Controversial WMD Reporter and NY Times Divorce

Was she an innocent dupe who was played mercilessly by exile chieftain Ahmed Chalabi and his neoconservative and Pentagon backers who led the march to war with Iraq in March 2003?

Or was she a co-conspirator in what former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson called a "cabal" that hijacked U.S. foreign policy in order to transform the Middle East, beginning with invasion of Iraq?

Now that the New York Times and its one-time star weapons of mass destruction (WMD) investigative reporter, Judith Miller, have formally divorced over what appear to be irreconcilable differences and the threat of a staff insurrection if her byline should ever appear on the pages of the "Gray Lady" again, that question still hovers over an affair whose lessons will be studied in media, journalism, and political communications classes for decades.

Miller, who only six weeks ago was released from jail, where she had been held for 85 days for refusing to testify in a case involving the "outing" of covert Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer Valerie Plame, promised in a "Farewell" printed on the Times‘ Letters page Thursday to continue speaking out in her own defense at her Web site –

She had chosen to resign, she wrote, "because over the last few months, I have become the news, something a New York Times reporter never wants to be."

For its part, the Times published a news article reporting that both sides had reached a severance agreement, details of which were not disclosed.

And while the executive editor, Bill Keller, and publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. – whose perceived protection of Miller is widely blamed for the reluctance of her editors to rein her in over much of the past decade – issued the appropriate eulogies over her past award-winning work, the article also cited a Times spokeswoman as saying, "it had been made clear to Ms. Miller that she would not be able to continue as a reporter of any kind, not just one covering national security."

Indeed, that result was presaged two and a half weeks ago when the Times‘ public editor, Byron Calame, concluded an article entitled "The Miller Mess" with the observation that "the problems will make it difficult for her to return to the paper as a reporter." A similar point was made in the same Sunday edition by columnist Maureen Dowd in a withering critique entitled "Woman of Mass Destruction."

Miller, of course, was sole or co-author of five of the six big stories about Iraq’s alleged WMD programs published by the Times between late 2001 and early 2003. They were subsequently repudiated in a stunning "Editor’s Note" published in May 2004, which most observers interpreted as an oblique apology for having unwittingly contributed to the George W. Bush administration’s efforts to rally the public behind war with Iraq.

Two front-page stories, both with Miller’s byline, were particularly sensational. One, published Dec. 20, 2001, was based on an exclusive interview in Thailand with a self-described Iraqi civil engineer, Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri. He described renovations of secret facilities for biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons in underground labs located across the country in private villas and even under the Saddam Hussein Hospital in Baghdad.

The second, published on Sept. 7, 2002, coincided precisely (or was precisely timed) with the launch of a White House-orchestrated drive to persuade the public that it faced a serious nuclear threat from Iraq which had "intensifie[d]" its efforts to obtain a bomb.

The article, which was co-authored by Michael Gordon, described U.S. intelligence reports that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy thousands of "specially designed aluminum tubes" whose only use, according to U.S. officials, was for building centrifuges to enrich uranium. The report also cited new defectors who spoke of an expanding chemical weapons program, including the deployment of mobile units.

Other reports would follow, all based either on assertions by alleged defectors or unidentified U.S. officials, and all feeding the notion that Iraq was indeed making rapid progress on acquiring and deploying WMD.

Immediately after the invasion, Miller was even embedded with a special secret Pentagon unit, called Mobile Exploitation Team (MET) Alpha, whose assignment was to scour Iraq in search of the WMD facilities that she had written about. Despite its failure to find anything, Miller’s breathless reportage repeatedly suggested imminent success.

Miller’s reporting had common elements. Her "defectors" were invariably supplied via the Iraqi National Congress (INC) of Ahmed Chalabi, who is currently visiting Washington as Iraq’s deputy premier.

And her unnamed government sources, to the extent the reader could ascertain their affiliation, almost never came from the CIA or the State Department, the two bureaucracies long considered "enemies" by neoconservatives, whose experts were most skeptical of claims about Iraq’s nuclear program.

