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The Source of the Trouble

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Where Miller exhibited so much hostility to other reporters, she would be fawning and generous to her sources. “Judy treats her sources well, with a sense of loyalty. She’s an attentive and courteous person to them,” one Times reporter says. Her strength was that she viewed the relationships as more than transactional. Her sources were her friends.

According to some of her critics, they have occasionally been more than friends. In the early eighties, she shared a Georgetown house with her boyfriend, Wisconsin congressman Les Aspin—a rising star in the Democratic Party, who went on to become Bill Clinton’s first secretary of Defense. Aspin, many noted, had appeared a dozen times in Miller’s pieces, offering sage words about national security. Certain catty colleagues liked to read these stories aloud. Each time the phrase “Aspin said” appeared, a reporter would add, “rolling over in bed.” When Reagan nominated Richard Burt to be assistant secretary of State for European affairs, Jesse Helms and other right-wingers bludgeoned him for their relationship. “It would help [your chances for confirmation],” Orrin Hatch delicately wrote to Burt, “if you could lay to rest the rumors about Judith Miller’s articles on arms control appearing so soon after your own meetings with her. . . .”

The gossip about Miller’s romantic life was circulated most widely by a columnist writing in Spy magazine under the pseudonym J. J. Hunsecker. He chronicled her exploits, referring to her as “frisky deputy bureau chief Judith ‘Is that a banana in your pocket . . .?’ Miller.” As a commentator on the mores of the Times, Hunsecker lacked a certain subtlety. “Miller has been enriching the lives of high-level sources around Washington with her own very special brand of journalistic involvement,” the columnist sneered in 1988. But gradually, the allegations moved from innuendo to out-and-out rumormongering. The column reported, outlandishly, that President George H. W. Bush called his resident political genius, Lee Atwater, into his office “and informed him that it might be better if he ended his very special relationship with Miller.” Hunsecker was hardly credible. He could produce some howlers, and nothing he wrote could necessarily be believed. But the point wasn’t his information, but the way he obtained it. Colleagues within the Times had come to despise Miller so greatly that they apparently picked up the phone, called Spy, and dished their hearts out.

The war in Iraq was going to be Miller’s journalistic victory lap. Just before the bombs began falling on Baghdad, Miller embedded with Mobile Exploitation Team (MET) Alpha—the unit charged with scouring Iraq for weapons of mass destruction. No other journalist would have such access, which meant she would have the exclusive when they uncovered the WMD stockpiles, the smoking gun. As one reporter who covered the war told me, “This was going to be the show.” Back in Kuwait, the Coalition had arranged for helicopter pools that would swoop reporters into WMD sites as MET Alpha uncovered them.

The Pentagon had seemingly rewarded Miller’s prewar reporting with this sweet arrangement. But it also extracted a high price for her presence. Under most embedding agreements, journalists were provided access in exchange for adhering to a few rigid but simple rules: No reporting on forthcoming military tactics, no revealing of sensitive information about troop positions. For the most part, these rules were enforced by common sense. Reporters censored themselves. Transgressions, they understood, would lead the military to cancel their access and throw them out of Iraq. So, by agreeing to preapproval of her pieces, Miller signed up for something far more restrictive.

Last month, I traded e-mail with Eugene Pomeroy, a former National Guard soldier who is now working in Baghdad as a contractor for a security firm. During the war, Pomeroy served as the public-affairs officer for MET Alpha. This meant that he had one primary duty: to shepherd Judy Miller around Iraq. It wasn’t a particularly happy experience. In one e-mail to me, he joked, “As far as I can gather, not many people at Defense liked this woman, and the sense I got was that she wasn’t their problem anymore now that she was in Iraq. Maybe they were hoping that she’d step on a mine. I certainly was.”

Miller guarded her exclusive access with ferocity. When the Post’s Barton Gellman overlapped in MET Alpha for a day, Miller instructed its members not to talk to him.

