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The Source of the Trouble

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Miller’s brief when she arrived at the paper was primarily to cover the Securities and Exchange Commission. But that wasn’t her true interest. At Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, studying for a master’s in public affairs, she traveled to Jerusalem in 1971 to research a paper. “I became fascinated with the Israeli and the Palestinian dispute, and spent the rest of the summer traveling for the first time to Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon,” Miller told me in an e-mail. (Miller responded by e-mail to some questions and ignored others.) “By the end of the summer, I was hooked.” As a correspondent for The Progressive and National Public Radio, she turned her academic interest into a professional one, traveling to the region and cultivating a network of highly placed sources. Nina Totenberg, a colleague from NPR, recalls a party in the mid-seventies at which Jordan’s King Hussein caught a glimpse of Miller across the room and howled, “Juuuuddddy!”

“Kiiiinnnggg,” she responded.

In 1983, the Times put her Middle East experience to use by installing her as its Cairo bureau chief, allowing her to range from Tripoli to Damascus. Paradoxically, powerful Middle Eastern men, with their fervent sexism, actually represented an opportunity for female reporters. Viewing the women with utter condescension, these monarchs and dictators had no fear of granting them extraordinary access. They would pontificate without worries of repercussions. Miller had ready access to many Mideast potentates. As she shuttled between meetings with Hussein, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and Palestinian Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat in 1984, her colleagues joked about the “Miller Plan” for peace.

Miller also racked up the sort of adventure tales that correspondents love to dispense after a dram or two of whiskey. She witnessed a hanging in Sudan, flew across Afghanistan in a rickety Northern Alliance helicopter held together in places by duct tape. “Judy is a smart, relentless, incredibly well-sourced, and fearless reporter,” says Keller. “It’s a little galling to watch her pursued by some of these armchair media ethicists who have never ventured into a war zone or earned the right to carry Judy’s laptop.”

From her first day at the Times, Miller’s life and work have been hard to separate, which for a reporter is both a strength and a weakness. “She’s a passionate person—she gets caught up in her sources passionately,” one of her Times colleagues told me. Friends from her earliest days in Washington noted that she didn’t surround herself with people her own age. She sought out the best and brightest at the city’s highest levels, dating Larry Sterne, the Washington Post’s foreign editor, and hanging out with the defense gurus Richard Perle and Walter Slocum. “These people were powerful. But they were also interesting, and Judy liked talking to them. She is curious and enthusiastic,” says one friend from this period.

And she got caught up in her coverage of the Middle East. It was a passion she acknowledged in the introduction to her 1996 book on Islam, God Has Ninety-Nine Names: “While I have tried to keep an open mind about traditions and cultures that differ from my own, I make no apology for the fact that as a Western woman and an American, I believe firmly in the inherent dignity of the individual and the value of human rights and legal equality for all. In this commitment, I, too, am unapologetically militant.”

King Hussein caught a glimpse of Miller across the room and howled, “Juuuuddddy.” “Kiiiinnnggg,” she responded.

By the late nineties, she was focused largely on the nexus between terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Her dispatches from the region frequently contained nightmare scenarios. One piece, co-written with William Broad, warned that “a pilotless plane spraying 200 pounds of anthrax near a large city might kill up to a million people—if the winds were right, if no rain fell, if the nozzles did not get clogged, if the particles were the right size, if the population had no vaccinations, and so on.” It might have seemed like a risk too far-fetched to mention, but she felt compelled to mention it. The country at the time seemed to be enjoying the equivalent of that sunny day at the Hilton. The economy was booming, and the biggest problem seemed to be managing prosperity—and a president’s personal failings. “Remember, everyone was obsessed with the White House sex story,” says New Yorker writer Jeffrey Goldberg, who was invited by the paper to join Miller in an investigation unit to examine Al Qaeda. Goldberg found her an impossibly difficult colleague. But he also realized her value. “She happened to be prescient about the rise of the global jihad. And it was her unpleasant hyper-aggressiveness that enabled her to help force a very important story—the possibility of a marriage between WMD proliferators and global jihadists—closer to the top of the agenda.”

Before September 11, Miller, with her anxieties about anthrax attacks, could seem like Chicken Little; afterward, she seemed more liked Cassandra, the only one who’d been right. And this fact gave her tremendous power at the paper. Eight months before the attacks, she published a piece documenting Al Qaeda’s WMD ambitions—part of a series that later earned her (along with several colleagues) a Pulitzer. Germs, a book about bioterrorism co-written with two Times colleagues, appeared less than a month after the attacks and soon hit the best-seller list. She began making regular appearances on CNN and PBS, becoming a public face of the paper—a celebrity that grimly solidified when she received a hoax letter at her desk containing a white, powdery substance resembling anthrax.

What’s more, she had spent several decades acquiring access to Washington’s Middle East experts, some of whom suddenly wielded tremendous influence in the Bush administration. Miller’s many doubters at the Times were effectively silenced. She had emerged as one of the paper’s biggest stars, with the kind of “competitive metabolism” that new editor Howell Raines—he’d taken over from Joseph Lelyveld the week before 9/11—made into a crusade. According to a friend of Raines’s, as well as one of Miller’s colleagues at the paper, the editor pulled her aside after the attacks. “Go win a Pulitzer,” he told her.

For the next two years, she supplied the paper with a string of grim exclusives. There was the defector who described Saddam Hussein’s recent renovation of storage facilities for nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. There was her report that a Russian virologist might have handed the regime a particularly virulent strain of smallpox. To protect themselves against VX and sarin, she further reported, the Iraqis had greatly increased the importation of an antidote to these agents. And, most memorably, she co-wrote a piece in which administration officials suggested that Iraq had attempted to import aluminum tubes for nuclear weapons. Vice-President Dick Cheney trumpeted the story on Meet the Press, closing the circle. Of course, each of the stories contained important caveats. But together they painted a horrifying picture. There was just one problem with them: The vast majority of these blockbusters turned out to be wrong.

Long before Miller’s current difficulties, she was known at the paper for a different sin: rudeness, amplified by a legendary temper. Seth Faison, a foreign correspondent who has punched his ticket with the Times in China, tells the following story: In 1993, Miller had been billeted over to the Metro desk from her day job as a staff writer at the Times Magazine to help report on the World Trade Center bombing. Faison, a young Metro reporter, had left the office for jury duty. During his absence, Miller ensconced herself at his desk. “I had been at the Times for less than two years, and I’m not a very assertive person. And so I just said, ‘Judy, could I sit here?’ She said, ‘You have to go someplace else.’ ”

When Faison went to his editors, they did nothing to help him. “They held up their hands palm up, like, ‘I’m not going to touch this one.’ They didn’t want the wrath of Judy Miller.” And so for a week, without ever acknowledging Faison’s refugee status, Miller occupied his territory.

The epicenter of Miller-bashing is the Washington bureau. The phenomenon has a long history. During her tumultuous time as deputy bureau chief in the late eighties, she proposed reassigning many reporters out, to other bureaus and lesser posts. Adam Clymer, who served as the paper’s political editor, recalls, “She ran the bureau day to day, and that regime was probably the unhappiest in my experience.”

According to Clymer, she would call reporters and editors in the middle of the night to complain about stories. She found an unusual way to pass on others’ complaints as well. To listen to a daily feed from the afternoon story meeting in New York, she moved a squawk box onto her desk in the newsroom, where everyone else in the bureau could hear the feed, too. They could eavesdrop on top editors ripping into colleagues’ stories with vicious remarks obviously not intended for wide distribution.


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