AJR  Features
From AJR,   August/September 2003

Miller Brouhaha   

The New York Times' Judith Miller has been pummelled unmercifully for her reporting on the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But coverage of this murky subject has hardly been the finest hour for the news media in general.

By Charles Layton
Charles Layton (charlesmary@hotmail.com) is a former editor and reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a former AJR senior contributing writer.     

As the war in Iraq has turned into a grueling occupation, the question of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction persists. To investigate that question, there would seem to be no better-qualified reporter on Earth than Judith Miller of the New York Times.

Miller is a genuine expert on weapons of mass destruction or, in Washington parlance, WMD. She has written important books about Saddam Hussein and about germ warfare, and she shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for stories about al Qaeda. She has been a Times foreign correspondent based in Cairo, has traveled extensively on assignments, has covered the United Nations' WMD inspection program, and has experience covering the federal government dating back to the 1970s, when she was Washington bureau chief for The Progressive magazine.

But with the possible exception of Geraldo Rivera, Miller has become the most-criticized journalist of the war. The New Republic accused her of having "painted a grave picture of Saddam's WMD capabilities--a picture that has, so far, not been borne out." She has been charged with "compromised reporting" in the pages of Editor & Publisher. Slate has called her a purveyor of "misinformation." A Washington Post writer has questioned the reliability of her sources.

And Russ Baker, writing in the June 23 issue of The Nation went so far as to compare her to Jayson Blair, the Times staffer who resigned when his dishonest reporting practices came to light (see "All About the Retrospect," June/July). "In Blair's case," Baker wrote, "the only serious damage has been to the paper's image. Miller, on the other hand, risks playing with the kind of fire that starts or justifies wars, gets people killed and plays into the hands of government officials with partisan axes to grind."

It is hard to think of any other reporter of Miller's stature being so barraged with criticism by fellow journalists. She herself is hard put to explain it, and more than a little angry.

In an interview with AJR, she insistently defended every aspect of her reporting, saying again and again how proud she is of her exclusive stories. What she remembers is how hard it was to talk her way inside a highly secret unit of weapons hunters, and then to bivouac with those troops in the Iraqi desert, sandstorms blowing, wild dogs howling, sometimes exposed to the elements without rain gear or sleeping gear, with little more than the personal effects she had crammed into her "little blue backpack from the Gap." Plus, she says, someone sat on her computer and broke it.

After overcoming all that--and after having to fight repeatedly with a commanding officer who didn't want her there in the first place, "because he was not comfortable with my access to the information"--it galls her to be attacked by fellow journalists. "I think we beat everybody in the field," she says, referring to her competition, "and what we're getting now is a lot of sour grapes."

Miller's reporting began to stir resentment last September, when she and fellow Times reporter Michael R. Gordon wrote that the Bush administration believed Iraq had "stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons" and "embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb." They wrote that Iraq had tried to import thousands of aluminum tubes, which U.S. officials believed "were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium."

This story appeared at a time when the Bush administration was struggling to convince Congress, the American public and the world that Saddam had huge stockpiles of unconventional weapons and was quickly rebuilding a nuclear program that had been dismantled after the Persian Gulf War.

These claims stirred the suspicions of some reporters. John Diamond, who had just begun a new intelligence beat at USA Today, says he had "started to notice that policymakers were saying as a flat statement that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction." Since he could find no proof of that on the record, he began asking around. "I assumed they had something secret that backed up those statements," he says. When he found out they didn't, it surprised him.

Bob Simon of CBS News says he had a similar experience last summer. He was working on a story for "60 Minutes" about the planning and execution of the 9/11 plot, and in talking to administration officials, he kept hearing about a meeting that supposedly took place in Prague between an official of Saddam's government and Mohamed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 attacks.

"We looked very carefully at the administration's claims of a link between al Qaeda and Saddam," Simon says. "Particularly the Prague meeting. We ended up finding a lot of people very dubious that it ever happened. And yet, the administration was really harping on it. Even though the administration never produced a shred of evidence."

