In our new book, The Exception To the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers and the Media That Love Them, we titled one chapter “The Lies of Our Times” to examine how The New York Times coverage on Iraq and its alleged stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction helped lead the country to war. Today, The New York Times, for the first time, raised questions about its own coverage in an 1,100-word editor’s note. Here is an excerpt from our section of the book on the New York Times and Iraq.
“From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” — Andrew H. Card, White House Chief of Staff speaking about the Iraq war P.R. campaign, September 6, 2002
In the midst of the buildup to war, a major scandal was unfolding at The New York Times-the paper that sets the news agenda for other media. The Times admitted that for several years a 27-year-old reporter named Jayson Blair had been conning his editors and falsifying stories. He had pretended to be places he hadn’t been, fabricated quotes, and just plain lied in order to tell a sensational tale. For this, Blair was fired. But The Times went further: It ran a 7,000-word, five-page expose on the young reporter, laying bare his personal and professional escapades.
The Times said it had reached a low point in its 152-year history. I agreed. But not because of the Jayson Blair affair. It was The Times coverage of the Bush-Blair affair.
When George W. Bush and Tony Blair made their fraudulent case to attack Iraq, The Times, along with most corporate media outlets in the United States, became cheerleaders for the war. And while Jayson Blair was being crucified for his journalistic sins, veteran Times national security correspondent and best-selling author Judith Miller was filling The Times’ front pages with unchallenged government propaganda. Unlike Blair’s deceptions, Miller’s lies provided the pretext for war. Her lies cost lives.
If only The New York Times had done the same kind of investigation of Miller’s reports as it had with Jayson Blair.
The White House propaganda blitz was launched on September 7, 2002, at a Camp David press conference. British Prime Minister Tony Blair stood side by side with his co-conspirator, President George W. Bush. Together, they declared that evidence from a report published by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) showed that Iraq was “six months away” from building nuclear weapons.
“I don’t know what more evidence we need,” crowed Bush.
Actually, any evidence would help-there was no such IAEA report. But at the time, few mainstream American journalists questioned the leaders’ outright lies. Instead, the following day, “evidence” popped up in the Sunday New York Times under the twin byline of Michael Gordon and Judith Miller. “More than a decade after Saddam Hussein agreed to give up weapons of mass destruction,” they stated with authority, “Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb, Bush administration officials said today.”
In a revealing example of how the story amplified administration spin, the authors included the phrase soon to be repeated by President Bush and all his top officials: “The first sign of a ‘smoking gun,’ [administration officials] argue, may be a mushroom cloud.”
Harper’s publisher John R. MacArthur, author of Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War, knew what to make of this front-page bombshell. “In a disgraceful piece of stenography,” he wrote, Gordon and Miller “inflated an administration leak into something resembling imminent Armageddon.”
The Bush administration knew just what to do with the story they had fed to Gordon and Miller. The day The Times story ran, Vice President Dick Cheney made the rounds on the Sunday talk shows to advance the administration’s bogus claims. On NBC’s Meet the Press, Cheney declared that Iraq had purchased aluminum tubes to make enriched uranium. It didn’t matter that the IAEA refuted the charge both before and after it was made. But Cheney didn’t want viewers just to take his word for it. “There’s a story in The New York Times this morning,” he said smugly. “And I want to attribute The Times.”
This was the classic disinformation two-step: the White House leaks a lie to The Times, the newspaper publishes it as a startling expose, and then the White House conveniently masquerades behind the credibility of The Times.
“What mattered,” wrote MacArthur, “was the unencumbered rollout of a commercial for war.”4
Judith Miller was just getting warmed up. Reporting for America’s most influential newspaper, Miller continued to trumpet administration leaks and other bogus sources as the basis for eye-popping stories that backed the administration’s false premises for war. “If reporters who live by their sources were obliged to die by their sources,” Jack Shafer wrote later in Slate, “Miller would be stinking up her family tomb right now.”
After the war, Shafer pointed out, “None of the sensational allegations about chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons given to Miller have panned out, despite the furious crisscrossing of Iraq by U.S. weapons hunters.”
