May 28, 2004

When the full history of the Iraq war is written, one of its most scandalous chapters will be about how American journalists, in particular those at the New York Times, so easily allowed themselves to be manipulated...

It's the Media, Stupid.

James Moore, When the full history of the Iraq war is written, one of its most scandalous chapters will be about how American journalists, in particular those at the New York Times, so easily allowed themselves to be manipulated by both dubious sources and untrustworthy White House officials into running stories that misled the nation about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

Break the Bush Cabal's Stranglehold on the "US
Mainstream News Media," Show Up for Democracy in 2004"
Defeat Bush (again!)

Not fit to print
How Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraq war lobby used New York
Times reporter Judith Miller to make the case for

- - - - - - - - - - - -
By James C. Moore

May 27, 2004 | When the full history of the Iraq war
is written, one of its most scandalous chapters will
be about how American journalists, in particular those
at the New York Times, so easily allowed themselves to
be manipulated by both dubious sources and
untrustworthy White House officials into running
stories that misled the nation about Saddam Hussein's
weapons of mass destruction. The Times finally
acknowledged its grave errors in an extraordinary and
lengthy editors note published Wednesday. The editors

"We have found ... instances of coverage that was not
as rigorous as it should have been ... In some cases,
the information that was controversial then, and seems
questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or
allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish
we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims
as new evidence emerged -- or failed to emerge ... We
consider the story of Iraq's weapons, and of the
pattern of misinformation, to be unfinished business.
And we fully intend to continue aggressive reporting
aimed at setting the record straight."

The editors conceded what intelligence sources had
told me and numerous other reporters: that Pentagon
favorite Ahmed Chalabi was feeding bad information to
journalists and the White House and had set up a
situation with Iraqi exiles where all of the
influential institutions were shouting into the same
garbage can, hearing the same echo. "Complicating
matters for journalists, the accounts of these exiles
were often eagerly confirmed by United States
officials convinced of the need to intervene in Iraq.
Administration officials now acknowledge that they
sometimes fell for misinformation from these exile
sources. So did many news organizations -- in
particular, this one."

The reporter on many of the flawed stories at issue
was Judith Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter
and authority on the Middle East. The Times, insisting
that the problem did not lie with any individual
journalist, did not mention her name. The paper was
presumably trying to take the high road by defending
its reporter, but the omission seems peculiar. While
her editors must share a large portion of the blame,
the pieces ran under Miller's byline. It was Miller
who clearly placed far too much credence in unreliable
sources, and then credulously used dubious
administration officials to confirm what she was told.

And of all Miller's unreliable sources, the most
unreliable was Ahmed Chalabi -- whose little
neocon-funded kingdom came crashing down last week
when Iraqi forces smashed down his door after U.S.
officials feared he was sending secrets to Iran.

Even before the latest suspicions about Chalabi, a
reporter trying to convince an editor that the
smooth-talking exile was a credible source would have
a difficult case to make. First, he was a convicted
criminal. While living in exile from Iraq, Chalabi was
accused of embezzling millions from his Petra Bank in
Amman, Jordan. Leaving the country in the trunk of a
car reportedly driven by Crown Prince Hassan of
Jordan, Chalabi was convicted in absentia and still
faces 22 years in prison, if he ever returns. Evidence
presented in the trial indicated Chalabi's future
outside of Jordan was secured by $70 million he stole
from his depositors. Chalabi maintains his innocence
and has suggested his prosecution was political
because he was involved in efforts to overthrow
dictator Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq.

Even more damning, Chalabi was a player, an interested
party with his own virulently pro-war agenda -- a fact
that alone should have raised editorial suspicions
about any claims he might make that would pave the way
to war. He was also a highly controversial figure, the
subject of bitter intra-administration battling. He
was the darling of Richard Perle and his fellow neocon
hawks, including such ardent advocates of the war as
Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, but was viewed with
deep suspicion by both the State Department and the
CIA. State in particular had turned its back on
Chalabi after his London-based Iraqi National Congress
spent $5 million and an audit was unable to account
for most of its expenditure.

One might have hoped that American journalists would
have been at least as skeptical as the State
Department before they burned their reputations on
Chalabi's pyre of lies. But even the most seasoned of
correspondents and the most august of publications,
including the Times and the Washington Post, appear to
have been as deftly used by Chalabi as were the CIA,
the Department of Defense and the Bush administration.

