In late August of 2002, David Sanger, White House correspondent for The New York Times, found himself in the far west wing of the West Wing: at President George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Tex.
There, in what must have been a fairly routine meeting with then–National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, he was told in no uncertain terms what the White House had thought of much of The Times’ reporting on the President’s Iraq policy that summer. They were not happy.
“I would not discuss any background conversations with any sources in the White House,” Mr. Sanger said, sounding quite a bit like a former co-worker of his. “I remember that several members of the administration were unhappy with our coverage [in the summer of 2002], but that’s not a rare event on many different subjects.”
But two sources—one who was at the Washington bureau and one high-ranking editor back at The Times’ West 43rd Street headquarters at the time of the meeting—remembered the criticism was worrying. Would the Washington bureau be frozen out of the big stories emanating from the White House?
It was the summer the President and his allies were laying the groundwork for military action in Iraq, and the premium on high-level sourcing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was perhaps at its apex. And for The Times’ Washington bureau, the pressure was on to deliver on the biggest story of this still-young administration.
But one senior Washington bureau staffer said that as the Bush administration edged closer to invasion, the editorial climate inside The Times shifted from questioning the rationale for military action to putting the paper on a proper war footing.
“Everyone could see the war coming. The Times wanted to be out front on the biggest story,” the staffer said. “It became the plan of attack.”
Pace Bob Woodward.
On Charlie Rose this month, Mr. Sulzberger pinpointed this as the period in which The Times’ seriously flawed reporting on weapons of mass destruction was produced. Describing the time as the “overheated period that followed 9/11,” he said, “I think it’s fair to say that those stories would not have run in The New York Times today.”
He also declined to blame recently departed reporter Judith Miller for The Times’ faulty reporting on Iraqi W.M.D., saying the problems were “institutional.”
And yet, inside The Times, nobody seems to agree on how that reporting actually made it to the page out of the Washington bureau. Nobody has the same picture of the institution that reported it—the Washington bureau under the leadership of Jill Abramson, now managing editor of the newspaper, and then–executive editor Howell Raines, who seems to be fishing a lot these days. And unlike the period after Jayson Blair’s deceptions, it does not appear to be a major agenda item for the newspaper to find out how it happened. (Ms. Abramson, contacted by The Observer, declined to comment for this story; Mr. Raines did not respond to requests for comment.)
Back to the beginning: What was Ms. Rice so mad about?
In mid-August of 2002, The Times came under fire for back-to-back front-page pieces calling out top Republicans who had broken ranks with the administration over support of an Iraq invasion.
The first piece, which ran on Aug. 16 and was co-written by Patrick Tyler and Todd Purdum, included former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in an influential camp of dissenting Republicans—such as former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft—who were opposing Mr. Bush’s planned military operation in Iraq. The next day, Elisabeth Bumiller attributed anti-war views to Mr. Kissinger in a piece with a Crawford, Tex., dateline.
An item in the Aug. 26 issue of The Weekly Standard lashed into The Times for putting Mr. Kissinger in the category of people who didn’t support the war. The opening line: “There’s nothing subtle about the opposition of the New York Times to President Bush’s plan for military action to depose Saddam Hussein in Iraq.”
The Times took a drubbing from the Wall Street Journal editorial page, columnist Charles Krauthammer and George Will speaking on ABC’s This Week.
Then came Mr. Sanger’s meeting with Ms. Rice.
On Sept. 4, The Times printed an editor’s note clarifying its characterization of Mr. Kissinger’s views in the piece by Ms. Bumiller.
“The second article listed Mr. Kissinger incorrectly among Republicans who were warning outright against a war,” the note read.
The Kissinger flap, the last in a series of critical pieces that had run that summer, was not the only problem.
Then the pressure started coming from the other side—after a Sept. 8 piece which reported that Iraq had at one time sought to obtain aluminum tubes as part of an effort to acquire nuclear arms. The piece, co-authored by Ms. Miller and Michael Gordon, ran on The Times’ front page.
Immediately, questions were raised about the piece. According to David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington and a former U.N. nuclear inspector in Iraq during the mid-1990’s, who has been critical of The Times’ W.M.D. coverage, the Miller-Gordon piece failed to note dissent in the intelligence community on Iraq’s purported efforts to acquire nuclear-weapons components.
“I found the whole reporting very slanted,” Mr. Albright said of the aluminum-tubes piece. “From my point of view, The Times wasn’t independent and couldn’t be trusted. They accepted information from the administration.”
He said he called Ms. Miller after the piece ran and told her that the reporting was flawed. Ms. Miller and Mr. Gordon wrote a piece five days later which acknowledged debate among analysts over the tubes, but said the dominant view was that they were intended for nuclear purposes. It ran on page A13.
At the same time, reporter James Risen was working for the Washington bureau, as was David Johnston. The two had frequent co-bylines on stories about intelligence matters, terrorism and national security.
