By: Greg Mitchell
For months, critics of Judith Miller’s reporting for The New York Times on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, both before and after the war, have called on Executive Editor Bill Keller to either publicly defend her work or promise a wide-ranging probe of it.
He has chosen the former.
In response to a request from the Daniel Okrent, the Times’ public editor, Keller has stated, “Like many aggressive reporters, particularly reporters who deal with contentious subjects, she has sometimes stepped on toes, but that is hardly grounds for rebuke. That was my assessment of Judy when I worked with her before, and nothing she has published in the paper since I became executive editor has caused me to think less of her.”
Keller’s full response appears on Okrent’s Web log as entry No. 21. The item was posted March 25.
Much of Miller’s reporting on WMD has been thrown into question, or proven inaccurate, as no WMDs have been found and information from Iraqi defectors, which she partly relied on, has been widely discredited. Last May, in an e-mail to fellow Times reporter John F. Burns, Miller revealed that Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi “has provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper,” many of them, she said, written by her.
Her stories on WMD were topped with headlines such as “U.S. Analysts Link Iraq Labs to Germ Arms,” “U.S. Experts Find Radioactive Material in Iraq,” “Iraq Said to Try to Buy Antidote Against Nerve Gas,” and “U.S. Led Forces Occupy Baghdad Complex Filled with Chemical Agents.”
On his Web journal, Okrent reiterated that he had so many current issues to confront that he would not re-visit the paper’s actions prior to his arrival as public editor on Dec. 1, 2003. But due to persistent reader mail regarding Miller, he asked Keller to address the issue himself.
Anyone hoping for a “We have to stop Judy from writing for the Times, right now” dictum from Keller will be sorely disappointed.
In his response to Okrent, Keller indicated that he had re-read the paper’s WMD coverage, and the criticism, which he observed “had acquired the power of passionate conventional wisdom.” This “survey” he said had led him to two conclusions:
“First, 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.” By context he meant, among other things, “what others were writing at the time,” the role of editors, and “how credible the sources were.”
“Second, lacking prima facie evidence, opening a docket and litigating the claims against the coverage was likely to consume more of my attention that I was willing to invest … in the absence of more persuasive complaints than I have seen so far.”
Tweaking the critics of Miller’s reporting, he noted 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.” (One early critic, William E. Jackson Jr., has written a half dozen columns on this subject for E&P. He was executive director of President Carter’s General Advisory Committee on Arms Control.)
Miller’s most famous “scoop” came in an April 21, 2003, front-page story which gave significant credence to the claims of an unnamed Iraqi scientist who she only observed from a distance (wearing a baseball cap and pointing to spots in the sand where materials for making illegal weapons were allegedly buried). The scientist said that Iraq had destroyed chemical weapons and biological warfare equipment just before the war; spirited other material out of the country or buried it; and was cooperating with al Qaeda.
Speaking on “The NewHour with Jim Lehrer” the next day, Miller said the scientist was more than a “smoking gun” — investigators considered him the “silver bullet” in the WMD hunt.
None of the scientist’s evidence has since checked out. Three months after the Miller scoop appeared, she revealed in the Times that the scientist was, in fact, a “military intelligence officer.” She also blamed the failure of U.S. forces to uncover WMDs on “flawed intelligence,” “interagency feuds,” “disorganization” and the failure of the U.S. to promise Iraqi scientists immunity or reward them financially.
Miller’s stories also helped make the case that Iraq had mobile biological weapons laboratories. On March 28, the Los Angeles Times’ Bob Drogin and Greg Miller reported that the Bush administration’s claims on Saddam’s mobile WMD program were “based chiefly on information from a now-discredited Iraqi defector code-named ‘Curveball,’ according to current and former intelligence officials.”
Another Miller exclusive was a Dec. 3, 2002, story about a Russian woman dubbed “Madame Small Pox” who was purportedly helping the Iraqis weaponize the disease.
In his statement to Okrent, Keller wrote: “My experience of Judy, most extensively when I was managing editor, is that she is a smart, well-sourced, industrious and fearless reporter with a keen instinct for news, and an appetite for dauntingly hard subjects — advanced weapons, terrorism, Middle East politics, etc.”
On March 18, speaking to college journalists, New York Times Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. said, when asked about Miller’s WMD reporting: “Were her sources wrong? Absolutely. Her sources were wrong. And you know something? The administration was wrong. And when you’re covering it from the inside like that you’re going to get things wrong sometimes. So I don’t blame Judy Miller for the lack of finding weapons of mass destruction.”