Follow That Story: Deep Miller

Media criticism.
April 23 2003 6:52 PM

Follow That Story: Deep Miller

Is the New York Times breaking the news—or flacking for the military?

The Times' Judith Miller channels her military sources
The Times' Judith Miller channels her military sources

On Monday, Press Box fastballed a couple of bricks at New York Times reporter Judith Miller for the rococo—and somewhat creepy—sourcing behind her Page One scoop about the search for unconventional weapons ("Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said To Assert," April 21).

The story chronicles the exploits of Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha—a U.S. military team searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—and a scientist who alleges that he worked on Iraqi chemical weapons programs. The scientist, say Miller's military sources, led them to chemical precursors used to manufacture biological and chemical weapons. This scientist claims that Iraq destroyed unconventional weapons and equipment before the war and sent other "unconventional weapons and technology to Syria." He also maintains that in the years before the war, Iraq had shifted its R & D to making illegal weapons that can't be detected easily.

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Quite a story. But Miller provides no independent confirmation for any of her blockbuster findings, though she described her news as "the most important discovery to date in the hunt for illegal weapons." Furthermore, the deal she made with her sources prevented her from interviewing the scientist or even visiting his home. Her military handlers asked that she not identify the scientist or name the uncovered chemicals, that she hold her story for three days, and that she let the military check it prior to publication.

Miller's passive wording—"the copy was then submitted for a check by military officials"—obscures whether the military required her to submit it or if she volunteered. But according to New York Observer reporter Sridhar Pappu, the Times' decision to accept military censorship has caused an internal uproar at the paper. Pappu writes, "One source insidethe Times called it a 'wacky-assed piece,' adding that there were 'real questions about it and why it was on page 1.' "

The facts in Miller's Monday story appear to have flowed directly from the mouths of her MET Alpha military sources. Her copy reads more like a government press release than a news story—all the more so since MET Alpha tied Miller up one side and down the other with elaborate sourcing rules and limited her ability to independently confirm the facts. The MET Alpha team's one concession: They allowed her to view the scientist, dressed in "nondescript clothes and a baseball cap … point[ing] to several spots in the sand." Gee thanks, guys!

On Tuesday, the day after the big story, Miller discussed it on The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. Miller attempted to advance her own story with new, salacious allegations, but she didn't add any sorely needed independent verification to her account. And her language indicated that she knows—or thinks she knows—more than the Times allowed her to write.

On the NewsHour, the singular "scientist" described in the Times story becomes "scientists" plural, indicating either that a) MET Alpha has more than one scientist/informant or b) she was mistranscribed twice. The transcript reads as follows:

[The Bush administration has] changed the political environment, and they've enabled people like the scientists that MET Alpha has found to come forth. …

But those stockpiles that we've heard about, well, those have either been destroyed by Saddam Hussein, according to the scientists, or they have been shipped to Syria for safekeeping. [Emphasis added]

Miller calls the mystery scientist a "silver bullet" who has "led MET Team Alpha people to some pretty startling conclusions that have kind of challenged the American intelligence community's under ... previous understanding of, you know, what we thought the Iraqis were doing."

The "previous understanding" was that investigators would find "stockpiles" of WMD in Iraq. The new understanding is that Saddam Hussein destroyed all the weapons of mass destruction, right up to the date of the invasion, or shipped them to Syria. All that remains in Iraq today are the chemicals and means to fabricate WMD, surmise the MET Alpha boys. Miller let loose with another disclosure not included in her Times piece. She states:

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