suggested that this Iraqi ‘scientist’ — who in a later article described himself as an official of military intelligence — had provided the justification the Americans had been seeking for the invasion. The Times never followed up on the veracity of this source or the attempts to verify his claims.”
Miller, who knew all of this already at the time I interviewed her, remained righteously indignant, unwilling to accept the she had goofed up in the grandest of fashions.
“You know what,” she offered angrily. “I was proved fucking right. That’s what happened. People who disagreed with me were saying, ‘there she goes again.’ But I was proved fucking right.”
Of course, Judy Miller and the Times are not the only journalists to be taken by Ahmad Chalabi. Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post has also written fancifully of his long association with the exile. But no one has been so fooled in an eager rush to be first and, possibly, even to support the administration, as Miller and her paper.
Russ Baker, who has written critically of Miller for The Nation, places profound blame at the feet of the reporter and her paper.
“I am convinced there would not have been a war without Judy Miller,” he said.
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