Knowledgeable members of Congress also noticed a difference between what the intelligence showed and what the administration was claiming. Then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Majority Leader Dick Armey warned publicly against an unprovoked attack on Iraq. Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the CIA had "absolutely no evidence" to prove Iraq possessed or would soon possess nuclear weapons, as the administration claimed. And so, in early September, the administration set out to silence the doubters.

On September 8, the Miller/Gordon story about the aluminum tubes appeared on page one of the New York Times. The information was attributed to unnamed administration sources. That same morning, Vice President Dick Cheney was interviewed by Tim Russert on NBC's "Meet the Press." Cheney mentioned, vaguely at first, Saddam's efforts "to acquire the equipment he needs to be able to enrich uranium to make the bombs." Russert, familiar with the Times story, prompted his guest: "Aluminum tubes."

Cheney replied: "Specifically aluminum tubes. There's a story in the New York Times this morning--this is--I don't--and I want to attribute the Times. I don't want to talk about, obviously, specific intelligence sources, but it's now public that, in fact, he has been seeking to acquire...the kind of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge."

When Bob Simon heard about this interview, he told me, he smelled a rat. "You leak a story to the New York Times," he says, "and the New York Times prints it, and then you go on the Sunday shows quoting the New York Times and corroborating your own information. You've got to hand it to them. That takes, as we say here in New York, chutzpah."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice were also on the Sunday shows that morning, talking about the nuclear threat and Iraq's purported ties to terrorist groups like al Qaeda. Bob Drogin, who covers intelligence and national security for the Los Angeles Times, says he considered the aluminum tubes piece questionable. But that wasn't the dominant view. In a short news report about the tubes that morning on NBC's "Sunday Today," White House reporter Norah O'Donnell called it an "alarming disclosure." The following day, NBC's Andrea Mitchell, dispensing with attribution altogether, stated that U.S. intelligence had "blocked several shipments of aluminum tubes heading toward Iraq, the kind of tubes only used in a centrifuge to make nuclear fuel."

CBS also ran a piece that day on "The Early Show," raising the possibility that Iraq might go nuclear within months. However, that piece included an interview with a former U.N. weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, who said it was "ridiculous" to claim the tubes were evidence of a nuclear program. "That tubing has to go into a factory. That factory needs to be operational," he said. "And if it's operational, it would be detected. So rather than talk about the tubes, let's talk about the factory. Where is the factory?"

That seems to have been the first news report to question the significance of the tubes. But doubts were raised in various quarters throughout the following week, and on Friday, September 13, Miller and Gordon published a follow-up story that included some of those doubts. It quoted senior officials as saying the doubters were a minority within the intelligence community.

The tubes continued to be featured in speeches by President Bush and others, and in newspaper and broadcast reports. Indeed, they became the key piece of evidence cited as proof that Saddam was pursuing nuclear weapons. On December 8, Simon reported on "60 Minutes" that the aluminum tubes story was being challenged. He quoted British intelligence officials and David Albright, a weapons inspector in Iraq for the U.N. in the 1990s. Albright said, "People who understood gas centrifuges almost uniformly felt that these tubes were not specific to gas centrifuge use."

Simon said to Albright: "It seems that what you're suggesting is that the administration's leak to the New York Times, regarding aluminum tubes, was misleading?"

Albright: "Oh, I think it was. I think--I think it was very misleading." Later, author and publisher John MacArthur made the same point in a television interview with PBS' Bill Moyers. "The White House leaks a story to a willing recipient, Judith Miller of the New York Times," MacArthur said, "saying that the Iraqis are acquiring aluminum tubes that are destined for a nuclear weapons program.... They put everybody on the talk shows saying, 'Aluminum tubes, aluminum tubes.' We're heading towards a nuclear Armageddon because of the aluminum tubes. Now, it took, again, two, three months for this story to be refuted."

