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The Source of the Trouble

Pulitzer Prize winner Judith Miller’s series of exclusives about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—courtesy of the now-notorious Ahmad Chalabi—helped the New York Times keep up with the competition and the Bush administration bolster the case for war. How the very same talents that caused her to get the story also caused her to get it wrong.

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Judith Miller discusses post-Saddam Iraq on The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.  

For critics of the Iraq war, the downfall of Ahmad Chalabi occasioned a hearty, unapologetic outpouring of Schadenfreude—a loud cheer for a well-deserved knee to the administration’s gut. In fact, it was possible to detect a bit of this spirit on the front page of the New York Times. On May 21, the editors arrayed contrasting images of the banker turned freedom fighter turned putative Iranian spy. Here he is smirking behind Laura Bush in the House of Representatives gallery as the president delivers his State of the Union address. There he is looking bleary and sweaty, after Iraqi police stormed his home and office in the middle of the night. An analysis by David Sanger went so far as to name names of individuals who had associated themselves with the discredited leader of the Iraqi National Congress. The list, he wrote, included “many of the men who came to dominate the top ranks of the Bush administration . . . Donald H. Rumsfeld, Paul D. Wolfowitz, Douglas J. Feith, Richard L. Armitage, Elliott Abrams and Zalmay M. Khalilzad, among others.”

The phrase “among others” is a highly evocative one. Because that list of credulous Chalabi allies could include the New York Times’ own reporter, Judith Miller. During the winter of 2001 and throughout 2002, Miller produced a series of stunning stories about Saddam Hussein’s ambition and capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction, based largely on information provided by Chalabi and his allies—almost all of which have turned out to be stunningly inaccurate.

For the past year, the Times has done much to correct that coverage, publishing a series of stories calling Chalabi’s credibility into question. But never once in the course of its coverage—or in any public comments from its editors—did the Times acknowledge Chalabi’s central role in some of its biggest scoops, scoops that not only garnered attention but that the administration specifically cited to buttress its case for war.

The longer the Times remained silent on Chalabi’s importance to Judith Miller’s reporting, the louder critics howled. In February, in the New York Review of Books, Michael Massing held up Miller as evidence of the press’s “submissiveness” in covering the war. For more than a year, Slate’s Jack Shafer has demanded the paper come clean.

But finally, with Chalabi’s fall from grace so complete—the Pentagon has cut off his funding, troops smashed his portrait in raids of the INC office—the Times’ refusal to concede its own complicity became untenable. Last week, on page A10, the paper published a note on its coverage, drafted by executive editor Bill Keller himself. The paper singled out pieces that relied on “information from a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors, and exiles bent on ‘regime change.’ ” The note named Ahmad Chalabi as a central player in this group.

This time, however, the omission of Judith Miller’s name was conspicuous. “Some critics of our coverage during that time have focused blame on individual reporters. Our examination, however, indicates that the problem was more complicated.”

“It was precisely her unpleasant aggressiveness that helped force the story—the marriage of WMD and global jihadists—closer to the top of the agenda.”

The editor’s note was correct: The Judy Miller problem is complicated. That is, the very qualities that endeared Miller to her editors at the New York Times—her ambition, her aggressiveness, her cultivation of sources by any means necessary, her hunger to be first—were the same ones that allowed her to get the WMD story so wrong.

Miller is a star, a diva. She wrote big stories, won big prizes. Long before her WMD articles ran, Miller had become a newsroom legend—and for reasons that had little to do with the stories that appeared beneath her byline. With her seemingly bottomless ambition—a pair of big feet that would stomp on colleagues in her way and even crunch a few bystanders—she cut a larger-than-life figure that lent itself to Paul Bunyan–esque retellings. Most of these stories aren’t kind. Of course, nobody said journalism was a country club. And her personality was immaterial while she was succeeding, winning a Pulitzer, warning the world about terrorism, bio-weapons, and Iraq’s war machine. But now, who she is, and why she prospered, makes for a revealing cautionary tale about the culture of American journalism.

On a summer afternoon in the early eighties, Judy Miller invited her exercise-averse boyfriend Richard Burt, then the Times’ defense reporter, to watch her swim laps in the Washington Hilton pool. Afterward, lounging in the sun, Miller veered into one of her favorite lines of conversation: Does chemical or nuclear warfare inflict the most damage? Burt, who would go on to become an assistant secretary of State in the Reagan administration, has a serious cast of mind. But even he was taken aback by Miller’s dark thoughts. “I remember being struck that there are not many people sitting around on a beautiful day thinking about weapons of mass destruction,” he says.

Miller’s dramatic way of looking at the world may have something to do with her family’s show-business background. During the forties and fifties, her father, Bill Miller, ran the Riviera nightclub in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Famed for its retractable roof, the Riviera staged shows by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Tito Puente. When the state highway commission ordered the Riviera condemned in 1953, Miller made his way to Vegas, proving his impresario bona fides by reviving the careers of Elvis Presley and Marlene Dietrich.

Judy Miller arrived in the Times’ Washington bureau in 1977, as part of a new breed of hungry young hires, prodded in part by the sting of losing the Watergate story to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post. “She was unlike the other guys there. That’s why they brought her to the paper,” says Steven Rattner, another old boyfriend, who eventually left his Times gig to become an investment banker.

Installed amid colleagues—they were almost all men—who’d spent decades working their way up the paper’s food chain, Miller stood out immediately for her sharp elbows. While the culture of the paper assiduously practices omertà—what happens in the newsroom stays in the newsroom—Miller is cause for reporters to break the code of silence. An unusual number of her co-workers have gone out of their way to separate themselves and their paper from Miller. Few are brave enough to attach their names to the stories, but they all sound a similar refrain. “She’s a shit to the people she works with,” says one. “When I see her coming, my instinct is to go the other way,” says another. They recite her foibles and peccadilloes, from getting temporarily banned by the Times’ D.C. car service for her rudeness to throwing a fit over rearranged items on her desk. Defenders are few and far between. And even the staunchest ones often concede her faults. Bill Keller told me in an e-mail, “She has sharp elbows. She is possessive of her sources, and passionate about her stories, and a little obsessive. If you interview people who have worked with Sy Hersh, I’ll bet you’ll find some of the same complaints.”


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