What we can learn from Judith Miller’s rehab tour

Judith Miller’s publicity campaign for her new book (The Story: A Reporter’s Journey) which has taken her from the Wall Street Journal to numerous television interviews, has been an instructive and engaging media spectacle.

She has shown characteristic passion and energy in attempting to defend her journalistic reputation after being pummeled during her final years at The New York Times for, among other things, writing persuasively that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

But it is discouraging that the truth can be challenged by a determined and wily opponent with a platform to propound discredited ideas. And Miller has long been given such a platform, first by The Times and now by a prominent book publisher.

In my 24 years at The Times I frequently worked with Miller, often unhappily, as I will explain. Her efforts at recasting events have thus not been a surprise to me.

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She has made sporadic efforts before to defend her reporting. But now she’s employing an important element in the modern method of obfuscation and confusion. Waiting several years after the events, she tries to take advantage of fading memories, especially involving detailed and complicated matters.

Time and complexity are the best friends of a determined distorter of events.

How many readers are going to remember or bother to look up all the tedious details in those superb and thorough examinations of her reporting years ago by Jack Shafer in Slate and Michael Massing in The New York Review of Books?

Miller also mixes in some confusion as to what critics have charged her with. In the Journal piece, she begins jocularly by saying she is finally “admitting” her reporting caused the war in Iraq.

“I took America to war in Iraq. It was all me,” she wrote, inviting readers to laugh along with her at such a ludicrous notion.

A clumsy straw man, that; no serious person has charged that Judith Miller took us to war. The charge, serious enough, is that she let herself be used repeatedly by officials and others who sought to do so.

Miller also argues that she accurately reported what officials were really thinking and what was in the intelligence reports they had. How could she be expected to independently evaluate those claims involving top-secret information?

This has produced some commentary around the question of what a journalist’s obligations are when fed hard-to-verify information by people with an agenda.The issue in her case is, however, much more simple. It doesn’t involve whether she or any reporter could fact-check the claims of her sources. What Miller appeared to do was make a Mephistophelian journalist’s bargain with officials and sources that went like this: Bring your assertions to me first. In exchange for the notoriety I will achieve I will place them in The Times without careful examination or scrutiny.

Here are some of the problems I found in her account:

1. Throughout her book and in appearances Miller has claimed she was not in a position to investigate independently the WMD claims before or during the war.

Perhaps. But once the war was over she had a box seat to see the evidence for herself. She was the only reporter embedded full-time with the military’s MET-Alpha team deployed in Iraq to find those weapons. If she was constricted to reporting official assertions before the war, this was her time to say: “You had a captive audience in me before, but now let’s see about those weapons you had me write about!” (That is essentially what others, like Bart Gellman of the Washington Post, did).

But that did not happen. Her behavior in post-war Iraq signaled that she herself realized how invested she was in the existence of WMD’s.

She seemed to understand that failure to find evidence of those weapons would demonstrate she had been stunningly credulous and gone overboard in promoting the administration’s story line.

Once in Iraq, she was so eager to find clues vindicating her journalism it seemed that she could barely look at a dumpster or an unusual piece of equipment without seeing a platform for the manufacture of such weapons.

She and another colleague wrote approvingly of early analyses that some tractor trailers found in Iraq were likely mobile chemical weapons labs that could “become a centerpiece” of the Bush administration’s justification for war. Alas, as time went on, it became apparent the trailers were probably used to produce hydrogen to fill artillery balloons. (Several weeks later, she reported, along with other outlets, that some more thorough analyses concluded the trailers could not be related to chemical weapons).

Most infamously, she reported on April 21, 2003 the purported discovery in the Iraqi desert of buried vats of materials she described as precursors for chemical weapons that could be quickly assembled. This was, she told PBS’s News Hour, “more than a smoking gun,” in fact, “a silver bullet” demonstrating that Saddam was making WMD’s. It would, of course, turn out to be neither.

The article introduced readers to the notorious “Iraqi scientist in a baseball cap” who supposedly worked on Saddam’s weapons program and was only allowed to point out the alleged buried chemical vats to her from a distance. Strangely, we never heard any more about those precursors or even much about the “scientist” who suddenly was identified in a subsequent story as a military intelligence expert. There was no explanation as to the change of his occupation before he disappeared too.

2. Her most common refrain nowadays is that many others reported that Saddam appeared to have a WMD program and she has been unfairly singled out for heavy criticism.

This is fractionally true; Others did write such stories. But no one reported this line with such frequency and fervor – or with such frightening language as to the consequences of leaving Saddam alone. At the time of her reports, Miller seemed to revel in her role as pace-setter on this story. Now, it seems, she is eager to assume a more modest posture: she was only doing what most everyone else was.

3. Her role in the issue involving Scooter Libby’s conviction for lying is a perfect example of a convoluted event that can be spun for people who are impatient with an accumulation of details.

