At a Manhattan restaurant earlier in the year I was confronted by someone whose actions remain central to our current national calamity. While politicians and pundits debate the errors and miscalculations that led America into a foolish and dangerous war, she has remained safely out of the fray.
Former NY Times Correspondent Judith Miller offered a casual greeting and continued with her meal. She resumed her conversation but my mind returned to late 2001 and the early months of 2002.
Members of Congress were listening to the Bush Administration’s claim about Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Senior Members of Congress were skeptical because of the new President’s inexperience. Most of the leadership had lived through the intelligence community’s actions in Central America and the Cold War. There wasn’t much credibility there either.
The Congress was left between the reality of U.N. weapons inspectors who couldn’t find evidence of weapons of mass destruction and the insistent claim of the Administration that they existed. It was going to be a close call if the President decided to ask for authorization to go to war.
Entering into the debate was The New York Times. Judith Miller was advanced as the new expert on all things Iraqi. In a series of articles, relying on Iraqi defectors, she revealed an extensive effort to develop chemical weapons. She added credence to the now famous aluminum tubes that were allegedly acquired to enrich uranium. The revelations included information on twenty sites dedicated to chemical production and the frightening news that a new chemical weapon had been developed to cling to soldiers’ uniforms.
As the months passed the prospect of these weapons in the Iraqi arsenal only became more frightening. “Sources” estimated that a nuclear weapon could be assembled in a year. In a now famous line, she wrote that the first warning sign of Iraqi nuclear weapons “may be a mushroom cloud”.
Judith Miller wouldn’t be the first reporter to be used by her sources. We now know that the defectors feeding her information were manipulating the United States for their own purposes. Her U.S. Government sources were giving her propaganda recast as intelligence.
What was different about Judith Miller is that her writing helped tip the scales of a skeptical Congress. She was more subtle than her journalistic predecessor William Randolph Hearst in rallying America into the Spanish American War. The result was no different.
Those of us who voted for the war bear the responsibility. We can blame the President and complain about false intelligence but we were elected to lift the veil of deceit and find truth in the pursuit of the national interest.
Truth also requires an accounting of all of the factors that led to one of the great miscalculations of American history. The New York Times and the lady at the next table that night are a part of that equation.