In truth, the story has not exactly been refuted, although it is now much in doubt. In January, a United Nations report said that the tubes were probably intended for use in rockets, not for nuclear weapons production. More recently, Newsweek reported that Iraq's effort to buy the tubes had been no big secret; the purchase order was posted on the Internet. Greg Thielmann, who retired last year as head of the State Department's Office of Strategic Proliferation and Military Affairs, has said he was angered to hear the administration's public claims about the tubes, because "the most knowledgeable experts in the U.S. government believed that this was not the kind of aluminum that the Iraqis would have been seeking to use in centrifuges for uranium enrichment."

While the administration has not backed off its claims, Barton Gellman, who has followed the issue for the Washington Post, says he thinks it unlikely that the tubes were intended for uranium enrichment. Drogin of the L.A. Times says that he, too, very much doubts it.

Judith Miller says that in her opinion that question remains unresolved. What she does dispute is the accusation that she was the passive recipient of an administration leak. "It took a good long time to get that story," she says. "We were the first ones to have it. When it's to the New York Times, it's a leak; when other papers get it, it's dogged reporting."

A number of Miller's stories, although they strongly hinted at some kind of chemical-weapon activity in Iraq, had less impact. For instance, she wrote in November that Iraq had tried to import large amounts of atropine, a drug that can be used as a nerve gas antidote. And she wrote in December that the CIA was investigating a report that Iraq had obtained "a particularly virulent strain of smallpox from a Russian scientist." Neither of these stories has since been verified, nor has the Times done any follow-up.

In the weeks leading up to the war, Miller pulled off a journalistic coup that took her competitors by surprise. She talked her way into getting a secret clearance from the Pentagon and then being embedded with the 75th Exploitation Task Force in Iraq, whose teams were specially trained and equipped to look for germ, chemical and nuclear-related materials. In March, when Bob Drogin of the Los Angeles Times began seeing Miller's stories about the activities of this special unit, he realized that "she was in a great position to get the initial confirmation in the field" when Saddam's weapons of mass destruction were found, as everyone assumed they would be.

But the weapons weren't found. The specialized teams were crisscrossing the desert, checking out sites on a list provided by the Pentagon, and coming up empty.

This raised urgent questions back in Washington. How could U.S. intelligence have been so wrong? Did the president take the country to war under false pretenses, or as Times columnist Thomas Friedman put it, "on the wings of a lie"?

On April 21, Miller published a story that seemed to get Bush off the hook, at least partially. Of all her stories, this one has drawn the fiercest criticism. She was traveling at the time with a unit called Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha. She wrote that an Iraqi scientist (not named but said to be wearing "nondescript clothes and a baseball cap") had told MET Alpha that Iraq destroyed its chemical and biological warfare agents "only days before the war began."

According to Miller's story, MET Alpha members said this scientist had led them "to a supply of material that proved to be the building blocks of illegal weapons, which he claimed to have buried." The material was further described as "precursors for a toxic agent" used in chemical weapons.

The Americans, Miller wrote, considered this "the most important discovery to date in the hunt for illegal weapons." She said it "supports the Bush administration's charges that Iraq continued to develop those weapons" just prior to the war. She also wrote that the man in the baseball cap had said Iraq secretly sneaked some of its unconventional weapons and technology into Syria--a frightening scenario if true. And further, that Iraq had been cooperating with al Qaeda.

On the day this exclusive story ran, Fox News interviewed Miller, and the following day she was interviewed by Ray Suarez on PBS' "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer."

"Has the unit you've been traveling with found any proof of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?" Suarez asked. "Well, I think they found something more than a smoking gun," Miller said. "What they've found is...a silver bullet in the form of a person, an Iraqi individual, a scientist, as we've called him, who really worked on the programs, who knows them firsthand, and who has led MET Alpha people to some pretty startling conclusions."

The sought-after weapons of mass destruction probably will never be found now, Miller explained, because they weren't there anymore. All that was left, cleverly hidden away, were these so-called "building blocks," these "precursors," ready to be assembled on short notice.

This story was cited repeatedly on television by supporters of the war. "It was a pretty important story today in the New York Times by Judith Miller," William Bennett, the conservative author, remarked to Fox's Sean Hannity.