"If your sources are wrong," she later explained, "you are wrong." But that begged the question of why she did not consult dissenting sources of which there were many. As Dowd noted wryly, "[I]nvestigative reporting is not stenography."

Indeed, based on what is now known, in part due to the Plame case and the resulting perjury and obstruction of justice indictments of Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, it appears that Miller had fallen in with or confined her sourcing to Chalabi’s INC.

She also relied on its staunch supporters at the American Enterprise Institute and the Defense Policy Board, and the tight group of neoconservatives and aggressive hawks in the Pentagon and Cheney’s office who promoted it.

This network clearly developed its own "intelligence" and sent it from the INC to two special intelligence units set up under then-Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith to Cheney’s office to the White House. It used the Times, and its reputation for authoritativeness, via Miller, to place "facts" in the public and media spotlight that would never have stood the light of day had they been fully vetted by professional analysts.

Indeed, Miller bragged about her close and decade-long relationship with Chalabi in an e-mail message to her editors obtained by The Washington Post. During her controversial "embed" with MET-Alpha, she also repeatedly "intimidated" soldiers by threatening to complain directly to Feith or Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld himself.

In one case, the Post reported that she arranged the surrender to the unit of a scientist who had been held by the INC. And in an echo of her reputation for "sharp elbows" and defiance of editors in her 28-year Times career – she happily adopted the name "Miss Run Amok" in the newsroom – she turned the unit into the "Judith Miller team," a "rogue operation" working in close cooperation with Chalabi, according to an officers quoted by the Post.

Similarly, her "entanglement" with Libby, as Keller once put it, suggested that she was particularly close to the hawks and seen by them as a reliable conduit to the media. Libby told Miller about Plame’s identity two weeks before he told any other reporter. Although she never wrote about the case, she promised that the information he provided would be attributed to a "former Hill staffer" – an attribution so misleading that most media watchdogs have called it unethical.

The question remains, however, whether she was duped or whether she was a knowing co-conspirator. Miller herself insists that she is not a "neoconservative" but holds generally "centrist" views on the Middle East where she served for a number of years.

In her defense, one highly regarded expert, University of Michigan Middle East historian Juan Cole, has noted that her reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – a litmus test for the strongly pro-Likud neoconservatives – has been relatively balanced by U.S. media standards.

In addition, her eventual testimony in the Plame case was particularly damaging to Libby and probably sealed his indictment, as well as still growing calls for a wider investigation of what critics see as the "cabal" that brought the country to war in Iraq.

On the other hand, Miller’s previous associations with the staunchly neoconservative and harshly anti-Arab Middle East Forum (MEF), as well as her brief listing with Benador & Associates, a publicity firm whose clients consisted exclusively of prominent neoconservatives at the time, suggest a stronger ideological commitment.

And her failure to seek out sources beyond those being provided by the INC, the Pentagon and Cheney’s office also no doubt speaks a certain confidence and likemindedness. In any event, this should have been – but wasn’t – countered if not by a healthy curiosity and skepticism, than by strong editorial intervention that the Times clearly failed to provide.

It is most likely, as noted in an insightful and not unsympathetic profile in the Post‘s Style section Thursday, that Miller may have been some combination of credulous and willing, particularly given long-held fears of Saddam Hussein.

Her experiences reporting in Iraq dating back to the 1980’s, including her having allegedly been told that she was on a "very short list of writers who are considered the regime’s ‘eternal enemies,’" "made me fearful of Saddam Hussein," she told the Post.

Such a highly subjective state of mind would account for Miller’s conviction that what she had been told by Chalabi and government officials like Libby was the actual truth, as Walter Lippmann, the most influential newspaperman of the 20th century, wrote about the "disast[rous]" reporting by the Times about the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and its reliance on exile sources and government officials between 1917 and 1920.

"In the large, the news about Russia is a case of seeing not what was, but what men wished to see. … [T]he chief censor and chief propagandist were hope and fear in the minds of reporters and editors." Such subjective reasons led to "boundless credulity and an untiring readiness to be gulled."

That was nearly 100 years ago.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.