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Now They Tell Us

1.

In recent months, US news organizations have rushed to expose the Bush administration’s pre-war failings on Iraq. “Iraq’s Arsenal Was Only on Paper,” declared a recent headline in The Washington Post. “Pressure Rises for Probe of Prewar-Intelligence,” said The Wall Street Journal. “So, What Went Wrong?” asked Time. In The New Yorker, Seymour Hersh described how the Pentagon set up its own intelligence unit, the Office of Special Plans, to sift for data to support the administration’s claims about Iraq. And on “Truth, War and Consequences,” a Frontline documentary that aired last October, a procession of intelligence analysts testified to the administration’s use of what one of them called “faith-based intelligence.”

Watching and reading all this, one is tempted to ask, where were you all before the war? Why didn’t we learn more about these deceptions and concealments in the months when the administration was pressing its case for regime change—when, in short, it might have made a difference? Some maintain that the many analysts who’ve spoken out since the end of the war were mute before it. But that’s not true. Beginning in the summer of 2002, the “intelligence community” was rent by bitter disputes over how Bush officials were using the data on Iraq. Many journalists knew about this, yet few chose to write about it.

Before the war, for instance, there was a loud debate among intelligence analysts over the information provided to the Pentagon by Iraqi opposition leader Ahmed Chalabi and defectors linked to him. Yet little of this seeped into the press. Not until September 29, 2003, for instance, did The New York Times get around to informing readers about the controversy over Chalabi and the defectors associated with him. In a front-page article headlined “Agency Belittles Information Given by Iraqi Defectors,” Douglas Jehl reported that a study by the Defense Intelligence Agency had found that most of the information provided by defectors connected to Ahmed Chalabi “was of little or no value.” Several defectors introduced to US intelligence by the Iraqi National Congress, Jehl wrote, “invented or exaggerated their credentials as people with direct knowledge of the Iraqi government and its suspected unconventional weapons program.”

Why, I wondered, had it taken the Times so long to report this? Around the time that Jehl’s article appeared, I ran into a senior editor at the Times and asked him about it. Well, he said, some reporters at the paper had relied heavily on Chalabi as a source and so were not going to write too critically about him.

The editor did not name names, but he did not have to. The Times‘s Judith Miller has been the subject of harsh criticism. Slate, The Nation, Editor & Publisher, the American Journalism Review, and the Columbia Journalism Review have all run articles accusing her of being too eager to accept official claims before the war and too eager to report the discovery of banned weapons after it.1 Especially controversial has been Miller’s alleged reliance on Chalabi and the defectors who were in touch with him. Last May, Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post wrote of an e-mail exchange between Miller and John Burns, then the Times bureau chief in Baghdad, in which Burns rebuked Miller for writing an article about Chalabi without informing him. Miller replied that she had been covering Chalabi for about ten years and had “done most of the stories about him for our paper.” Chalabi, she added, “has provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper.”

When asked about this, Miller said that the significance of her ties to Chalabi had been exaggerated. While she had met some defectors through him, she said, only one had resulted in a front-page story on WMD prior to the war. Her assertion that Chalabi had provided most of the Times‘s front-page exclusives on WMD was, she said, part of “an angry e-mail exchange with a colleague.” In the heat of such exchanges, Miller said, “You say things that aren’t true. If you look at the record, you’ll see they aren’t true.”

This seems a peculiar admission. Yet on the broader issue of her ties to Chalabi, the record bears Miller out. Before the war, Miller wrote or co-wrote several front-page articles about Iraq’s WMD based on information from defectors; only one of them came via Chalabi. An examination of those stories, though, shows that they were open to serious question. The real problem was relying uncritically on defectors of any stripe, whether supplied by Chalabi or not.

This points to a larger problem. In the period before the war, US journalists were far too reliant on sources sympathetic to the administration. Those with dissenting views—and there were more than a few—were shut out. Reflecting this, the coverage was highly deferential to the White House. This was especially apparent on the issue of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction—the heart of the President’s case for war. Despite abundant evidence of the administration’s brazen misuse of intelligence in this matter, the press repeatedly let officials get away with it. As journalists rush to chronicle the administration’s failings on Iraq, they should pay some attention to their own.

2.

On August 26, 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney gave a speech that was widely interpreted as signaling the administration’s intention to wage war on Iraq. There “is no doubt,” Cheney declared, that Saddam Hussein “has weapons of mass destruction” and is preparing to use them against the United States. Saddam, he said, not only had biological and chemical weapons but had “resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.” If allowed to continue on this course, he added, Saddam could subject his adversaries to “nuclear blackmail.” Accordingly, the United States had no choice but to take preemptive action against him.