As part of his own argument in justification of the war, another Fox personality, Bill O'Reilly, said that "reporter Judith Miller of the New York Times does believe the weapons are there. She spelled out the weapons yesterday." As O'Reilly's comment shows, TV often has a way of stripping out the subtler elements of a serious story, such as attribution and qualification. Sometimes, on television, Miller's single scientist would multiply into "scientists."

According to program transcripts obtained through Lexis-Nexis:
Reporter Bret Baier said: "In an interview with Fox today, Miller talked about the importance of the information the scientists provided."
Paul Leventhal of the Nuclear Control Institute, speaking on MSNBC, said: "...the scientists told the New York Times that they had buried the chemical weapons...."

The story lived on for many weeks on cable TV, sometimes grossly exaggerated.

Former CIA Director James Woolsey, an administration adviser (he sits on the Defense Policy Board) and early advocate of war with Iraq, was still citing Miller's piece as recently as June 9. But in Woolsey's retelling, on CNNfn's "Lou Dobbs Moneyline," the scientist in question had said "he was ordered to destroy substantial shares of nerve gas." Miller's undefined "precursors for a toxic agent" had turned into "nerve gas." The interviewer, Dobbs, failed to correct Woolsey on this.

Meanwhile, other reporters in Iraq were not corroborating Miller's story. In fact, during April and May, they seemed to be contradicting it. The Washington Post's Barton Gellman published articles describing the frustration of various weapons-hunting teams as all of their hot leads turned cold. On one occasion, he wrote, a team had confiscated an unidentified powder (possibly anthrax?) along with a suspicious-looking document, handwritten in Arabic. But the powder turned out, after testing, to be harmless, and the document turned out to be some kid's high school science project.

Gellman described how a team of weapons hunters, hot after a "chemical vault" that was said to be buried at a middle school for girls, dug up and destroyed the poor girls' playground but found no weapons. Another time, investigators laid bare a swimming pool in search of underground chemicals that weren't there. Most memorably, Gellman described how a search team, following an intelligence lead, pulled up to a low stucco building in their Humvees, smashed padlocks and deadbolts, checked for booby traps, felt their way from room to room by flashlight and down "a murky stone passage, smelling of mold" where they carefully opened a creaking steel door to discover...a room full of vacuum cleaners.

On May 12, Dafna Linzer of the Associated Press reported from Kuwait that the weapons hunters were "empty-handed after seven weeks of field work." Deeper in the piece she made reference to Miller's scientist and to the site he had shown the weapons hunters. "But," Linzer wrote, "the site yielded no conclusive evidence and much of the scientist's claims have not been verified."

In May, Miller had another scoop, this one concerning two mysterious trailers found in Iraq that were equipped with high-tech gear. Miller and William J. Broad wrote on May 21 that U.S. intelligence had concluded the trailers were mobile units for producing germs as weapons. The article said intelligence analysts had reached a consensus after analyzing and rejecting alternative theories about the trailers' possible use. Miller and Broad wrote that U.S. officials expected the trailers to "become a centerpiece of their argument that Iraq had a well-concealed germ weapons program." Sure enough, one week later, President Bush declared in a television interview:

"We've found the weapons of mass destruction! You know, we found biological laboratories."

Soon, though, the content of that story was being challenged--most memorably, perhaps, halfway around the world in Australia's Sydney Morning Herald, where a headline read: "Proof of WMD is Bush trailer trash."

On June 26, New York Times reporter Douglas Jehl wrote from Washington that there was no consensus after all about the trailers' significance. The State Department's intelligence division was challenging the CIA's stated belief that the trailers were germ weapons labs.

Meanwhile, an angry backlash against Miller was building among some journalists. Jack Shafer, Slate's media columnist, called her reporting "faulty and biased," said she provided "no independent confirmation for any of her blockbuster findings" and accused her of stirring up a "wretched wake of misinformation." The subhead to one of his columns (he wrote at least five about Miller) asked the question: "Is the New York Times breaking the news--or flacking for the military?"