Did The New York Times publish corrections? Clarifications? Did heads roll? Not a chance: Judith Miller’s “scoops” continued to be proudly run on the front pages.
Here are just some of the corrections The Times should have run after the year-long campaign of front-page false claims by one of its premier reporters, Judith Miller.
FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS
Scoop: “U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts,”
Oops: As UN weapons inspectors had earlier stated-and U.S. weapons inspectors confirmed in September 2003-none of these claims were true. The unnamed source is one of many Iraqi defectors who made sensational false claims that were championed by Miller and The Times.
Scoop: “White House Lists Iraq Steps to Build Banned Weapons,” by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon, September 13, 2002. The article quotes the White House contention that Iraq was trying to purchase aluminum pipes to assist its nuclear weapons program.
Oops: Rather than run a major story on how the United States had falsely cited the UN to back its claim that Iraq was expanding its nuclear weapons program, Miller and Gordon repeated and embellished the lie.
Contrast this with the lead paragraph of a story that ran in the British daily The Guardian on September 9: “The International Atomic Energy Agency has no evidence that Iraq is developing nuclear weapons at a former site previously destroyed by UN inspectors, despite claims made over the weekend by Tony Blair, western diplomatic sources told The Guardian yesterday.” The story goes on to say that the IAEA “issued a statement insisting it had ‘no new information’ on Iraq’s nuclear program since December 1998 when its inspectors left Iraq.”
Miller’s trumped-up story contributed to the climate of the time and The Times. A month later, numerous congressional representatives cited the nuclear threat as a reason for voting to authorize war.
Scoop: “U.S. Faulted Over Its Efforts to Unite Iraqi Dissidents,” by Judith Miller, October 2, 2002. Quoting Ahmed Chalabi and Defense Department adviser Richard Perle, this story stated: “The INC [Iraqi National Congress] has been without question the single most important source of intelligence about Saddam Hussein.”
Miller airs the INC’s chief complaint: “Iraqi dissidents and administration officials complain that [the State Department and CIA] have also tried to cast doubt on information provided by defectors Mr. Chalabi’s organization has brought out of Iraq.”
Oops: Miller championed the cause of Chalabi, the Iraqi exile leader who had been lobbying Washington for over a decade to support the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime. As The Washington Post revealed, Miller wrote to Times veteran foreign correspondent John Burns, who was working in Baghdad at the time, that Chalabi “has provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD [weapons of mass destruction] to our paper.”
Times readers might be interested to learn the details of how Ahmed Chalabi was bought and paid for by the CIA. Chalabi heads the INC, an organization of Iraqi exiles created by the CIA in 1992 with the help of the Rendon Group, a powerful public relations firm that has worked extensively for the two Bush administrations. Between 1992 and 1996, the CIA covertly funneled $12 million to Chalabi’s INC. In 1998, the Clinton administration gave Chalabi control of another $98 million of U.S. taxpayer money. Chalabi’s credibility has always been questionable: He was convicted in absentia in Jordan of stealing some $500 million from a bank he established, leaving shareholders high and dry. He has been accused by Iraqi exiles of pocketing at least $4 million of CIA funds.
In the lead-up to war, the CIA dismissed Chalabi as unreliable. But he was the darling of Pentagon hawks, putting an Iraqi face on their warmongering. So the Pentagon established a new entity, the Office of Special Plans, to champion the views of discredited INC defectors who helped make its case for war.
As Howard Kurtz later asked in The Washington Post: “Could Chalabi have been using The Times to build a drumbeat that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction?”
Scoop: “C.I.A. Hunts Iraq Tie to Soviet Smallpox,” by Judith Miller, December 3, 2002. The story claims that “Iraq obtained a particularly virulent strain of smallpox from a Russian scientist.” The story adds later: “The information came to the American government from an informant whose identity has not been disclosed.”
Smallpox was cited by President Bush as one of the “weapons of mass destruction” possessed by Iraq that justified a dangerous national inoculation program-and an invasion.
Oops: After a three-month search of Iraq, ” ‘Team Pox’ turned up only signs to the contrary: disabled equipment that had been rendered harmless by UN inspectors, Iraqi scientists deemed credible who gave no indication they had worked with smallpox, and a laboratory thought to be back in use that was covered in cobwebs,” reported the Associated Press in September 2003.
