Now They Tell Us

"My job isn't to assess the government's information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of The New York Times what the government thought about Iraq's arsenal." - Judith Miller

Michael Massing The New York Review of Books
Volume 51, Number 3 [26 February 2004]

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. 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.

FULL ARTICLE: Now They Tell Us

[first posted February 2004]

From 2003:

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Reporter Crosses The NYT's Line of Strict Neutrality

By Daniel Forbes, GVNews.Net /


The Times' own ethics guidelines . . in a chapter on "Participation in Public Life" . . states, "Journalists have no place on the playing fields of politics." This is so as to not "do anything that damages The Times' reputation for strict neutrality in reporting on politics and government." Another prohibition says staffers may not "lend their name to campaigns . . if doing so might reasonably raise doubts about their ability or The Times' ability to function as neutral observers in covering the news."

Whether paid or not, the rules continue, staffers "may not join boards of trustees, advisory committees or similar groups" except those pertaining to journalism. An exception is granted for such organizations as hobby groups, fine arts groups and youth sports -- that is, organizations "that do not generally seek to shape public policy."