More than any other New York Times reporter,
Judith Miller took the lead with stories claiming that Iraq had weapons of mass
destruction. Now, a few years later, she's facing heightened scrutiny in the
aftermath of a pair of articles that appeared in the Times on Sunday
a lengthy investigative piece about Miller plus her own first-person
account of how she got entangled in the case of the Bush administration's "outing"
of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent.
It now seems that Miller functioned with more accountability to U.S. military
intelligence officials than to New York Times editors. Most of the way
through her article, Miller slipped in this sentence: "During the Iraq
war, the Pentagon had given me clearance to see secret information as part of
my assignment 'embedded' with a special military unit hunting for unconventional
weapons." And, according to the same article, she ultimately told the grand
jury that during a July 8, 2003, meeting with the vice president's chief of
staff, Lewis Libby, "I might have expressed frustration to Mr. Libby that
I was not permitted to discuss with editors some of the more sensitive information
Let's replay that one again in slow motion.
Judith Miller is a reporter for the New York Times. After the invasion,
on assignment to cover a U.S. military unit as it searches for WMD in Iraq,
she's given "clearance" by the Pentagon "to see secret information"
which she "was not permitted to discuss" with Times
There's nothing wrong with this picture if Judith Miller is an intelligence
operative for the U.S. government. But if she's supposed to be a journalist,
this is a preposterous situation and the fact that the New York Times
has tolerated it tells us a lot about that newspaper.
Notably, the front-page story about Miller in the Times on Sunday bypassed
Miller's "clearance" status and merely reported: "In the spring
of 2003, Ms. Miller returned from covering the war in Iraq, where she had been
embedded with an American military team searching unsuccessfully for evidence
of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons."
In effect, during the propaganda buildup for the invasion of Iraq, while Miller
was the paper's lead reporter on weapons of mass destruction, the New York
Times news department served as a key asset of the warfare state.
"WMD I got it totally wrong," the Times quoted Miller
as saying in a Friday interview. "The analysts, the experts, and the journalists
who covered them we were all wrong. If your sources are wrong, you are
But analysts, experts and journalists were not "all wrong." Some
very experienced weapons inspectors including Mohamed ElBaradei, Hans
Blix, and Scott Ritter challenged key assertions from the White House.
Well before the invasion, many other analysts also disputed various aspects
of the U.S. government's claims about WMD in Iraq. (For examples, see archived
news releases put out by my colleagues at the Institute
for Public Accuracy in 2002 and early 2003.) Meanwhile, journalists at some
British newspapers, including the Independent and the Guardian,
raised tough questions that were virtually ignored by mainstream U.S. reporters
in the Washington press corps.
Reporters select sources and the unnamed ones that Miller chose to
rely on, like the Pentagon's pet Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi, were predictably
eager to spin tales about WMD in order to fuel momentum for an invasion. Yet
the official line at the New York Times has been that its news department
was fooled with the rest of the media best.
On May 26, 2004 more than a year after the invasion of Iraq
the Times published a belated semi-mea-culpa article by two top editors,
including executive editor Bill Keller. The piece contended that the Times,
along with policymakers in Washington, were victims rather than perpetrators:
"Administration officials now acknowledge that they sometimes fell for
misinformation from these exile sources. So did many news organizations
in particular, this one."
But the Times did not "fall for misinformation" as much as
jump for it. The newspaper eagerly helped the administration portray deceptions
The carnage set loose by those deceptions is continuing every day. But the
Times' extensive Sunday coverage of its own machinations, with Judith
Miller at the center of the intrigue, had nothing to say about the human consequences
In elite medialand, the careers of journalists at the New York Times
loom large. In contrast, the lives of American soldiers and especially
the lives of Iraqis are more like abstractions while the breathless accounts
of press palace intrigues unfold.
The apex of the Times hierarchy has provided no indication of personal
remorse or institutional accountability. And the next time agenda-setting for
U.S. military action against Iran or Syria or wherever shifts
into high gear, it's very unlikely that the New York Times or other top-tier
U.S. media outlets will present major roadblocks.
On June 14, 2003, shortly before he was promoted to the job of executive editor
at the New York Times, the newspaper published an essay by Bill Keller
that explained why the U.S. government should strive to improve the quality
of its intelligence. "The truth is that the information-gathering machine
designed to guide our leaders in matters of war and peace shows signs of being
corrupted," he wrote. "To my mind, this is a worrisome problem, but
not because it invalidates the war we won. It is a problem because it weakens
us for the wars we still face."