The main issue was head-spinningly complicated: whether Libby, a top aide in the administration, revealed to reporters that Valerie Plame was a CIA officer in order to discredit her husband, Joseph C. Wilson, a former diplomat who had challenged the Bush administration’s claim that Saddam was seeking to acquire uranium from the country of Niger. For Miller, such complexity apparently meant there was fertile ground for sowing a version more to her liking.

Any discussion of the Libby case should include an important disclosure: For years, Miller and I have had a strong dislike of each other, dating to the time she was the Washington Bureau’s news editor and I was a correspondent there. We quarreled and she played a role in causing me to be transferred out of the bureau to New York. (Sixteen months later, she lost her job in Washington and I returned there where I flourished as a correspondent for another 20 years until I accepted a buyout.)

Despite this history, The Times had no problem assigning me to cover the Libby trial. I reported on Miller’s contacts with Libby along with the events which led to her being jailed for 85 days for refusing initially to testify to a grand jury. So, I have both an acknowledged bias as well as great familiarity with many of the events.

Libby told Miller twice about Valerie Plame’s employment at the CIA, in violation of the law, although he denied doing so in his grand jury testimony. When first subpoenaed, Miller declined to testify about her conversations with her sources. Although Libby had signed a general waiver releasing any journalist from any promise of confidentiality, she said the waiver wasn’t freely given.

She was correct. Libby did not want journalists to testify about their conversations with him. If they did so truthfully, their accounts would contradict his sworn testimony. That left Miller in jail, and for her first weeks it must have seemed exhilarating at times: she was celebrated as a First Amendment martyr and received visits from several luminaries including Tom Brokaw and Bob Dole. But the jail cell turned more miserable after the initial attention faded (Earlier she had asked a judge to instead sentence her to home confinement in her house near the Hamptons. He declined.)

After about two months in the Alexandria, Virginia jail, Miller decided she “owed it to herself” to find out if Libby would provide a genuine, more personal waiver. So her lawyers contacted Libby who in a subsequent note and phone conversation granted her a personal and explicit waiver of her pledge to him of confidentiality.

Because she spoke to him directly, she asserted, she knew the waiver was genuine. Of all her claims, this might be the most indigestible. The most obvious evidence of that was that after receiving the waiver she quickly got out of jail and went on to deliver damaging testimony to the grand jury about her conversations with Libby, and eventually to the trial jury that convicted him. How could he have genuinely wanted her to testify as she claims when she went into the grand jury and provided her highly damaging account?

The fact is that he had no choice but to agree to a waiver when asked directly for one. The discussions, involving lawyers for both sides, were midwifed by special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald.

Miller testified at his trial that on a Tuesday in July, 2003, Libby told her about Valerie Plame. That effectively eviscerated Libby’s claim that he only learned of Plame when he spoke to Tim Russert that Thursday, two days later. Russert, for his part, also provided damaging testimony, saying he never told Libby about Plame.

Miller’s assertion that the waiver was genuine reflected her claim to cameras upon her release from jail that “We won,” because she said her sacrifice established that only “genuine” waivers from sources could be used by reporters to agree to testify. That was untrue; the only legacy from her venture was a unanimous opinion in her case by the federal appeals court in the District of Columbia that First Amendment scholars and press advocates agree remains a setback for reporters relying on confidential sources.

4. In her Journal op-ed, she referred to recent articles in The Times about the problems of handling old ordnance containing sarin nerve gas in Iraq.

One article, she wrote, was about, “5,000 inoperable chemical munitions made before the first Gulf War that Saddam claimed to have destroyed. Not until 2014 would the U.S. learn that some of Iraq’s degraded sarin nerve agent was purer than Americans had expected and was sickening Iraqi and American soldiers who had stumbled upon it.

“By then, however, most Americans had concluded that no such weapons existed.”

Well, no. Most Americans may have concluded—from strong evidence—that no recently-manufactured or usable such weapons existed. No one doubted Saddam had earlier manufactured and possessed nerve gas weapons. It was well known that he had used them on his domestic opponents—Miller even wrote about it years earlier during the period when she produced much admirable coverage of chemical weapons.

A Times piece she referred to went to great lengths to explicitly say that the unearthing of the sarin-laced shells had nothing to do with the pre-war debate about whether Saddam was building WMD’s.

So, why does she mention this at all? It seems designed to stir in some confusion for information-loaded readers who probably remember that Saddam did not, in the end, have the WMD’s that were used to justify the war. But those readers might also now note her comments about the sarin shells and believe there is some doubt about what it all means. If they think about it at all, they might conclude it’s not really a settled issue.

What are we to make of the attention paid to her campaign? In the end, it might not be so dismal an exercise after all; Most of the commentary and book reviews have been unreservedly critical. Perhaps some events cannot be rewritten and some reputations cannot be revived.

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Neil Lewis was a New York Times correspondent for 24 years. After retiring in 2010, he taught at Duke Law School and was a fellow at the Kennedy School.