Pulitzer Prize-Winning Reporter Crosses The NY Times‘ Line of ‘Strict Neutrality’

Now that The New York Times has issued a halfhearted apology for its coverage of WMD issues last year, we thought it might be interesting to look back at what one critic wrote at the time. The following examination of NYT reporter Judith Miller’s questionable ethics first ran on May 7, 2003.

You know it’s boffo journalism when it’s trumpeted by Rush Limbaugh for over nine minutes of airtime as “a big, huge, very important story,” is reprinted from Dayton to Denver, inflames the cable chatterers, generates follow-up stories by Reuters, AP, and Agence France-Presse, gets ripped twice by Jack Shafer in Slate and also lands the reporter on PBS’ NewsHour.

And why not, for Judith Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter and best-selling author whose Times’ front-page article offered the strongest assertion to date regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction? It also offered wildly unsubstantiated claims regarding Iraq’s alleged WMD aid to both Syria and Al-Qaeda. Though thin to effervescent aside from the Times’ imprimatur, the Al-Qaeda claim in Judith Miller’s 4/21/03 article serves to justify the current war and the claim regarding Syria boosts for the (hypothetical) next war.

While Miller’s article has certainly received wide notice, what’s less well known is her formal link to the Middle East Forum, a hawkish, political pressure group that advocates using U.S. military force if necessary to oust Syria from Lebanon.

Followers of the Iraq WMD debate know of the Iraqi “scientist” at the heart of Miller’s article, the man who favors “nondescript clothes and a baseball cap.” Prohibited from interviewing him, Miller based her account entirely on what this individual told U.S. military officers who then – X to Y to Z – told Miller what he’d said. Had it appeared on some fringe web site, the piece might be dismissed as not meeting the smell test, or as at least as being premature.

Said Jonathan B. Tucker, a former U.N. weapons inspector currently on sabbatical from the Monterey Institute of International Studies at the U.S. Institute of Peace, “It’s very vague and not corroborated. I don’t view it as definitive.” Saying the story perhaps should have been held for more evidence, Tucker added, “It’s pretty thin on the evidence.”

But Randy Scheunemann, president of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, said, “Miller is an absolutely veteran reporter who has broken a very important story.”

Miriam Rajkumar, a project associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said it has a “politically potent use for those who want to justify and validate the allegations made before the war regarding Al Qaeda and WMD. Anything that validates that will be pounced on.”

Miller herself appeared on the PBS NewsHour the day after her article appeared and, asked about any proof of WMD, referred immediately to “something more than a smoking gun,” in short: “a silver bullet.” The metaphors proliferated as the proof evaporated.

The article having leapt from The Times’ front page, my dissection of it below will not be the first. Any reading of the piece should perhaps occur in light of Miller’s relationship with the Middle East Forum, run by the controversial Daniel Pipes, who has been in the news of late as a Bush nominee to the congressionally chartered U.S. Institute of Peace. A non-profit, the forum was founded in 1994.

The forum’s website, describing its mission statement, declares that it “seeks to help shape the intellectual climate in which U.S. foreign policy is made.” It also “urges active measures to protect Americans and their allies.” It “believes in strong ties with Israel and Turkey. …” It “strives to weaken the forces of religious radicals; seeks a stable supply and a low price of oil…” Its logo: “Promoting American Interests.”

Pipes has written nearly a dozen books, served in the state and defense departments and been published in numerous national magazines and newspapers. He is also given to inflammatory rhetoric, such as his November 1990 National Review article that discussed the “Muslim influx” with the statement that, “West European societies are unprepared for the massive immigration of brown-skinned peoples cooking strange foods and not exactly maintaining Germanic standards of hygiene.”

And Pipes himself notes that 100 Canadian police, including 10 on horseback, were required to ensure his right to address York University in Toronto this past January. Writing in The National Post, Pipes said he was accompanied by “several bodyguards,” and that the audience was limited to students who “showed identification, then went through a gauntlet of metal-detectors and friskings.”

Pipes and the forum have been a lightning rod for criticism – and steady, right-wing foundation support – for good reason, as a vehicle for overtly influencing U.S. policy. Its website summarizes a November 1999 lecture to the forum by Princeton professor emeritus Bernard Lewis. According to the forum’s summary, Lewis noted that, “Today, America’s interests are Israel and oil.”

In June 2000 testifying before a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Pipes urged Congress “to condemn and repulse the Syrian occupiers” of Lebanon. And Pipes referred to the forum’s May 2000 report advocating military action against Syria, which he noted was signed by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-S.C.).