Scoop: “Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert,” by Judith Miller, April 21, 2003.
Who is the messenger for this bombshell? Miller tells us only that she “was permitted to see him from a distance at the sites where he said that material from the arms program was buried. Clad in nondescript clothes and a baseball cap, he pointed to several spots in the sand where he said chemical precursors and other weapons material were buried.”
And then there were the terms of this disclosure: “This reporter was not permitted to interview the scientist or visit his home. Nor was she permitted to write about the discovery of the scientist for three days, and the copy was then submitted for a check by military officials. Those officials asked that details of what chemicals were uncovered be deleted.” No proof. No names. No chemicals. Only a baseball cap-and the credibility of Miller and The Times-to vouch for a “scientist” who conveniently backs up key claims of the Bush administration. Miller, who was embedded with MET Alpha, a military unit searching for WMDs, pumped up her sensational assertions the next day on PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer:
JUDITH MILLER: Well, I think they found something more than a smoking gun. 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.
Q: Does this confirm in a way the insistence coming from the U.S. government that after the war, various Iraqi tongues would loosen, and there might be people who would be willing to help?
JUDITH MILLER: Yes, it clearly does…. That’s what the Bush administration has finally done. They have changed the political environment, and they’ve enabled people like the scientists that MET Alpha has found to come forth.
Oops: The silver bullet got more tarnished as it was examined. Three months later, Miller acknowledged that the scientist was merely “a senior Iraqi military intelligence official.” His explosive claims vaporized.
A final note from the Department of Corrections: The Times deeply regrets any wars or loss of life that these errors may have contributed to.
UP IN SMOKE
Tom Wolfe once wrote about a war-happy Times correspondent in Vietnam (same idea, different war): The administration was “playing [the reporter] of The New York Times like an ocarina, as if they were blowing smoke up his pipe and the finger work was just right and the song was coming forth better than they could have played it themselves.” But who was playing whom? The Washington Post reported that while Miller was embedded with MET Alpha, her role in the unit’s operations became so central that it became known as the “Judith Miller team.” In one instance, she disagreed with a decision to relocate the unit to another area and threatened to file a critical report in The Times about the action. When she took her protest to a two-star general, the decision was reversed. One Army officer told the Post, “Judith was always issuing threats of either going to The New York Times or to the secretary of defense. There was nothing veiled about that threat.”
Later, she played a starring role in a ceremony in which MET Alpha’s leader was promoted. Other officers were surprised to watch as Miller pinned a new rank on the uniform of Chief Warrant Officer Richard Gonzales. He thanked her for her “contributions” to the unit. In April 2003, MET Alpha traveled to the compound of Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi “at Judy’s direction,” where they interrogated and took custody of an Iraqi man who was on the Pentagon’s wanted list-despite the fact that MET Alpha’s only role was to search for WMDs. As one officer told the Post, “It’s impossible to exaggerate the impact she had on the mission of this unit, and not for the better.”
After a year of bogus scoops from Miller, the paper gave itself a bit of cover. Not corrections-just cover. On September 28, 2003, Times reporter Douglas Jehl surprisingly kicked the legs out from under Miller’s sources. In his story headlined AGENCY BELITTLES INFORMATION GIVEN BY IRAQ DEFECTORS, Jehl revealed:
An internal assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency has concluded that most of the information provided by Iraqi defectors who were made available by the Iraqi National Congress was of little or no value, according to federal officials briefed on the arrangement. In addition, several Iraqi defectors introduced to American intelligence agents by the exile organization and its leader, Ahmed Chalabi, invented or exaggerated their credentials as people with direct knowledge of the Iraqi government and its suspected unconventional weapons program, the officials said.
The Iraqi National Congress had made some of these defectors available to…The New York Times, which reported their allegations about prisoners and the country’s weapons program.Poof. Up in smoke went thousands of words of what can only be called rank propaganda.