Miller, however, is the only journalist whose reliance
on Chalabi became a matter of public debate. An e-mail
exchange between the Times' Baghdad bureau chief, John
Burns, and Miller was published in the Washington
Post. In the exchange, Miller said Chalabi "had
provided most of the front page exclusives for our
paper" and that she had been "reporting on him for
over ten years." Miller later told the New York Review
of Books that she had exaggerated her claims to Burns
in order to make a point. However, in an earlier
interview with me, Miller did not discount the value
of Chalabi's insight.

"Of course, I talked with Chalabi," she said. "I
wouldn't have been doing my job if I didn't. But he
was just one of many sources I used while I was in

Miller refused to say who some of those other sources
were, claiming their identities were sacrosanct.
Nonetheless, her reportage appeared to reflect
Chalabi's intelligence gathering and his political
cant. At his behest, she interviewed defectors from
Hussein's regime, who claimed without substantiation
that there was still a clandestine WMD program
operating inside Iraq. U.S. investigators now believe
that Chalabi sent these same Iraqi expatriates to at
least eight Western spy agencies as part of a scheme
to persuade them to overthrow Saddam. An unknown
number of them appear to have stopped along the way to
speak with Miller.

If the double-agent spy business had a trophy to hold
up and show neophyte spooks what happens when their
craft is perfectly executed, it would be a story by
Judith Miller and Michael Gordon that appeared on the
front page of the New York Times on a Sunday morning
in September 2002. The front-page frightener was
titled "Threats and Responses: The Iraqis; US Says
Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts." Miller
and Gordon wrote that an intercepted shipment of
aluminum tubes, to be used as centrifuges, was
evidence Hussein was building a uranium gas separator
to develop nuclear material. The story quoted national
security advisor Condoleezza Rice invoking the image
of "mushroom clouds over America."

The story had an enormous impact, one amplified when
Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Vice
President Dick Cheney all did appearances on the
Sunday morning talk shows, citing the first-rate
journalism of the liberal New York Times. No single
story did more to advance the political cause of the
neoconservatives driving the Bush administration to
invade Iraq.

But Miller's story was wrong.

It turned out that the aluminum tubes were covered
with an anodized coating, which would have been
machined off to make them usable in a centrifuge. But
that change in the thickness of the tube wall would
have rendered the tubes useless for a centrifuge,
according to a number of nuclear scientists who spoke
publicly after Miller's story. Aluminum, which has not
been used in uranium gas separators since the 1950s,
has been replaced by steel. The tubes, in fact, were
almost certainly intended for use as rocket bodies.
Hussein's multiple-launch rocket systems had rusted on
their pads and he had ordered the tubes from Italy.
"Medusa 81," the Italian rocket model name, was
stamped on the sides of the tubes, and in a factory
north of Baghdad, American intelligence officers later
discovered boxes of rocket fins and motors awaiting
the arrival of the tubes of terror.

The probable source for Miller's story, in addition to
U.S. intelligence operatives, was Adnan Ihsan Saeed,
an Iraqi defector Miller was introduced to by Chalabi.
Miller had quoted him in a December 2001 report when
Saeed had told her he had worked on nuclear operations
in Iraq and that there were at least 20 banned-weapons
facilities undergoing repairs. Of course, no such
facilities have been found -- meaning Saeed was either
lying or horribly uninformed.

"I had no reason to believe what I reported at the
time was inaccurate," Miller told me. "I believed the
intelligence information I had at the time. I sure
didn't believe they were making it up. This was a
learning process. You constantly have to ask the
question, 'What do you know at the time you are
writing it?' We tried really hard to get more
information and we vetted information very, very

But Miller's entire journalistic approach was flawed.
A few months after the aluminum tubes story, a former
CIA analyst, who has observed Miller's professional
products and relationships for years, explained to me
how simple it was to manipulate the correspondent and
her newspaper.

"The White House had a perfect deal with Miller," he
said. "Chalabi is providing the Bush people with the
information they need to support their political
objectives with Iraq, and he is supplying the same
material to Judy Miller. Chalabi tips her on something
and then she goes to the White House, which has
already heard the same thing from Chalabi, and she
gets it corroborated by some insider she always
describes as a 'senior administration official.' She
also got the Pentagon to confirm things for her, which
made sense, since they were working so closely with
Chalabi. Too bad Judy didn't spend a little more time
talking to those of us in the intelligence community
who had information that contradicted almost
everything Chalabi said."

