Miller’s 2nd Draft of WMD History

By: William E. Jackson Jr.

News Analysis

Buried in a July 19 New York Times article (“British Arms Expert at Center of Dispute on Iraq Data Is Found Dead”) by Warren Hoge and Judith Miller was a cryptic allusion: Dr. David Kelly referred to “many dark actors playing games” within military and intelligence circles of the British government. Kelly’s remarks were included in an e-mail message to a reporter, sent shortly before Kelly committed suicide. The reporter, later identified in news reports, was none other than Miller, a friend of the deceased. As in the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq this past spring, she had become a subject of the news, not just a reporter of it.

The following day, the Times published a story by Miller under her sole byline for the first time since she departed the war zone in May. Entitled “A Chronicle of Confusion in the U.S. Hunt for Hussein’s Chemical and Germ Weapons,” the lengthy analysis amounted to a mea culpa on the part of the star reporter and an attempt by “the newspaper of record” to play catch-up in covering the most controversial issue following the U.S. invasion of Iraq — the search for the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that had been cited by the Bush administration as an imminent threat.

In effect, Miller substantially revised her first draft of history, written when reporting from the field as an embedded part of a Central Command search unit, some two months after her widely criticized stories had made the case that evidence of Saddam’s unconventional weapons was being found.

In her hindsight account on July 20, Miller practically walks in the footsteps of Barton Gellman of The Washington Post, interviewing some of the same military sources who had been in Iraq with the search teams. Gellman’s reporting on the scene had been more detached and of wider scope in examining the realities of what was actually happening in the 75th Exploitation Task Force’s fruitless quest for WMDs.

Miller contrasted the “bold and original” Pentagon plan for finding Iraq’s unconventional weapons with the “ground truth.” She belatedly concluded that the postwar search for evidence was plagued by “chaos, disorganization, interagency feuds, disputes within and among military units, and shortages of everything …” Her interviews with soldiers and government officials over the past three months — it is not clear when and if she returned to Iraq since May, although she was identified by Times editors as bound by embedded reporter restrictions as late as June 7 — “identified a number of problems that might explain why the search has produced so little.” Never mind that her stories in the Times in April-May had made it appear a great deal was being discovered that served to demonstrate the validity of the administration’s major reasons for a pre-emptive attack.

One of the more notorious examples in a string of stories was headlined: “Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert,” on April 21. The scientist turned out to be an Iraqi intelligence officer.

Only after Miller’s reporting came under fire from reporters within the Times and in the pages of the Post — among other newspapers and journals — did the editors couple her with William Broad to write more skeptically about the alleged successes of the WMD search.

A Times reporter has confirmed to E&P that personnel in the paper’s Baghdad bureau were upset over Miller’s earlier stories because she seemed to keep arriving at “the same conclusions” even when there seemed to be “no evidence for them.” Miller reported not to the bureau, but to editors in New York.

Numerous attempts were made via e-mail to get responses to specific questions about Miller’s WMD reporting from several Times editors, without success. Some Times reporters did respond; and I have honored their requests for confidentiality.

Problems began last fall

On July 20, the same day as Miller’s latest story, the Times ran a front page article by James Risen, David Sanger, and Thom Shanker, which read: “Beginning last summer, Bush administration officials insisted that they had compelling new evidence about Iraq’s prohibited weapons programs, and only occasionally acknowledged in public how little they actually knew about the current status of Baghdad’s chemical, biological or nuclear arms” in the five years since UN inspectors left Iraq in 1998.

Yet, despite her wide range of sources in the military, intelligence, and defector communities, Miller was not deterred by “intell” vacuums when she wrote a number of stories in the fall of 2002 reporting new evidence of current WMD programs in Iraq.

One glaring example was recently recalled by Walter Pincus, senior national security correspondent of The Washington Post. Miller and Michael Gordon had reported on page one of the Times last Sept. 8 (just after Vice President Dick Cheney launched a propaganda offensive to hype the nuclear threat from Iraq): “More than a decade after Saddam Hussein agreed to give up weapons of mass destruction, Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb” — according to unidentified government sources — by trying to purchase “specially designed aluminum tubes” believed to be for centrifuges to enrich uranium. The story referred to administration “hardliners” who argued that action should be taken because, if they waited for proof that Hussein had a nuclear weapon, “the first sign of a smoking gun may be a mushroom cloud.”

However, by Sept. 8 there was already visible disagreement in the U.S. intelligence community on whether the tubes were for centrifuges or for artillery rockets in Iraq’s military program. Yet the two Times reporters asserted: “Mr. Hussein’s dogged insistence on pursuing his nuclear ambitions along with what defectors described in interviews as Iraq’s push to improve and expand Baghdad’s chemical and biological arsenals, have brought Iraq and the United States to the brink of war.”

Journalism at the Times has worldwide impact. It must not be seen as part of a game of media manipulation. To say the least, it is puzzling that a star reporter caught in highly misleading reporting on WMDs would be so protected from the consequences of her actions. Disturbing questions are raised when the Times publishes big stories that travel the same winding road as the Bush administration on the very grave matter of why American soldiers were sent off to war.

Perhaps the Times‘ own Siegal Committee, which is looking into the Jayson Blair scandal and other issues, will serve as a board of inquiry.

E&P welcomes letters to the editor: letters@editorandpublisher.com.

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