Several current and former Times staffers recalled Mr. Risen’s complaints about his time at the Washington bureau. His intelligence sources were telling him that Ms. Miller’s sources were wrong about the presence of W.M.D. in Iraq. One person who was in the bureau at the time recalled that Mr. Risen said that his intelligence sources were saying the administration’s W.M.D. intelligence was “political.”
Two of the sources recalled Mr. Risen saying his efforts to get the bureau to question the paper’s W.M.D. reports were rebuffed. The same two recall Mr. Risen complaining that he was having trouble getting his more skeptical line of reporting onto the page.
One person who spoke to Mr. Risen about this also recalled Mr. Johnston making similar complaints.
No sources recalled any specific pieces by the two reporters that were killed or pulled. When The Observer called to check out the story, Mr. Risen said accounts of his frustrations were “inaccurate” and offered no further comment; Mr. Johnston would not comment for this article.
At any rate, Mr. Risen did write a few pieces skeptical of the administration’s case for war, including an Oct. 21, 2002, piece debunking the alleged meeting in Prague between Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi agent. On March 23, 2003, Mr. Risen wrote a piece on political pressure felt by the C.I.A. to produce intelligence supporting the administration’s case for war. But it was too late. War in Iraq began four days before.
At times, Mr. Risen seemed to be at pains to show how tough his reporting on W.M.D. had been. In its March 25, 2004, issue, The New York Review of Books published a letter he had written answering charges by media critic Michael Massing that the press was giving the Bush administration a pass on its case for the war.
“Your story on the pre-war coverage of Iraq, focusing in part on The New York Times, failed to mention that I wrote several stories before the war critical of the Bush administration’s case, both on the evidence of links between Iraq and al-Qaeda, and on the basis for claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction,” Mr. Risen wrote.
But somehow, no editor was willing to break the tie between Mr. Risen’s perspective on the likelihood that Saddam’s regime had an active weapons program, and Ms. Miller’s accounts, which appeared to demonstrate that it did.
Perhaps that wasn’t wanted. Throughout the run-up to the war, Mr. Raines had been driving the bureau hard. One former senior Times editor recalls Mr. Raines telling subordinates he wanted “A.K.T.” on a topic, his acronym for “all known thought.”
Nobody at The Times said they were asked to advance a particular storyline. “All known thought,” with the benefit of hindsight, now appears to have been boiled down to the thinking of Ms. Miller’s sources, appearing on page 1, and the thinking of everyone else’s, inside the paper.
Of course, we now know that Ms. Miller’s sources were so sensitive that even a special prosecutor had to subpoena her to get their names. How should the Washington bureau have known who they were? What their agendas were? How good their information was?
“I was edited according to the normal editing process,” Ms. Miller told The Observer in a recent phone interview. “Things got a little tricky when I went into the field in Iraq …. Apart from that, the editing was completely normal. The notion my pieces floated onto the front page isn’t true.”
But according to The Times’ own 5,800-word account of the Miller saga, Ms. Miller titled herself “Miss Run Amok”: difficult for editors to manage, operating on her own recognizance.
In May 2004, former executive editor Howell Raines, recently deposed in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, told the Los Angeles Times that his subordinates, including then–Washington bureau chief and now managing editor Jill Abramson, personally edited Ms. Miller’s W.M.D. copy.
But even in normal circumstances, penetrating the path of sensitive stories on major national issues to the front page of The Times is difficult, in part because reporters’ sources—especially sensitive, high-level government sources—require protection; so too does information on what some high-level reporters are working on, in order to protect the paper’s exclusives.
Seen in this light, recollections of current and former senior Times editors who attended the paper’s daily page-one meeting at 4:30 p.m., where editors sell stories to the front page of the paper, are nothing particularly new.
At the 4:30 page-one meeting, the desk for which Ms. Miller was writing would often label her story “Weapons, by Miller” on the line-up, a routine practice used for sensitive stories that were discussed in limited circles of senior editors.
Still, the same editors—who might have discussed less-sensitive stories at length to vet them for the front page—said they were unaware that other reporters were finding evidence that conflicted with the storyline Ms. Miller was establishing with her reporting.
“If anything, people were scared by her stories,” a senior Times editor said. “They were complicated, and they dealt with this material that no one understood. They became controversial fast. The idea they just appeared in the paper is absurd. But maybe they didn’t get edited as well they should have.”
“The idea there was an anomalous procedure by which Judy’s stories merely appeared in the newspaper and circumvented all the editors involved, I never saw it happen,” said deputy editorial-page editor Andrew Rosenthal, who at the time was an assistant managing editor.
“It was very much a collaborative process,” said former investigative editor Stephen Engelberg, who left The Times in early 2002 and is now a managing editor at The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.
“At no point when I was her editor did I feel pressure from anyone else,” Mr. Engelberg said. “I felt like I was working with her. We had a very close editor-reporter relationship.”