The reference to nuclear weapons was especially telling. While Iraq was widely believed to have biological and chemical weapons, there was much more uncertainty regarding its nuclear program. In 1998, when UN inspectors left the country, it was generally agreed that Iraq’s nuclear program had been dismantled. The question was, what had happened in the four years since? In his speech, Cheney flatly stated that Iraq had resumed its quest for a bomb, but neither he nor any other Bush official offered any supporting evidence.

At the time of Cheney’s speech, Times reporters Judith Miller and Michael Gordon were investigating the state of Iraq’s arsenal. Both had reported on Iraq for many years and brought certain perspectives to the assignment. Gordon, the paper’s chief military correspondent, had after the Gulf War teamed up with retired general Bernard Trainor to write The Generals’ War: The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf (1995). A detailed account of the military’s conduct of the war, it strongly criticized the US decision to leave Saddam in power. From his many years of reporting on intelligence matters, Gordon knew how shocked US analysts had been after the Gulf War to find how far along Iraq had been in its effort to develop a nuclear weapon.

Miller, the coauthor of Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf (1990) and Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War (2001), was intimately acquainted with Saddam Hussein’s genius for deception. In February 1998, she (together with William Broad) had written a 4,900-word report about Iraq’s secret program to produce bioweapons and its success in concealing them from the outside world. According to the story, many former weapons inspectors and other experts with whom Miller and Broad talked believed that Baghdad “is still hiding missiles and germ weapons, and the means to make both.”

Later that year, Miller met one of the first defectors who gave her information—Khidhir Hamza, a scientist who, until the late 1980s, had been a senior official in Iraq’s nuclear program. After fleeing Baghdad in 1994, Hamza had made his way to Washington, where in 1997 he went to work for the Institute for Science and International Security, a small think tank, which arranged for Miller and fellow Times reporter James Risen to interview him. The result was a front-page story relating Hamza’s account of the “inner workings” of Saddam’s push for a bomb prior to the Gulf War, and recounting Hamza’s belief that Saddam retained the infrastructure to duplicate that effort.

While seeing Hamza, Miller told me, she also was in touch with Ahmed Chalabi, and in 2001 he arranged for her to visit Thailand to interview another defector, a civil engineer named Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri. The resulting front-page story related al-Haideri’s claim to have personally renovated “secret facilities for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.” These facilities were said to exist “in underground wells, private villas and under Saddam Hussein Hospital in Baghdad.” Charles Duelfer, a former inspector, was quoted as saying that al-Haideri’s account was consistent with other reports showing that Iraq had “not given up its desire” for WMD.

In 2002, Miller went to Turkey to interview yet another defector, Ahmed al-Shemri. A member of the Iraqi Officers Movement, another opposition group, al-Shemri (a pseudonym) claimed to have worked in Iraq’s chemical weapons program, and he told Miller that Saddam had continued to produce VX and other chemical agents even while international inspectors were in Iraq. Iraq, he added, continued to store such agents at secret sites throughout the country.

By late summer of 2002, then, Miller had developed a circle of sources who claimed to have firsthand knowledge of Saddam’s continued push for prohibited weapons. And as she and Gordon made the rounds of administration officials, they picked up a dramatic bit of information about Iraq’s nuclear program. During the previous fourteen months, they were told, Iraq had tried to import thousands of high-strength aluminum tubes. The tubes had been intercepted, and specialists sent to examine them had concluded from their diameter, thickness, and other technical properties that they had only one possible use—as casings for rotors in centrifuges to enrich uranium, a key step in producing an atomic bomb.

This was dramatic news. If true, it would represent a rare piece of concrete evidence for Saddam’s nuclear aspirations. And, on Sunday, September 8, 2002, the Times (then under the editorship of Howell Raines) led with the story, written by Miller and Gordon. “US Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts,” the headline said. The lead was emphatic:

More than a decade after Saddam Hussein agreed to give up weapons of mass destruction, Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb, Bush administration officials said today.

Gordon and Miller went on to cite the officials’ claims about the aluminum tubes and their intended use in centrifuges to enrich uranium.

The article contained several caveats, noting, for instance, that Iraq “is not on the verge of fielding a nuclear weapon.” Overall, though, the language was stark:

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    See Jack Shafer, “The Times Scoops That Melted,” Slate, July 25, 2003; Russ Baker, “‘Scoops’ and Truth at the Times,” The Nation, June 23, 2003; William E. Jackson Jr., “Miller’s Latest Tale Questioned,” Editor & Publisher Online, September 23, 2003, at www.editorandpublisher.com; Charles Layton, “Miller Brouhaha,” AJR, August/ September 2003; and John R. MacArthur, “The Lies We Bought,” CJR, May/June 2003.

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