This Times confession was too little, too late. After an unnecessary war, during a brutal occupation, and several thousand lives later, The Times obliquely acknowledged that it had been recycling disinformation. Miller’s reports played an invaluable role in the administration’s propaganda war. They gave public legitimacy to outright lies, providing what appeared to be independent confirmation of wild speculation and false accusations. “What Miller has done over time seriously violates several Times’ policies under their code of conduct for news and editorial departments,” wrote William E. Jackson in Editor & Publisher. “Jayson Blair was only a fluke deviation…. Miller strikes right at the core of the regular functioning news machine.”
More than that, Miller’s false reporting was key to justifying a war. And The Times’ unabashed servitude to the administration’s war agenda did not end with Iraq.
On September 16, 2003, The Times ran a story headlined SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL TO LEVEL WEAPONS CHARGES AGAINST SYRIA. The stunningly uncritical article was virtually an excerpt of the testimony about to be given that day by outspoken hawk John R. Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control. The article included this curious caveat: The testimony “was provided to The New York Times by individuals who feel that the accusations against Syria have received insufficient attention.” The article certainly solved that problem.
The author? Judith Miller-preparing for the next battlefront.
NY Times, January 1, 2006
The Public Editor Behind the Eavesdropping Story, a Loud Silence
By BYRON CALAMETHE
New York Times’s explanation of its decision to report, after what it said was a one-year delay, that the National Security Agency is eavesdropping domestically without court-approved warrants was woefully inadequate. And I have had unusual difficulty getting a better explanation for readers, despite the paper’s repeated pledges of greater transparency.
For the first time since I became public editor, the executive editor and the publisher have declined to respond to my requests for information about news-related decision-making. My queries concerned the timing of the exclusive Dec. 16 article about President Bush’s secret decision in the months after 9/11 to authorize the warrantless eavesdropping on Americans in the United States.
I e-mailed a list of 28 questions to Bill Keller, the executive editor, on Dec. 19, three days after the article appeared. He promptly declined to respond to them. I then sent the same questions to Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher, who also declined to respond. They held out no hope for a fuller explanation in the future.
Despite this stonewalling, my objectives today are to assess the flawed handling of the original explanation of the article’s path into print, and to offer a few thoughts on some factors that could have affected the timing of the article. My intention is to do so with special care, because my 40-plus years of newspapering leave me keenly aware that some of the toughest calls an editor can face are involved here – those related to intelligence gathering, election-time investigative articles and protection of sources. On these matters, reasonable disagreements can abound inside the newsroom.(A word about my reporting for this column: With the top Times people involved in the final decisions refusing to talk and urging everyone else to remain silent, it seemed clear to me that chasing various editors and reporters probably would yield mostly anonymous comments that the ultimate decision-makers would not confirm or deny. So I decided not to pursue those who were not involved in the final decision to publish the article – or to refer to Times insiders quoted anonymously in others’ reporting.)
At the outset, it’s essential to acknowledge the far-reaching importance of the eavesdropping article’s content to Times readers and to the rest of the nation. Whatever its path to publication, Mr. Sulzberger and Mr. Keller deserve credit for its eventual appearance in the face of strong White House pressure to kill it. And the basic accuracy of the account of the eavesdropping stands unchallenged – a testament to the talent in the trenches.
But the explanation of the timing and editing of the front-page article by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau caused major concern for scores of Times readers. The terse one-paragraph explanation noted that the White House had asked for the article to be killed. “After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting,” it said. “Some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists has been omitted.”
If Times editors hoped the brief mention of the one-year delay and the omitted sensitive information would assure readers that great caution had been exercised in publishing the article, I think they miscalculated. The mention of a one-year delay, almost in passing, cried out for a fuller explanation. And the gaps left by the explanation hardly matched the paper’s recent bold commitments to readers to explain how news decisions are made.
At the very least, The Times should have told readers in the article why it could not address specific issues. At least some realization of this kicked in rather quickly after publication. When queried by reporters for other news media on Dec. 16, Mr. Keller offered two prepared statements that shed some additional light on the timing and handling of the article. The longer of Mr. Keller’s two prepared statements said the paper initially held the story based on national security considerations and assurances that everyone in government believed the expanded eavesdropping was legal. But when further reporting showed that legal questions loomed larger than The Times first thought and that a story could be written without certain genuinely sensitive technical details, he said, the paper decided to publish. (Mr. Keller’s two prepared statements, as well as some thoughtful reader comments, are posted on the Public Editor’s Web Journal.)
