This Time, Judith Miller Gets It Right on Chalabi

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By: William E. Jackson Jr.

There are second, even third acts, in the careers of Iraqi politicians, and, indeed, in the lives of American journalists who report on them.

This is one lesson to be learned from the changing fortunes of Ahmad Chalabi and New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who relied upon him as a main source for much of the published disinformation on weapons of mass destruction that was a factor in the invasion of Iraq.

Recently, Miller was criticized by Daniel Okrent, the Times’ public editor (and other media critics, such as myself in a February 6 column here), for her Jan. 30 prediction on MSNBC?s ?Hardball? of a political comeback by Chalabi — with American encouragement — following the election held that very day. The problem was: This was a “scoop” that, by her own admission, she had not seen fit to submit to the Times.

On the day of the Iraqi election, Miller told Chris Matthews on the air that her “sources” informed her that U.S. officials were, once again, in alliance with former Iraqi exile leader Chalabi, even backing him for a major cabinet post in a new Shiite-dominated government. It seemed improbable, as Chalabi had fallen into disgrace and was often regarded as one of the least popular major politicians in Iraq. But Miller claimed that the Bush Administration was making “belated and sudden outreaches” to Chalabi “to offer him expressions of cooperation and support.” One wondered who was her main Iraqi source?

In any case, lo and behold, in the Feb. 13 Times, Dexter Filkins and three other Times reporters weighed in with a dramatic front-page story: ?Iraqi Exile Sees His Prospects on Rise Again.? They reported that, earlier in the week, ?one of the American Embassy’s most important diplomats? had visited Chalabi in his Baghdad compound.

?The purpose of Robert Ford’s visit was to assess what the next Iraqi government, perhaps with Mr. Chalabi in a senior post, was planning for the future,” the story continued. “The conversation highlighted a substantial change in chemistry between Chalabi and the American government. That Chalabi is even in a position to be maneuvering for power marks yet another turn in his up-and-down political trajectory.?

And now, just today, it was reported that Chalabi, after basically coming in second in the contest to be the next prime minister of Iraq, is likely to receive the finance portfolio in the new government, or maybe the defense post. Just as Miller had predicted.

It is apparent that Judith Miller had been tipped off about the impending American overture to Chalabi more than a week before it happened. Moreover, the subsequent Times story on Feb. 13 fueled speculation that the Times’ top brass — after Miller had been taken to the woodshed by Okrent on Feb. 6 — passed the word to document her intelligence based on her sources in both Baghdad and Washington. I have heard that she is forbidden to write stories herself that focus on Chalabi.

Incredibly, it would appear that while she was on vacation in Florida at the end of January, she filed another article on the United Nations oil-for-food scandal (on Jan. 31, with Julia Preston); conducted the “Hardball” interview; and was on the telephone, or the Internet, to sources in Baghdad and Washington, who gave her the scoop on Chalabi’s imminent phoenix-like rise from the ashes in post-election Iraq. All in the midst of the appeal of her sentence for contempt of court in the Valerie Plame case. Not bad, not bad at all.

The strange odyssey of The New York Times, Judith Miller, and Ahmad Chalabi continues.

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