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U.S. intelligence on Iraq's WMD deserves a second look. So does the reporting of the New York Times' Judith Miller.
By Jack Shafer
Posted Thursday, May 29, 2003, at 4:11 PM PT
If the government must re-examine whether data may have been "manipulated" to support the war, surely the New York Times should conduct a similar postwar inventory of its primary WMD reporter, Judith Miller. In the months running up to the war, Miller painted as grave a picture of Iraq's WMD potential as any U.S. intelligence agency, a take that often directly mirrored the Bush administration's view.
Now, thanks to the reporting of the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, we understand why Miller and the administration might have seen eye-to-eye on Iraq's WMD. On the same day as the Times editorial appeared, Kurtz reproduced an internal Times e-mail in which Miller described Ahmad Chalabi, the controversial Iraq leader, former exile, and Bush administration fave, as one of her main sources on WMD.
"[Chalabi] has provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper," Miller e-mailed Times Baghdad bureau chief John Burns. Miller added that the MET Alpha—a military outfit searching for WMD after the invasion—"is using Chalabi's intell and document network for its own WMD work."
The failure of "Chalabi's intell" to uncover any WMD has embarrassed both the United States and Miller. As noted previously in this column, she oversold the successes of the post-invasion WMD search. On April 21, she reported in the Times that an Iraqi scientist had led MET Alpha to a site where Iraqis had buried chemical precursors for chemical and biological weapons. "Officials" told Miller this was "the most important discovery to date in the hunt for illegal weapons."
On April 22, Miller told The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer the military regarded the scientist as much more than "a smoking gun" in the WMD investigation—he was "a silver bullet." For all of Miller's fist-pumping on behalf of MET Alpha, none of her spectacular findings have been confirmed by other newspapers. (The Washington Post's Barton Gellman did an especially good job of poking holes in Miller's scoop.) The Times has never returned to the MET Alpha "burial grounds" to defend her heavily hyped "silver bullet" account. (See this "Press Box" for a chronology of Miller's reporting from Iraq.)
Did Miller get taken by sources with an agenda, or did she promote their suspect data for her own ideological reasons? Her Iraq coverage has always relied heavily on Iraqi defectors.
To Miller's credit, she often qualifies her defector stories by noting that the CIA doesn't buy what they're selling. In piece after piece, she notes that the agency suspects they invent or embellish their tales to increase chances of winning asylum. But her caveats are usually followed by a passage about how the Pentagon embraces the very defectors the CIA spurns. In Miller's Jan. 24, 2003, story, "Defectors Bolster U.S. Case Against Iraq, Officials Say," neocon hawk and Defense Policy Board member Richard Perle attacks the CIA for its hostility to defectors smuggled out of Iraq by Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress. The CIA, Perle said, had refused to interview the defectors and had undermined their testimony. "But ultimately, the flow of information was so vital and so overwhelming that they could no longer ignore it," Perle says in the piece.
One of the named defectors in Miller's Jan. 24 story, Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, a civil engineer, told officials that chem/bio weapons labs could be found beneath hospitals and inside presidential palaces. Haideri first aired his allegations to Miller for a Dec. 20, 2001, story. (According to Miller's story, Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress arranged the interview.) No such laboratories have been found, and Miller's original report looks wrong.
Miller also authored a provocative Dec. 3, 2002, story about the late Nelja N. Maltseva, aka "Madame Smallpox." Extensively sourced to "senior American officials," "foreign scientists," "American officials," "an administration official," "administration officials," and "an informant whose identity has not been disclosed," the story reviewed the theory that Maltseva may have given "a particularly virulent strain of smallpox" to the Iraqis. No such smallpox program has been found in Iraq, and Miller's original report looks wrong.
On Sept. 8, 2002, Michael R. Gordon and Miller wrote in the Times, "Iraqi defectors who once worked for the nuclear weapons establishment have told American officials that acquiring nuclear arms is again a top Iraqi priority." The story catalogs various other threats: An unnamed Iraqi defector claims Saddam Hussein is trying to create new chemical weapons. Iraq will quell another Shiite uprising with chemical and biological weapons, according to Iraqi dissident Abdalaziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Hakim reportedly gave U.S. officials a "paper" from Iranian intelligence that authorized such an attack. These reports have yet to be confirmed, and Miller's original report now looks very wrong.
Ahmed al-Shemri, who claims to have worked at Iraq's Muthanna chemical weapons plant, tells Gordon and Miller that "[a]ll of Iraq is one large storage facility" for WMD chemical agents. The Times allowed "al-Shemri" to use a pseudonym and agreed not to name the country in which he was interviewed. The remarkably detailed story continues:
"Shemri's" allegations to date are unsupported by occupation forces, and now Miller's original report looks very, very wrong.
As far back as 1998, Miller advanced the case of Khidhir Abdul Abas Hamza, an Iraqi nuclear scientist who defected in 1994. Hamza immediately went to Chalabi for help. Miller and James Risen gave credence to Hamza's claim that the Iraqi nuclear weapons program could quickly be restarted in the salaciously titled, "Tracking Baghdad's Arsenal: Inside the Arsenal: A special report, Defector Describes Iraq's Atom Bomb Push" (Aug. 15, 1998). No evidence of such a "quick-start" nuclear weapons program has been found.
Miller isn't a patsy for any stray Iraqi defector who might swim ashore. On Jan. 24, 2003, she reports that both the Defense Intelligence Agency and other Iraqi dissidents rejected defector Abdel Jabal Karim Ashur al-Bedani's testimony about chemical weapons.
But none of Miller's wild WMD stories has panned out. From these embarrassing results, we can deduce that either 1) Miller's sources were right about WMD, and it's just a matter of time before the United States finds evidence to back them up; 2) Miller's sources were wrong about WMD, and the United States will never find the evidence; 3) Miller's sources played her to help stoke a bogus war; or 4) Miller deliberately weighted the evidence she collected to benefit the hawks. It could be that the United States inadvertently overestimated Iraq's WMD program. For example, the United States might have intercepted communications to Saddam in which his henchmen exaggerated the scale of Iraq's WMD progress to make him happy.
"The country needs to know if the spy organizations were right or wrong," concludes the Times editorial, a fair and equitable stand. But by the same logic, the country needs to know if Miller and the Times too gullibly advanced the WMD findings of their sources—and if so, why.
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Jack Shafer is Slate's editor at large.
Photograph of Judith Miller courtsey of the New York Times.