(Other signers included: Elliott Abrams, former assistant secretary of state; Douglas J. Feith, currently undersecretary of defense for policy; former U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick; Richard Perle; and David Steinmann, a financier and chairman of the board of advisors of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, who is also, according to the Middle East Forum’s 2000 tax return, one of its four chairmen.)

This report presented “several specific policy recommendations … addressed to the Executive Branch and the Congress.” Under the heading, “Tighten the screws,” Pipes and the other signatories advocated freezing all diplomatic and trade relations with Syria, ousting it from “international fora” – which presumably includes the U.N. – and barring Syrian officials and students from the U.S.

Should such measures not induce Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, “Finally, the use of force needs to be considered.” Referring to America’s “undisputed military supremacy” that precludes the “specter of huge [American] casualties,” Pipes et al. pointed to the opportunity “to act for Lebanon’s endangered freedoms and pluralism.” But given the possible spread of WMD, “decisive action” must come “sooner rather than later.”

So, back in 2000, Pipes formally advocated a potential U.S. war on Syria and referenced this published argument in Senate testimony. As to Iraq itself, in August 2002 reacting to an article by Brent Scowcroft urging caution, Pipes and forum research fellow Jonathan Schanzer wrote a FrontPage Magazine article entitled, “Brent Scowcroft is Wrong: We Must Attack Saddam.”

They summarized their thinking neatly: “Saddam Husayn [sic] poses no less of a threat to American and global security than Osama bin Laden, yet for more than a decade, Washington has jockeyed and yammered for the right moment, the right place, the right opportunity to depose him. The time for prevarication has passed. The time to attack is now. Saddam must be overthrown, and soon.”

Even back in December 2001, one of Pipes’s regular New York Post articles (also co-authored by Schanzer) was headlined: “On to Baghdad?: Yes – The Risks Are Overrated.” They wrote of Saddam Hussein’s potential nuclear weapons; probable Turkish aid; that the Iraqi National Congress is “waiting in the wings” to establish a democratic government; Hussein’s supposed role in 9/11 and the possibility that he authored the 2001 anthrax attacks, and so on in high, speculative dudgeon. The article concludes, “Today, with Americans mobilized, is exactly the right moment to dispatch him.”

Pipes’s nomination to the board of the U.S. Institute of Peace – whose ex-officio members include the secretaries of state and defense or their deputies – requires Senate confirmation, and Arab American groups are gearing up to block it. They have an ally in the Washington Post editorial page, which termed it “salt in the wound” to American “Muslims” concerned about government scrutiny. Many Muslims view Pipes’s nomination as “sort of a cruel joke,” the Post wrote, calling for Bush to withdraw it or for Congress to block the nomination.

All in all, the forum is not shy about charting a course for U.S. foreign and defense policy – as is its right. Yet The Times’ Judith Miller is listed among its “List of Experts on Islam, Islamism, and the Middle East.” She is identified as a Times correspondent with two areas of expertise: “Militant Islam, [and] Biological warfare.”

Jane Maestro, the forum’s development director, confirmed Miller’s presence on its list of experts. “She agreed to be on the page since the website’s inception a couple of years ago,” said Maestro. She said anyone inquiring of the forum on some topic – in Miller’s case, “any person needing an expert on biological or chemical weapons,” said Maestro – might be referred to Miller. Sometimes other journalists or groups requesting a speaker are referred to Miller as well. It is unknown if Miller has spoken before any groups steered to her by the forum or accepted any payment from them.

The forum’s donor relations associate, Gil Marder, said that Miller spoke at a 1996 forum “launch party” for her book, God Has Ninety-Nine Names, published by Simon & Schuster. According to a bio of Miller found on a Syracuse University web page, the book “explores the spread of Islamic extremism in ten Middle Eastern countries, including Israel and Iran.”

The forum summarized Miller’s remarks during the launch party, in part, as follows: Islamic militants “have an enmity toward the United States that few Americans fathom. Being cognizant of this enmity, however unpleasant it may be, is essential for devising an effective American policy.” An excerpt from the book appeared in the forum’s Middle East Quarterly.

Forum Director Daniel Pipes said that Miller also appeared in 2001 at a forum event regarding one of her books, speaking at hotel in New York.

