The Times scoop that melted.

Media criticism.
July 25 2003 6:49 PM

The Times Scoops That Melted

Cataloging the wretched reporting of Judith Miller.

If reporters who live by their sources were obliged to die by their sources, New York Times reporter Judith Miller would be stinking up her family tomb right now. In the 18-month run-up to the war on Iraq, Miller grew incredibly close to numerous Iraqi sources, both named and anonymous, who gave her detailed interviews about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. Yet 100 days after the fall of Baghdad, none of the sensational allegations about chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons given to Miller have panned out, despite the furious crisscrossing of Iraq by U.S. weapons hunters.

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In a Page One Times piece this week ("A Chronicle of Confusion in the Hunt for Hussein's Weapons," July 20), Miller acknowledges that "whether Saddam possessed such weapons when the war began remains unknown." But from there, she serially blames the failure of U.S. forces to uncover weapons of mass destruction on "chaos," "disorganization," "interagency feuds," "flawed intelligence," "looting," and "shortages of everything from gasoline to soap." Alternatively, she writes, maybe the wrong people were in charge of the search; perhaps a greater emphasis should have been placed on acquiring human sources rather than searching sites; and it could be that the military botched the op by not investing the WMD searchers with the power to reward cooperating Iraqi scientists financially or grant them amnesty.

Judith Miller finds everybody associated with the failed search theoretically culpable except Judith Miller. This rings peculiar because Miller, more than any other reporter, showcased the WMD speculations and intelligence findings by the Bush administration and the Iraqi defector/dissidents. Our WMD expectations, such as they were, grew largely out of Miller's stories.

To be sure, Miller never asserted that Iraq had an illegal WMD program or a stockpile of banned weapons. Far from it: Every time she writes about WMDs, she always constructs a semantic trapdoor allowing her to pop out the other side and proclaim, It's the sources talking, not me! But thanks to the reporting of the  Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, we now know Miller was a true believer who grew fat on WMD tips from her sources inside Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress organization, and that once in-country she threw a bit and saddle on the WMD detectives and rode them like Julie Krone from one end of Iraq to the other to investigate those tips.

That none of the official tips or the ones provided by Miller revealed WMDs indicates that 1) the Iraqis perfectly expunged every site Miller ever mentioned in her reporting prior to the U.S. invasion; or 2) her sources were full of bunk. Either way, if Miller got taken by her coveted sources, so did the reading public, and the Times owes its readers a review of Miller's many credulous pieces. Thanks to the power of the Nexis Wayback Machine, we can give the Times a few tips on which Miller stories need revision, redaction, or retraction.

The Renovator, Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri
The Back Story: Climbing aboard the Wayback Machine, we first touch down on the Dec. 20, 2001, piece by Miller, "Iraqi Tells of Renovations at Sites For Chemical and Nuclear Arms." The Iraqi National Congress arranges for Miller to meet defector Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, a civil engineer whose information seems reliable and significant to the U.S. government, Miller writes.

Saeed claims "to have done repair or construction work in facilities that were connected with all three classes of unconventional weapons—nuclear, chemical, and biological programs" and "personally visited at least 20 different sites that he believed to have been associated with Iraq's chemical or biological weapons programs, based on the characteristics of the rooms or storage areas and what he had been told about them during his work. Among them were what he described as the 'clean room' of a biological facility in 1998 in a residential area known as Al Qrayat."

Many redundant sites were also built, Saeed told Miller, including "duplicate nuclear facilities." Lead-lined storage containers exist under farms around Baghdad, and he tells Miller he worked on 20 such installations.

Miller Caveats: "There was no means to independently verify Mr. Saeed's allegations," and the government is always suspicious of defectors' claims.

Suggested Remedial Action: Saeed tells Miller he would return to Iraq "tomorrow" if Saddam were gone. As soon as we snuff Saddam, the Times should send Saeed to Iraq, where he can lead them on a tour of the 20 sites and 20 installations.

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