According to Pomeroy, as well as an editor at the Times, Miller had helped negotiate her own embedding agreement with the Pentagon—an agreement so sensitive that, according to one Times editor, Rumsfeld himself signed off on it. Although she never fully acknowledged the specific terms of that arrangement in her articles, they were as stringent as any conditions imposed on any reporter in Iraq. “Any articles going out had to be, well, censored,” Pomeroy told me. “The mission contained some highly classified elements and people, what we dubbed the ‘Secret Squirrels,’ and their ‘sources and methods’ had to be protected and a war was about to start.” Before she filed her copy, it would be censored by a colonel who often read the article in his sleeping bag, clutching a small flashlight between his teeth. (When reporters attended tactical meetings with battlefield commanders, they faced similar restrictions.)

As Miller covered MET Alpha, it became increasingly clear that she had ceased to respect the boundaries between being an observer and a participant. And as an embedded reporter she went even further, several sources say. While traveling with MET Alpha, according to Pomeroy and one other witness, she wore a military uniform.

When Colonel Richard McPhee ordered MET Alpha to pull back from a search mission and regroup in the town of Talil, Miller disagreed vehemently with the decision—and let her opinions be loudly known. The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz reprinted a note in which she told public-affairs officers that she would write negatively about his decision if McPhee didn’t back down. What’s more, Kurtz reported that Miller complained to her friend Major General David Petraeus. Even though McPhee’s unit fell outside the general’s line of command, Petraeus’s rank gave his recommendation serious heft. According to Kurtz, in an account that was later denied, “McPhee rescinded his withdrawal order after Petraeus advised him to do so.”

Miller guarded her exclusive access with ferocity. When the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman overlapped in the unit for a day, Miller instructed its members that they couldn’t talk with him. According to Pomeroy, “She told people that she had clearance to be there and Bart didn’t.” (One other witness confirms this account.)

As MET Alpha began its work in April, Miller sent home a blockbuster about an Iraqi scientist in her unit’s custody. According to Miller, the scientist had told the unit that Iraq had destroyed chemical- and biological-warfare equipment on the eve of the war. And—here’s the real coup—the scientist had led the squad to buried ingredients for chemical-weapons production. Although she told readers that her unit prevented her from naming these precursor elements or the scientist, the military did permit Miller to view him from a distance. “Clad in nondescript clothes and a baseball cap, he pointed to several spots in the sand where he said chemical precursors and other weapons material were buried,” she wrote. And on PBS’s NewsHour, she was even more emphatic: “What they found is a silver bullet in the form of a person.”

But these scoops, like the story about the scientist, tended to melt quickly in the Iraqi desert. And very soon into the postwar era, the costs of her embedding agreement and her passion for the story became clear. Even though she had more access to MET Alpha, the best seat in the house, she was the only major reporter on the WMD beat to miss the story so completely. MET Alpha was a bumbling unit; and even if it hadn’t been bumbling, it wouldn’t have made a difference—there were no WMDs. The Post’s Gellman, on the other hand, hadn’t embedded with a unit, and didn’t negotiate any access agreements. What’s more, he had the intellectual honesty to repudiate some of his own earlier reporting. He came away from Iraq with a stark, honest story: “Odyssey of Frustration: In Search for Weapons, Army Team Finds Vacuum Cleaners.”

When the Times published its editor’s note last week, it read, “Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper.”

This was a bit too sweeping. While there were no heroes within the Times, there were editors who raised serious and consistent doubts about Miller’s reportage. During the run-up to the war, investigations editor Doug Frantz and foreign editor Roger Cohen went to managing editor Gerald Boyd on several occasions with concerns about Miller’s overreliance on Chalabi and his Pentagon champions, especially Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith. For instance, Frantz rejected a proposal for a story in which Pentagon officials claimed to have identified between 400 and 1,000 WMD sites, without providing much backup evidence to justify their claims. “At the time, people knew her reporting was suspect and they said so,” one Timesman told me. But Raines and Boyd continually reaffirmed management’s faith in her by putting her stories on page 1. (Both Boyd and Raines declined to speak for this story.)


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