Asked whether it was appropriate for a Times reporter to be on his organization’s list of experts – an organization that espouses a very pointed political agenda – Pipes said, “If I didn’t think it appropriate, why would she be on our website?” He added, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He declined to discuss whether Miller received a fee for her appearances. It’s also unknown whether she personally contributed to the expense of the public meeting at the New York hotel in 2001.

Asked twice whether some might view Miller’s association with the forum as perhaps coloring her objectivity reporting on the Middle East, Pipes declined to answer and hung up.

Called back and asked again about any possible taint on Miller’s objectivity, he said, “I’m declining to answer.” He said, “maybe and maybe not,” when asked whether the question had been raised with him before. Asked whether he had ever discussed it with anyone at The Times, he said, “perhaps and perhaps not.”

Pipes added, “All this is none of your business, whether we paid her or not. … Did I call you up and ask about your business?” Asked about his U.S. Institute of Peace nomination, Pipes hung-up a second time.

Neither Times’ Executive Editor Howell Raines nor Foreign Editor Roger Cohen responded to requests for comment regarding Miller and the forum. A Times foreign desk staffer agreed to forward an e-mail with questions on the matter to Miller. Both this e-mailed set of questions and two e-mailed queries sent to an address the forum lists for Miller received no reply. She is currently in Iraq and no attempts were made to reach her there by phone.

Times’ vice president of corporate communications, Catherine Mathis, provided a statement: “Our staff members are free to make guest-speaker appearances of a variety of kinds and there is no indication of any type of staff relationship with the forum.” Mathis refused to address any questions, including any regarding the propriety of Miller being a forum expert or any perceived taint to her objectivity.

The Times’ own ethics guidelines does address the matter, though, in a chapter on “Participation in Public Life.” It states, “Journalists have no place on the playing fields of politics.” This is so as to not “do anything that damages The Times’ reputation for strict neutrality in reporting on politics and government.” Another prohibition says staffers may not “lend their name to campaigns … if doing so might reasonably raise doubts about their ability or The Times’ ability to function as neutral observers in covering the news.”

Whether paid or not, the rules continue, staffers “may not join boards of trustees, advisory committees or similar groups” except those pertaining to journalism. An exception is granted for such organizations as hobby groups, fine arts groups and youth sports – that is, organizations “that do not generally seek to shape public policy.” But shaping public policy, of course, is the forum’s raison d’etre.

Miller wrote a September 2002 review of Pipes’s book, Militant Islam Reaches America: Naming the Evildoers, for the Times Book Review. She offered a balanced critique – by no means a puff-piece. In fact, the blurb Pipes picked from Miller’s review for his site is the rather diffident: “Blunt and passionate.”

Unaware that Miller was on the forum’s expert list, book review editor Charles McGrath said that such panels and boards may be fairly amorphous and insignificant. McGrath added, “I trust our people to tell me whether it’s a problem or not.” Nor did McGrath feel it necessary to indicate to readers that she was a forum expert. “Given what you’ve told me, I’m not wary of this. I trust Judy Miller,” McGrath said.

Bob Steele, director of ethics for the journalism-centered Poynter Institute, said in reference to Miller and the forum, “My question would be, is it a leap of logic that they are ideological soulmates? I would want to ask the reporter why she is on the site … and find out the level of connection.” He added, “It is appropriate and necessary to ask Miller why her name is on that list and what it means to her. It may be meaningful, or it may be a smoking gun that’s a trash-fire with no bullets.”

John O. Voll, a forum critic who is professor of Islamic history at Georgetown University, said that Miller’s listing as a forum expert reflects that she is already established within the “neocon, anti-Islamic position.” Given what Voll termed Miller’s “strong distrust of any activist Islamic movement,” he added, “It comes as no surprise that Dan Pipes thinks of her as a supporter.”

Former Times staffer Alex S. Jones, now director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, declined comment.

Miller also at one point had a professional link to publicist and lecture agent Eleana Benador, who, according to The New York Observer, also once represented the Middle East Forum. In WorkingforChange.com last October, Bill Berkowitz said that Benador was the media contact for Pipes’s May 2000 study that urged a potential U.S. war on Syria. At first Benador denied representing Miller; pressed on the matter, she terminated the call. She subsequently did state that she represented Miller for speaking engagements at one point, but she did not remember when the relationship ended.

