As Americans reflected on the lives lost in Iraq over the Memorial Day weekend, they also had the opportunity to learn more about Judith Miller, a reporter for The New York Times whose front-page articles about Saddam Hussein’s forbidden weapons were so influential in driving America to war. With an outpouring of bilious anecdotes from angry, embarrassed sources in The Times ‘ newsrooms and bureaus, Franklin Foer dissects Ms. Miller and her career in New York magazine.
From him, we learn that Ms. Miller is passionate, driven, egotistical and sometimes rude; that she cultivates powerful sources while elbowing aside lowly colleagues and competitors; that she is “unapologetically militant” about her beliefs. She has long been an object of envy and gossip. The Miller profile exhausts every category of speculation about its subject, including the social, sexual and marital, and draws an unattractive portrait that could also resemble many other scrappy, successful figures of both sexes in the national media.
Intriguing as her personal history may be, however, Ms. Miller’s troubles didn’t arise from mere ambition or poor manners. Instead, they reflected the reluctance of her editors to recognize that she was motivated by an ideology shared with her sources. Such “passions” are far more common among mainstream journalists than they like to admit; indeed, strong beliefs are characteristic of many of the nation’s best journalists.
But by failing to exercise adequate control over Ms. Miller’s urge to propagandize, those editors allowed The Times to become an instrument for her neoconservative patrons in and out of government, and for their agenda of “regime change” in Iraq and possibly elsewhere in the Middle East.
The Times editors glanced briefly at this reality in their May 26 mea culpa, which they thoughtfully buried on page A10. In a familiar reflex, the current leadership suggests blaming the worst errors on the prior regime, arraigning editors “at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism.” Those unnamed editors “were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper.” Voices from the prior regime, heard elsewhere on the Internet, deflect responsibility onto those survivors who helped dislodge them from power.
What all the present and former Times editors omitted is a straightforward acknowledgment of issues that the paper had long ignored concerning its own correspondent and her political commitment to her sources. With their indulgence, her dubious coverage grew louder and shriller. (Executive editor Bill Keller still indulges her: “It’s a little galling to watch her pursued by some of these armchair media ethicists who have never ventured into a war zone or earned the right to carry Judy’s laptop,” he blustered in New York .)
For years, Ms. Miller has enjoyed privileges that newspapers usually permit only to opinion columnists. She openly aligned herself with organizations and individuals promoting aggressive, unilateral military solutions to the problems of the Middle East. She joined the same lecture agency that arranged paid speeches for former Defense Policy Board member Richard Perle and other like-minded neocons. She co-authored a book with Laurie Mylroie, an academic whose conspiracy theories about Iraq are widely regarded as loony.
More important than her curious associations, however, is the fact that the stories she wrote supported the propaganda line taken by her sources and associates. In their apologia, the Times editors pointed toward “a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles bent on ‘regime change’ in Iraq, people whose credibility has come under increasing public debate in recent weeks.” That too is only a partial truth. The circle of misleaders encompasses Americans as well as Iraqis, and may be said to include Ms. Miller herself.
The Times balked at naming her, but didn’t hesitate to finger Ahmad Chalabi, noting that his “credibility has come under increasing public debate in recent weeks.” Actually, the character and credibility of Mr. Chalabi have been widely questioned for years-not weeks.
The Times editors must have been aware of the exiled banker’s amazingly checkered business career. Before embarking on his campaign to foment war with Iraq, he left behind a string of failed banks and businesses (as well as criminal convictions naming him and members of his family in Jordan and Switzerland). Officials in the State Department and the C.I.A. who had dealt with Mr. Chalabi considered him deeply unreliable and probably corrupt.
The most troubling question that the Times editors have yet to address is why they never sent forth any of their capable correspondents to uncover the facts about Mr. Chalabi, who misspent so many millions of American dollars and misled so many Americans about the danger posed by Saddam Hussein. Why did none of the paper’s investigators go to Geneva or Amman or Beirut, where the evidence lay in file drawers? Reporters from Newsweek eventually did that service-even while The Times was still protecting its compromised reporter and her crooked source.