Still Miller Time: ‘NY Times’ Circles the Wagons

By: William E. Jackson, Jr.

Opinion

On July 2, Judith Miller’s byline appeared in The New York Times for the first time since June 7. But, based on comments by a Times spokeswoman, it is obvious that the wagons are still circling at the Times, in this case to protect an embattled star reporter.

From postwar Iraq, Miller, the Times‘ expert on chemical and biological weapons, wrote a series of exaggerated stories that led readers to believe that unconventional weapons programs were being uncovered or weapons of mass destruction were about to be found — and that these discoveries supported the Bush administration’s claims about Saddam Hussein’s development of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

Traveling as an “embed” with one of the teams making up the 75th Exploitation Task Force, Miller crossed the line from that of reporter to that of member of a team she referred to as “my unit.” A professional scandal evolved, with Miller’s authority, and the credibility of the Times, severely undermined. Many critics have pointed out the far superior (and more credible) work on this subject by The Washington Post‘s Barton Gellman.

In the latest major development, Howard Kurtz on June 25 reported in The Washington Post: “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 a ‘rogue operation.'”

Officers told Kurtz that Miller acted as a middleman between the Army unit with which she was embedded and opposition leader Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress. She already had been quoted by Kurtz (on May 26) as having privately asserted that Chalabi “provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD” to the Times; and that her mobile exploration team was “using Chalabi’s [intelligence] network for its own WMD work.”

The Times responded to Kurtz through Miller’s leading public defender, Assistant Managing Editor Andrew Rosenthal, who dismissed the notion that she exercised influence over the unit as “an idiotic proposition. … Judith Miller is a reporter. She’s not a member of the U.S. armed forces.”

Responding to my written questions, Catherine Mathis, the Times spokeswoman, insisted that Miller “did not depend, heavily or otherwise, on Mr. Chalabi as a source while in Iraq.” But there is unchallenged evidence from Miller’s own hand that she heavily depended on Chalabi as a source in the field. Moreover, Chalabi himself on “The Charlie Rose Show” on June 10 bragged that he was her prime source for WMD information.

If the Times had it to do over again, would it sanction the policy of permitting senior reporters to be so thoroughly “embedded” with units in Iraq? Mathis told me: “The embedding arrangements carried conditions that were consistent for all news organizations. As far as we know, there was no difference between arrangements [for the Post‘s Gellman] and Ms. Miller’s arrangements with regard to security review or other substantive aspects of the accreditation, but the Post did not disclose Mr. Gellman’s arrangements to its readers, so we cannot be certain of this.”

However, Gellman himself has disclosed the negotiated arrangements that specifically kept him free of the “embed” review snare. He usually quoted military sources in the field by name, while she relied overwhelmingly on anonymous sources; and he frequently scooped her.

One of the most curious turns in this affair occurred after Miller returned home from Iraq. With science reporter William Broad, she wrote a front-page story on May 21 headlined, “U.S. Analysts Link Iraq Labs to Germ Arms.” Quoting anonymous officials they led with: “United States intelligence agencies have concluded that two mysterious trailers were mobile units to produce germs for weapons…”

Their story continued: “The intelligence analysts judgment would support some of the evidence that Secretary of State Colin Powell presented on Feb. 5 to the United Nations.”

Over two weeks passed before the Times‘ reporters skeptically revisited the WMD issue — and reversed the emphasis and tone of their May 21 report. Did Times‘ editors order the pair to re-consider? Executive Editor Howell Raines had left but Joseph Lelyveld had barely assumed the helm. Whatever the explanation, the Times and the tandem of Miller and Broad dramatically walked back the cat.

In a front-page story on June 7 — “Some Analysts Of Iraq Trailers Reject Germ Use” — they executed this awkward journalistic turn: “American and British intelligence analysts with direct access to the evidence are disputing claims that the mysterious trailers found in Iraq were for making deadly germs.” Their dissenting sources now said that “the mobile units were more likely intended for other purposes and charged that the evaluation process had been damaged by a rush to judgment.”

Noting that the Bush administration had claimed that the two trailers found in Iraq were evidence that Saddam had been hiding a program for biological warfare, they averred: “Now, intelligence analysts … are disclosing serious doubts about the administration’s conclusions in what appears to be a bitter debate within the intelligence community.” A senior analyst told them that a white paper prepared for the White House on the issue “was a rushed job and looks political.” [Miller and Broad had referred to the “consensus” white paper in their May 21 story, which had apparently been leaked to them.]

An editor’s note appeared on the inside page at the bottom, noting that “Miller’s agreement with the Pentagon for an ’embedded’ assignment, allowed the military to review her copy to prevent breaches of troop protection and security. No changes were made in the review.”

Important questions about this flip-flop, bearing on credibility, remain unanswered. Just who was a source for what — the government for Miller or Miller for the government or all working together to maneuver backward on a winding trail of discredited reporting? Were Times‘ editors trying to belatedly look at the issue with a more skeptical eye?

Surrounding this whole saga there is the smell of compromised reporting, using and even colluding with tainted Iraqi sources, while essentially surrendering detached judgment to the Pentagon. The Times has a serious obligation to scrutinize Miller’s reporting, and editors’ editing, on the threat that was widely advertised as the primary reason for sending American and British soldiers off to war.

Jackson’ previous column on this subject appeared June 17.

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

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