Reassessing Judith Miller.

Media criticism.
May 29 2003 7:11 PM

Reassessing Miller

U.S. intelligence on Iraq's WMD deserves a second look. So does the reporting of the New York Times' Judith Miller.

Miller redux
Miller redux

The lead editorial in Monday's New York Times applauds the news reported in the Times' own pages that the CIA is reassessing the prewar intelligence about Iraqi's unconventional weapons programs collected by the CIA, the National Intelligence Council, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and other agencies. The editorial reads:

The failure so far to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the prime justification for an immediate invasion, or definitive links between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda has raised serious questions about the quality of American intelligence and even dark [sic] hints that the data may have been manipulated to support a pre-emptive war. [Emphasis added.]

If the government must re-examine whether data may have been "manipulated" to support the war, surely the New York Times should conduct a similar postwar inventory of its primary WMD reporter, Judith Miller. In the months running up to the war, Miller painted as grave a picture of Iraq's WMD potential as any U.S. intelligence agency, a take that often directly mirrored the Bush administration's view.

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Now, thanks to the reporting of the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, we understand why Miller and the administration might have seen eye-to-eye on Iraq's WMD. On the same day as the Times editorial appeared, Kurtz reproduced an internal Times e-mail in which Miller described Ahmad Chalabi, the controversial Iraq leader, former exile, and Bush administration fave, as one of her main sources on WMD.

"[Chalabi] has provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper," Miller e-mailed Times Baghdad bureau chief John Burns. Miller added that the MET Alpha—a military outfit searching for WMD after the invasion—"is using Chalabi's intell and document network for its own WMD work."

The failure of "Chalabi's intell" to uncover any WMD has embarrassed both the United States and Miller. As noted previously in this column, she oversold the successes of the post-invasion WMD search. On April 21, she reported in the Times that an Iraqi scientist had led MET Alpha to a site where Iraqis had buried chemical precursors for chemical and biological weapons. "Officials" told Miller this was "the most important discovery to date in the hunt for illegal weapons."

On April 22, Miller told The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer the military regarded the scientist as much more than "a smoking gun" in the WMD investigation—he was "a silver bullet." For all of Miller's fist-pumping on behalf of MET Alpha, none of her spectacular findings have been confirmed by other newspapers. (The Washington Post's Barton Gellman did an especially good job of poking holes in Miller's scoop.) The Times has never returned to the MET Alpha "burial grounds" to defend her heavily hyped "silver bullet" account. (See this "Press Box" for a chronology of Miller's reporting from Iraq.)

Did Miller get taken by sources with an agenda, or did she promote their suspect data for her own ideological reasons? Her Iraq coverage has always relied heavily on Iraqi defectors.

To Miller's credit, she often qualifies her defector stories by noting that the CIA doesn't buy what they're selling. In piece after piece, she notes that the agency suspects they invent or embellish their tales to increase chances of winning asylum. But her caveats are usually followed by a passage about how the Pentagon embraces the very defectors the CIA spurns. In Miller's Jan. 24, 2003, story, "Defectors Bolster U.S. Case Against Iraq, Officials Say," neocon hawk and Defense Policy Board member Richard Perle attacks the CIA for its hostility to defectors smuggled out of Iraq by Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress. The CIA, Perle said, had refused to interview the defectors and had undermined their testimony. "But ultimately, the flow of information was so vital and so overwhelming that they could no longer ignore it," Perle says in the piece.

One of the named defectors in Miller's Jan. 24 story, Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, a civil engineer, told officials that chem/bio weapons labs could be found beneath hospitals and inside presidential palaces. Haideri first aired his allegations to Miller for a Dec. 20, 2001, story. (According to Miller's story, Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress arranged the interview.) No such laboratories have been found, and Miller's original report looks wrong.

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