On May 26, in the Washington Post, media writer Howard Kurtz published excerpts from an e-mail Miller had written to John F. Burns, the Times' Baghdad bureau chief. In the leaked e-mail, Miller told Burns that Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi exile who had returned to Iraq to try to become a political leader there, was a longtime source, and that he had "provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper."

Chalabi is a controversial figure. CIA officials and others have criticized him for passing bad intelligence to American officials and journalists. (Example: Chalabi told ABC before the war that the Iraqi people would welcome U.S. troops "as liberators.") Kurtz noted that Chalabi was close to certain prominent Defense Department officials and had furnished them with questionable information about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. He "may have been feeding the Times" similar information, Kurtz surmised. He went on to criticize Miller's story about the man in the baseball cap, saying, "No evidence has surfaced to support these claims."

The New York Observer weighed in on June 22. Sridhar Pappu wrote that the baseball cap story "had caused an uproar among some reporters" in the New York Times newsroom, partly because of its thin attribution (a single source, unidentified) but also because of the concessions Miller had made in order to become embedded with the weapons hunters. Miller had disclosed in her story that she was not permitted to interview the scientist in question or to write about his disclosures for three days, and that her copy had been "submitted for a check by military officials." (Kurtz, Shafer and Baker had also criticized this aspect of the story, Shafer accusing her of consenting to "censorship" by the military.)

In Editor & Publisher, freelance writer William E. Jackson Jr. wrote two columns critical of Miller. On June 16 he said she had "hyped the threat of weapons of mass destruction." On July 2 he accused her of "compromised reporting, using and even colluding with tainted Iraqi sources, while essentially surrendering detached judgment to the Pentagon."

Miller disputes all of the above accusations. To the charge that she has acted as a mouthpiece for the Bush administration, she points out that, in fact, she was writing about the failures to find WMD in Iraq earlier than other reporters. A story of hers on April 16, for example, was headlined: "U.S. Inspectors Find No Forbidden Weapons at Iraqi Arms Plant."

Even the baseball cap story, Miller says, was not a total comfort to the Bush administration. It was "both good news and bad news for the hardliners," she says. "To me, it was world-class news that the stockpiles [of Saddam's forbidden weapons] probably did not exist. Those giant stockpiles, that were going to create anthrax clouds and nuclear clouds over our cities, did not exist." In other words, Saddam's weapons were not the imminent threat Bush had said they were. But if, as the Iraqi informer claimed, Iraq had had active weapons programs--in the form of people, plans and the raw materials for biological and chemical weapons--that offered "some vindication of what the administration had been saying."

Miller says she had a running battle with the colonel in charge of the weapons-hunting unit with which she was embedded. The colonel was nervous about her having access to classified and sensitive information, she says. And so, she says, the colonel put his foot down, forbidding her to write a story about the man in the baseball cap.

Miller was equally determined, she says. "I knew this was the story I had come to get. This was my story." And so, when the colonel continued to stand in her way, Miller says, she called her editors and told them she was ready to detach herself from the unit, come home and write the story in defiance of the Army. She says her editors didn't want her to give up her position there; they asked her to negotiate further.

Miller finally went to Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, and got a quote from him, which helped convince the colonel, she says, "that it was OK to publish the story."

As part of the embedding contract she had signed, the Army had a right to review her copy before it was sent. Pursuant to that review, she says, she deleted some details from the story, "but the question for me was, were they asking me to delete things that the reader had a right to know? And I think the things they asked me to delete were completely justified to protect that individual." She says the informant was not in American protective custody, he had come forward voluntarily, and he would be in mortal danger if word got out that he was helping the Americans.

The larger question--as to whether this anonymous individual was correct in what he told the Americans--remains unanswered. "I have no way of knowing that," Miller says.

There is no indication that U.S. forces have returned to the sites the informant showed them to investigate further. Miller says she had an even harder time with the story about the mysterious tractor-trailers. The first of these two vehicles was seized at a checkpoint on April 19. Although it ended up at the Baghdad airport where Miller's unit was stationed, the colonel in charge would not let her near it. Furthermore, she says, he ordered that no one talk to her about it.