Miller’s link to Benador is of interest since, as Benador’s website indicates, she represents the cream of the war-in-Iraq crop of pundits and speakers, including Richard Perle, James Woolsey and Martin Kramer, the editor of the forum’s Middle East Quarterly. Another Benador client, the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Ledeen (he occupies the “Freedom Chair”), distinguished himself by his recent statement to Knight Ridder Newspapers that, “Americans believe that peace is normal, but that’s not true. Life isn’t like that. Peace is abnormal.” In a recent National Review Online article, Ledeen wrote that Bush “must insist that we take the battle to the terror masters [in Iran and Syria], extend freedom throughout the region, and thereby win the war.”

Miller’s affiliation with Pipes’s forum aside, her article Monday, whether evocative of any personal convictions on her part or just the result of a very competitive professional environment, raised more questions than it answered. She based her report on an Iraqi scientist who has provided information on “precursors” to chemical weapons to a U.S. military inspection team that Miller travels with. She’s seen him from afar, a man in “a baseball cap” pointing to the ground where he is said to have buried evidence. And though he is said to have “firsthand information” only about his portion of the “highly compartmented” Iraqi weapons program, Miller also reported that he has also given the U.S. “information about Iraqi weapons cooperation with Syria, and with terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda. It was not clear how the scientist knew of such a connection.” [Emphasis added.]

Or rather, it’s not clear how this man – who is seeking American protection and so has every reason to pump up his information – said he knew of any connection to Syria and Al Qaeda. The story’s third paragraph discusses the alleged Syrian and Al Qaeda connection. This is the sort of assertion that demands immediate support and explanation. But there’s no ‘there’ there. That is, the matter is then dropped until a single, stark reiteration just before the article’s end. This unidentified man said it, and so let it fester in the political consciousness, courtesy of The Times.

Soon it will take on the patina of fact – why, it was in The Times! Randy Scheunemann, of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, said Miller “raised the Al Qaeda link from a credible source that has not been disproven.”

But, said WMD expert Jonathan Tucker regarding the Syrian and Al Qaeda allegations, “It’s a little too neat – all that wrapped up in one package, a lot of Bush allegations that they haven’t been able to prove.”

The Carnegie Endowment’s Miriam Rajkumar stated that Syria does have chemical weapons. As to Iraq allegedly providing WMD aid to Syria and Al Qaeda, “It’s just one person – it’s not much to go on … We need to see more evidence. Who is this person, after all?” She added that the Arab world is very skeptical of U.S. credibility and will view this item as “a plant to get Syria.”

As others have noted – as indeed leaps off the page – Miller’s information is all filtered through the U.S. military, since she never interviewed the scientist and was allowed to glimpse him only from afar. What’s more, Miller sat on the story for three days; it was subject to U.S. military censorship; and the military insisted that the chemicals not be identified.

Both the scientist’s anonymity and even the hidden information about the chemicals is said to arise out of fear for his safety. But if he’s the smoking gun, verily, the very “silver bullet” to the WMD-justification for the invasion of Iraq, he’s looking at providing public “testimony” before Congress or at least a hungry press corps and then sitting by the barbecue somewhere in the States – or anywhere he wants – with his family under an assumed name.

A curious tale indeed that exploded around the globe. Scheunemann said it “dominated the cable channels and radio and it’s still lingering.” And Tucker said discussion of the article circulated on a dozen professional list-serves.

Tucker added, “Most educated readers will take Miller’s article with a few grains of salt – with the unnamed scientist and the censorship – it’s clear it’s not the whole story.” Perhaps. But then there’s the rest of us.

Rush Limbaugh fulminated at length on his broadcast and wrote on his website, “If this appeared anywhere but the sainted New York Times, many liberals would be out there pooh-poohing it. Since it appears there, what are they going to say?” Regarding the claim of Iraq cooperating with Al Qaeda, which Limbaugh italicized on his site, “This kind of wraps it all up, doesn’t it.”

Several foreign and domestic newspapers ran the story under Miller’s byline. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s headline was: “Scientist Says Iraq Retained Illicit Weapons.” But it’s the unadorned subhead that really grabs: “Outlawed Arsenals Destroyed before War.” The Rocky Mountain News ran a shortened version –all nuance excised – with the headline: “Illegal Material Spotted,” and the subhead: “Iraqi Scientist Leads U.S. Team to Illicit Weapons Locations.”

Compression also graced Mickey Kaus’ column in Slate, where he discussed “the big Iraqi WMD/Al Qaeda scoop (which, incidentally, reconfirms [Kaus’] eerie prescience that Saddam would destroy his weapons, not use them).” There you have it: a man in a baseball cap who told some soldiers who told Miller – all leading to “reconfirmation” of Kaus’ insight about the WMD he now declares extant. On to Damascus.