Long after the fact, Miller conceded in her interview
with me that she was wrong about the aluminum tubes,
but not that she had made a mistake.

"We worked our asses off to get that story," she said.
"No one leaked anything to us. I reported what I knew
at the time. I wish I were omniscient. I wish I were
God and had all the information I had needed. But I'm
not God and I don't know. All I can rely on is what
people tell me. That's all any investigative reporter
can do. And if you find out that it's not true, you go
back and write that. You just keep chipping away at an
assertion until you find out what stands up."

In that description of her methodology, Miller
described a type of journalism that publishes works in
progress, and she raises, inadvertently, important
questions about the craft. If highly placed sources in
governments and intelligence operations give her
information, is she obligated to sit on it until she
can corroborate? How does a reporter independently
confirm data that even the CIA is struggling to nail
down? And what if both the source and the governmental
official who "corroborates" it are less than

According to Todd Gitlin of Columbia University's
school of journalism, a reporter in that position
needs to ladle on an extra helping of doubt.
"Independent corroboration is very hard to come by.
Since she's been around, if you're aware that such
echo-chamber effects are plausible, what do you do? I
think you write with much greater skepticism, at
times. I think you don't write at all unless you can
make a stronger case when you are aware that people
are playing you and spinning you for their purposes."

More than skepticism, though, Gitlin believes that
news organizations have a responsibility to explain
possible motivations for whoever is leaking the
information to reporters. This can be done without
identifying the source, he insists, and the Times, as
well as a few other papers, is supposedly in the midst
of adopting this protocol.

Miller's centrifuge story, although the most
influential, was not the most egregious of her pieces.
A story titled "Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an
Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert" was based on a
source she never met or even interviewed. For that
story, Miller watched a man in a baseball cap from a
distance, who pointed at the desert floor, and used
that as a basis for filing a piece that confirmed the
U.S. had discovered "precursors to weapons of mass
destruction." According to her sources in the Mobile
Exploitation Team Alpha of the U.S. Army, this unnamed
scientist from Hussein's WMD program had told them the
"building blocks" of WMD were buried in that spot.
Miller explained to me several months later that she
had seen a letter from the man, written in Arabic and
translated for her, that gave his claims credence.

"I have a photograph of him," she explained. "I know
who he is. There's no way I would have gone forward
with such a story without knowing who my source was,
even if I got it from guys in my unit. You know, maybe
it turns out that he was lying or ill-informed or
cannot be independently verified."

The next day she was on national television, including
PBS's "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," proclaiming that
what had been discovered was "more than a smoking gun"
and was a "silver bullet in the form of an Iraqi
scientist." In an interview with Ray Suarez, Miller
began using the plural "scientists" and implied there
was more than one source. She gave the Bush
administration credit for creating a "political
atmosphere where these scientists can come forward."
The story was trumpeted by conservative talk-show
hosts like Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh and, once
it was zapped off to regional newspapers via the Times
wire service, it acquired even more dramatic purchase.
"Illegal Material Spotted," the Rocky Mountain News
blared with a subhead that distorted even more: "Iraqi
Scientist Leads U.S. Team to Illicit Weapons
Location." "Outlawed Material Destroyed by the Iraqis
Before the War" was the headline of the Seattle

Unfortunately, none of it was true.

In its editors note, the Times admitted Miller's
"informant also claimed that Iraq had sent
unconventional weapons to Syria and had been
cooperating with Al Qaeda -- two claims that were
then, and remain, highly controversial. But the tone
of the article suggested that this Iraqi 'scientist'
-- who in a later article described himself as an
official of military intelligence -- had provided the
justification the Americans had been seeking for the
invasion. The Times never followed up on the veracity
of this source or the attempts to verify his claims."

Miller, who knew all of this already at the time I
interviewed her, remained righteously indignant,
unwilling to accept that she had goofed in the
grandest of fashions.

"You know what," she offered angrily. "I was proved
fucking right. That's what happened. People who
disagreed with me were saying, 'There she goes again.'
But I was proved fucking right."

