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The Source of the Trouble

At a paper that prides itself on at least a veneer of collegiality, Miller’s reporting tactics often left jaws agape. According to two Times veterans, reporters at the Pentagon and on other beats have frequently found themselves calling their sources, only to be told, “I’ve already talked to Judy Miller.”

They charge her with forcing her bylines onto stories, staunchly arguing for the addition of her name after adding mere dribs and drabs of information. “She’s not afraid to get her byline by bigfooting. In fact, that’s how she gets many of them,” charges one of her colleagues.

But when there is trouble, it appears she’s more than happy to pass around the responsibility. One incident that still rankles happened last April, when Miller co-bylined a story with Douglas Jehl on the WMD search that included a quote from Amy Smithson, an analyst formerly at the Henry L. Stimson Center. A day after it appeared, the Times learned that the quote was deeply problematic. To begin with, it had been supplied to Miller in an e-mail that began, “Briefly and on background”—a condition that Miller had flatly broken by naming her source. Miller committed a further offense by paraphrasing the quote and distorting Smithson’s analysis. One person who viewed the e-mail says that it attributed views to Smithson that she clearly didn’t hold. An embarrassing correction ensued. And while the offense had been entirely Miller’s, there was nothing in the correction indicating Jehl’s innocence.

The bad feelings from these incidents have festered over time, and as problems have come to light with Miller’s reporting, her critics at the paper have eagerly piled on. Over the course of the past six months, Washington reporters have complained vociferously about Miller. They have been especially angry that Miller appears on Larry King Live and Paula Zahn Now to discuss Iraqi WMD. “There’s anger and embarrassment among the staff that Judy is still the voice of the Times on the subject,” says one reporter. In addition, some of these reporters have frankly told their editors that they will never share a byline with her. All this pressure has succeeded in forcing official reforms. The paper’s current policy is that any time Miller visits Washington, her editor Matthew Purdy must provide bureau chief Philip Taubman and his deputies with advance notice and explain her purpose for visiting. In January, the bureau officially deprived Miller of her desk. Although this was ostensibly done to make space, according to denizens of the bureau it had an intentional symbolic value, too. “It gave the bureau a way to move her out without saying it was moving her out,” says a reporter.

But she’s less an anomaly in the newsroom than a caricature of it. She’s the toughest of infighters. But “blaming her for that,” Richard Burt told me, “would be like blaming a fish for swimming; it was necessary for survival in that place.”

And also, no one has ever questioned her work ethic—she is indefatigable. “Judy Miller is a tireless and absolutely relentless reporter,” managing editor Jill Abramson told me. “In the Washington bureau, she was often the last reporter still working, sometimes making phone calls until the wee morning hours.”

According to her colleagues, she has a long history of stumbling off professional peaks only to scale them again. Her stewardship of the Washington bureau was followed by a move to New York to work as deputy media editor. After her coverage of the Gulf War, she took a turn reporting on philanthropy. But with each dip, ever-growing reserves of gumption ultimately allowed her to rehabilitate herself. One of Miller’s old Washington sources and friends told me that years of competition had “really thickened her skin. The Times really coarsened her.”

On the day the Times’ editor’s note ran, she wasn’t hiding with a feather pillow over her face. She was covering a microbiology conference in New Orleans. And just as the paper had explained Miller’s overreliance on Chalabi, she sent me an e-mail implying that she hadn’t had a close relationship with the INC leader: “I co-wrote the toughest profile of him that our paper published.”

If Miller is an extreme example of the Times’ ultracompetitive mind-set, she is also an example of an inherent problem of journalism: its reliance on sources. As a Middle East hand, and Saddam Hussein’s biographer, Miller spent the nineties paying careful attention to Iraq. But the country posed a major journalistic challenge: Saddam hardly ever granted visas to Western journalists. When he did, the secret police and Ministry of Information carefully restricted their movements, ensuring that they didn’t return home with telling stories. And the CIA hadn’t done any better infiltrating the Baathists. “For the CIA and every other Western intelligence service, Iraq was a black hole, a denied area, almost impossible to get good intelligence out of,” says former agency operative Bob Baer.

There was really only one source that claimed to have secret contacts within the country: the Iraqi National Congress. The INC had begun as an umbrella organization, cobbled together by the CIA to corral a disparate band of anti-Saddam forces into an effective opposition. At the start, Chalabi had been a functionary in this group, arranging logistics for Iraqi politicians visiting officials in Washington. But with his charming persona, he quickly became the group’s public face—an ascent that alienated many of the groups he claimed to represent. He had always known how to handle the Western press. As a banker in Amman, he had been a source of gossip about intrigue in King Hussein’s palace. Reporters—including Judy Miller—turned to him for dirt.

During the late nineties, Chalabi became one of the most contentious figures in Washington, inspiring as much partisan adoration as hatred. For a journalist covering Iraq, however, Chalabi represented an enormous temptation. Sure, there were doubts. But these could always be chalked up to the CIA’s bureaucratic impulse to blame Chalabi for botching a 1996 coup, even though it hardly evinced competence itself. Besides, his defectors had so much splashy information. Plenty of journalists—including the Times’ James Risen, Lowell Bergman, and Chris Hedges—couldn’t resist working with INC-associated defectors. But none of them went so far as Miller in cultivating Chalabi.

There’s an important difference in reportorial style between Miller and her colleagues. Risen and Bergman are diggers, excavating documents and sources hidden deep in the bureaucracy. Miller, on the other hand, relies on her well-placed, carefully tended-to connections to nab her stories. In February, on the public-radio show “The Connection,” she said, “My job was not to collect information and analyze it independently as an intelligence agency; my job was to tell readers of the New York Times, as best as I could figure out, what people inside the governments, who had very high security clearances, who were not supposed to talk to me, were saying to one another about what they thought Iraq had and did not have in the area of weapons of mass destruction.”

Her Iraq coverage didn’t just depend on Chalabi. It also relied heavily on his patrons in the Pentagon. Some of these sources, like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, would occasionally talk to her on the record. She relied especially heavily on the Office of Special Plans, an intelligence unit established beneath Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith. The office was charged with uncovering evidence of Al Qaeda links to Saddam Hussein that the CIA might have missed. In particular, Miller is said to have depended on a controversial neocon in Feith’s office named Michael Maloof. At one point, in December 2001, Maloof’s security clearance was revoked. In April, Risen reported in the Times, “Several intelligence professionals say he came under scrutiny because of suspicions that he had leaked classified information in the past to the news media, a charge that Mr. Maloof denies.” While Miller might not have intended to march in lockstep with these hawks, she was caught up in an almost irresistible cycle. Because she kept printing the neocon party line, the neocons kept coming to her with huge stories and great quotes, constantly expanding her access.