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
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
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
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
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
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
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,"
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."
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.