Even though the Times has been, by its own admission,
deluged with e-mails and letters criticizing Judith
Miller and the paper's coverage of WMD, management has
consistently defended her and refused to make
statements about her work in impartial public forums.
The only time there has been any hint that Miller's
journalism was being deconstructed by editors was in a
note posted on an obscure blog run by the paper's new
ombudsman, Daniel Okrent. Times Executive Editor Bill
Keller wrote that a "fair amount of the mail on this
subject seemed to me to come from people who had not
actually read the coverage, but had heard about it on
the cyber-grapevine." Keller, who was not executive
editor at the time Miller was filing her questionable
dispatches, said, "I did not see a prima facie case
for recanting or repudiating the stories. The brief
against the coverage was that it was insufficiently
skeptical, but that is an easier claim to make in
hindsight than in context." Rather than scrutinize his
correspondent's work, Keller chose to base his
assessment of Miller's WMD work on her past
performances. Describing her as "smart, well-sourced,
industrious and fearless," Keller dismissed criticisms
that her work was fatally flawed.

Until this week, the Times blamed everyone other than
its own editors and reporters for its lapsed
journalism. As late as May 21, in an editorial on the
disgraced Chalabi titled "Friends Like This," the
paper contradicted its own behavior and amplified its
hypocrisies by an order of magnitude. "There's little
to recommend Mr. Chalabi as a politician, or certainly
as an informer. But he can't be made a scapegoat. The
Bush administration should have known what it was
doing when it gave enormous credence to a questionable
character whose own self-interest was totally invested
in getting the Americans to invade Iraq."

All true -- but the paper failed to point out that
much of its reporting was dependent on Chalabi and
Iraqi defectors provided through the exiled Iraqi
National Congress, the same operation that was getting
the Bush White House to gobble up its lies and
distortions. Why weren't Times editors as
intellectually disciplined on the subject of Chalabi
when Miller and other reporters were trotting in with
stories based on spurious allegations from the Iraqi
National Congress and Chalabi's merry band of

The fact that Chalabi was able to feed disinformation
to America's most widely recognized publication and
have it go relatively unchallenged as the electorate
was whipped into a get-Saddam frenzy ought to be
keeping Times editors awake all night. Nobody wanted a
war against Iraq more than Ahmed Chalabi -- and the
biggest paper in the U.S. gave it to him almost as
willingly as the White House did.

The failures of Miller and the Times' reporting on
Iraq are far greater sins than those of the paper's
disgraced Jayson Blair. While the newspaper's
management cast Blair into outer darkness after his
deceptions, Miller and other reporters who contributed
to sending America into a war have been shielded from
full scrutiny. The Times plays an unequaled role in
the national discourse, and when it publishes a
front-page piece about aluminum tubes and mushroom
clouds, that story very quickly runs away from home to
live on its own. The day after Miller's tubes
narrative showed up, Andrea Mitchell of NBC News went
on national TV to proclaim, "They were the kind of
tubes that could only be used in a centrifuge to make
nuclear fuel." Norah O'Donnell had already told the
network's viewers the day before of the "alarming
disclosure," and the New York Times wire service
distributed Miller's report to dozens of papers across
the landscape. Invariably, they gave it prominence.
Sadly, the sons and daughters of America were sent
marching off to war wearing the boots of a well-told
and widely disseminated lie.

Of course, Judy Miller and the Times are not the only
journalists to be taken by Ahmed Chalabi. Jim
Hoagland, a columnist at the Washington Post, has also
written of his long association with the exile. But no
one was so fooled as Miller and her paper.

Russ Baker, who has written critically of Miller for
the Nation, places profound blame at the feet of the
reporter and her paper. "I am convinced there would
not have been a war without Judy Miller," he said.

The introspection and analysis of America's rush to
war with Iraq have turned into a race among the ruins.
Few people doubt any longer that the agencies of the
U.S. government did not properly perform. No
institution, however, either public or private, has
violated the trust of its vast constituency as
profoundly as the New York Times.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

About the writer
James C. Moore, a longtime journalist in Texas, is the
coauthor of "Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George
W. Bush Presidential" and author of the recently
published "Bush's War for Reelection: Iraq, the White
House and the People."

Posted by richard at May 28, 2004 10:19 AM