At an impasse, she says she flew back to Washington to try to get information out of the Pentagon and other agencies. Some time later, Miller says, Gen. Petraeus gave an interview to Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise in Iraq and let her go through the trailer. Miller then went back to the colonel, who allowed her to interview three men who had done the first engineering report on the trailers.

"They said it couldn't be anything but a germ lab," she says. "Then a Pentagon team came for another survey" and reached a similar conclusion.

In a May 8 story, she wrote that "senior Bush administration officials in Washington" had concluded the trailer "could be a mobile biological weapons lab." If so, she wrote, it "would support the Bush administration's claims that Iraq continued to pursue weapons of mass destruction in violation of United Nations sanctions."

Later, Miller and others at the Times learned there was not a consensus about the trailers after all. "There was this minority view" within the intelligence community that the trailers might have some other use. As AJR goes to press, the matter of the trailers, like so much else, remains unresolved.

But that's how it often is, Miller argues, on a beat as inherently murky as intelligence. Most of the information is classified. People are often afraid to talk. Those who do talk often have secret agendas. And so, Miller says, "You do the best you can. You learn a little, you report. You learn a little more, you report." Iraq has been especially difficult, she says, because so much of what one finds there is "dual use." The same barrel of chemicals, for instance, could be meant for manufacturing fertilizer or poisons for a warhead, depending on the intentions of those who possess it.

"Like the aluminum tubes," she says, "absent someone who comes forth and says, 'I ordered them and I know what they were going to be used for,' it's very hard to say."

Her bosses continue to stand by Miller's work. Times Assistant Managing Editor Andrew Rosenthal strenuously defends her reporting and dismisses the criticism. "Our job is to inform our readers," he says, "not to get into debates with other publications."

As for herself, and all the criticism she has received, Miller says, "I'm going to go on writing in this area, and this will blow over because my reporting was accurate."

A large percentage of Americans believe weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, polls show. A large percentage also thinks Saddam conspired with al Qaeda, and even that Saddam played a role in the 9/11 attacks. One could argue that this indicates a failure of American journalism, quite apart from Judith Miller.

In the months leading up to the war, Washington Post Ombudsman Michael Getler wrote repeatedly in his weekly column about what he considered one-sided coverage by his paper. He found that the claims of pro-war politicians tended to get front-page play, while dissenting voices tended to run deep inside the paper, when they were given space at all.

On March 16, a few days before the war began, the Post's Walter Pincus wrote that U.S. intelligence had "been unable to give Congress or the Pentagon specific information about the amounts of banned [Iraqi] weapons or where they are hidden." This prescient story ran on page 17. Two days later, Pincus and Dana Milbank wrote a piece under the headline "Bush Clings to Dubious Allegations About Iraq." That one ran on page 13.

According to Getler, a Post reader wrote in to ask, "Why shouldn't Bush cling to dubious allegations? He gets to repeat them over and over in prime time in front of a huge national audience and your analysis of their truthfulness is tucked away on page 13. No wonder such a large percentage of Americans believe that Hussein was directly tied to 9/11."

Some of USA Today's most critical stories also ran inside. And the New York Times' op-ed columnists were far better analysts of the administration's evidence, day in and day out, than the paper's news reporters and editors were. When I asked Getler why he thought the media hadn't been more aggressive on such an important issue, he said he thought there was, in fact, a desire among journalists to hold the government accountable. "But," he said, "this was a tricky situation, because this is a very, very buttoned-down administration, a very closed-up and on-message administration, and you have subjects that are very hard [for the press] to get at with any sense of authority. You have an environment in which leakers are in some professional danger. And there is public opinion, which at times was certainly overwhelmingly supportive. The combination was pretty hard to confront."

Hard or not, it looks more and more as if the U.S. media failed a test here. And Judith Miller, whatever her particular shortcomings, was not the whole problem.

AJR editorial assistant Stephen E. Mather provided research for this story.