Times readers would have benefited if the explanation in the original article had simply been expanded to include the points Mr. Keller made after publication. And if the length of that proved too clunky for inclusion in the article, the explanation could have been published as a separate article near the main one. Even the sentence he provided me as to why he would not answer my questions offered some possible insight.
Protection of sources is the most plausible reason I’ve been able to identify for The Times’s woeful explanation in the article and for the silence of Mr. Sulzberger and Mr. Keller. I base this on Mr. Keller’s response to me: “There is really no way to have a full discussion of the back story without talking about when and how we knew what we knew, and we can’t do that.”Taken at face value, Mr. Keller seems to be contending that the sourcing for the eavesdropping article is so intertwined with the decisions about when and what to publish that a full explanation could risk revealing the sources. I have no trouble accepting the importance of confidential sourcing concerns here. The reporters’ nearly one dozen confidential sources enabled them to produce a powerful article that I think served the public interest.
With confidential sourcing under attack and the reporters digging in the backyards of both intelligence and politics, The Times needs to guard the sources for the eavesdropping article with extra special care. Telling readers the time that the reporters got one specific fact, for instance, could turn out to be a dangling thread of information that the White House or the Justice Department could tug at until it leads them to the source. Indeed, word came Friday that the Justice Department has opened an investigation into the disclosure of classified information about the eavesdropping.
The most obvious and troublesome omission in the explanation was the failure to address whether The Times knew about the eavesdropping operation before the Nov. 2, 2004, presidential election. That point was hard to ignore when the explanation in the article referred rather vaguely to having “delayed publication for a year.” To me, this language means the article was fully confirmed and ready to publish a year ago – after perhaps weeks of reporting on the initial tip – and then was delayed.
Mr. Keller dealt directly with the timing of the initial tip in his later statements. The eavesdropping information “first became known to Times reporters” a year ago, he said. These two different descriptions of the article’s status in the general vicinity of Election Day last year leave me puzzled.
For me, however, the most obvious question is still this: If no one at The Times was aware of the eavesdropping prior to the election, why wouldn’t the paper have been eager to make that clear to readers in the original explanation and avoid that politically charged issue? The paper’s silence leaves me with uncomfortable doubts.
On the larger question of why the eavesdropping article finally appeared when it did, a couple of possibilities intrigue me. One is that Times editors said they discovered there was more concern inside the government about the eavesdropping than they had initially been told. Mr. Keller’s prepared statements said that “a year ago,” officials “assured senior editors of The Times that a variety of legal checks had been imposed that satisfied everyone involved that the program raised no legal questions.” So the paper “agreed not to publish at that time” and continued reporting. But in the months that followed, Mr. Keller said, “we developed a fuller picture of the concerns and misgivings that had been expressed during the life of the program” and “it became clear those questions loomed larger within the government than we had previously understood.”
The impact of a new book about intelligence by Mr. Risen on the timing of the article is difficult to gauge. The book, “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration,” was not mentioned in the Dec. 16 article. Mr. Keller asserted in the shorter of his two statements that the article wasn’t timed to the forthcoming book, and that “its origins and publication are completely independent of Jim’s book.”The publication of Mr. Risen’s book, with its discussion of the eavesdropping operation, was scheduled for mid-January – but has now been moved up to Tuesday. Despite Mr. Keller’s distancing of The Times from “State of War,” Mr. Risen’s publisher told me on Dec. 21 that the paper’s Washington bureau chief had talked to her twice in the previous 30 days about the book.
So it seems to me the paper was quite aware that it faced the possibility of being scooped by its own reporter’s book in about four weeks. But the key question remains: To what extent did the book cause top editors to shrug off the concerns that had kept them from publishing the eavesdropping article for months?
A final note: If Mr. Risen’s book or anything else of substance should open any cracks in the stone wall surrounding the handling of the eavesdropping article, I will have my list of 28 questions (35 now, actually) ready to e-mail again to Mr. Keller.
The public editor serves as the readers’ representative. His opinions and conclusions are his own. His column appears at least twice monthly in this section.