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The case against Judith Miller
Together, Again Judith Miller and Ahmad Chalabi
By Jack Shafer
Posted Monday, Jan. 31, 2005, at 4:28 PM PT

How did the New York Times botch the weapons of mass destruction story so magnificently? According to the editors' mini culpa of May 26, 2004, many of the stories the Times published during in the run-up to the war shared a common feature. They depended at least in part on information from a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles bent on "regime change" in Iraq, people whose credibility has come under increasing public debate in recent weeks. Complicating matters for journalists, the accounts of these exiles were often eagerly confirmed by United States officials convinced of the need to intervene in Iraq. Administration officials now acknowledge that they sometimes fell for misinformation from these exile sources. So did many news organizations—in particular, this one.

The most prominent of those exiles was Ahmad Chalabi, "an occasional source in Times articles since at least 1991," who "introduced reporters to other exiles" and "became a favorite of hard-liners within the Bush administration and a paid broker of information from Iraqi exiles." And one of the most prolific chroniclers of Chalabi's views and those of his Iraqi National Congress camp was Times reporter Judith Miller, who wrote or co-wrote at least nine of the "problematic" stories the Times cited in its mini culpa.

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Miller was detailed to the oil-for-food scandal by the Times after its self-examination, but she emerged from the woodshed yesterday (Jan. 30) to appear on Hardball with stunning news that, if true, belongs in the New York Times, not on cable TV as talk show filler.

Citing unnamed "sources," Miller claimed that the Bush administration had recently made "belated and sudden outreaches" to Ahmad Chalabi, "to offer him expressions of cooperation and support." She continued, "And according to one report, he was even offered a chance to be an interior minister in the new government. But I think one effect of this vote is going to be that the Iraqis themselves will decide who will hold."

These revelations stunned Hardball host Chris Matthews and a nation of Miller skeptics.

    Matthews: Wait a minute. When you say—Judy, when you say administration, do you mean the alliance party leadership or Allawi over there, the current prime minister? Who are you talking about?

    Miller: We are talking about the administration officials who have been reaching out to …

    Matthews: You mean Americans? [Italics in the MSNBC transcript.]

    Miller: ... [Ayatollah] Sistani's—yes, American officials who have been reaching out to Sistani's party. Because Dr. Chalabi is on that list.

    Matthews: So where—so we have an election over there. And the same day we're holding an election, the same week, we are plotting which ministries to give to Chalabi, the guy who talked us into the war in the first place.

    Miller: No, no. There were expressions. There was apparently an effort to determine whether or not he would be interested in assuming a certain portfolio.

    Matthews: Why are we in the business of deciding or even negotiating cabinet ministries in a foreign government?

    Miller: No. Well, you know, Chris, first of all, this is just one report. But I think what is very clear, according to people I talked to today, is that they have been attempting to mend fences with him. Now understanding that as a tent [phonetic transcription] on that Sistani list, the Shia list, he will be an important person in Iraq. And I think that there will have to be a lot of rethinking on the part of the Americans with whom they want to deal.

    Matthews: … the idea that the man who won his country back through the vice president's office, Ahmed Chalabi, finds his way now through all this electoral process to end up as oil minister or finance minister, as you say, interior minister—and I think he has higher ambitions than that—makes the electoral process come down to the guy who started the war, ends up winning the war, irregardless of how people vote over there.

    Miller: Well, you know, I think the interesting thing was the up and down, was the kind of rise and fall of Ahmed Chalabi in this administration. On one hand, in the beginning, he was the person supported adamantly by the Defense Department. He was opposed by the State Department and the CIA …

    Matthews: Right.

    Miller: ... who said he had no popular support in the country...

    Matthews: Right.

    Miller: ... and he wouldn't be able to hold a coalition together. We've now seen that, in fact, he played a pivotal role in putting together, helping to put together the list which we don't know yet, but it may very well have done extremely well, if not won the vote.

Once again, amazing if true, and if true worthy of inclusion in the Times. But Miller's claim did not make today's (Jan. 31) New York Times' news pages. An op-ed describes Chalabi as "now disowned by the Americans who sponsored him. …"

Why isn't it in the Times? Miller tells Matthews that she hasn't talked to her newspaper and is "on vacation in Florida."

On vacation in Florida? She has the second-biggest Iraq story of the day (after the successful election) and vacation is keeping her from phoning in this scoop?!

This isn't the first time Miller has availed herself of the un-vetted freedom of the airwaves to make a spectacular claim that she didn't (or couldn't) get into the Times. On April 21, 2003, the Times published Miller's report from Iraq about the discovery of buried chemical weapon precursors by the U.S. military's MET Team Alpha. The hot copy that she couldn't move past her editors she blabbed, un-vetted, on The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer the next night. From the NewsHour transcript:

    Miller: What they found is a silver bullet in the form of a person, an Iraqi individual, a scientist, as we've called him, who really worked on the programs, who knows them firsthand, and who has led MET Team Alpha people to some pretty startling conclusions that have kind of challenged the American intelligence community's under ... previous understanding of, you know, what we thought the Iraqis were doing.

Miller's silver bullet quickly turned into fool's gold, and bit by bit she backed away from the story. There were no WMD precursors. The "scientist" was a fraud.

Given her history as the discredited channeller of all things Chalabi, one wonders 1) why Matthews cast her as some sort of Iraq authority, and 2) why he didn't push her harder about her "revelation."He could easily have asked with his trademarked snort, "Judy, is this as solid as your WMD stories?" and "How good are these 'sources' and this 'one report'?"

The last, best question, "Say, Judy, Ahmad Chalabi couldn't be one of your 'sources,' could he?"


Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day. For Miller's sake, I hope somebody verifies her sources' information. Send e-mail—or confirmation—to pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Bloggers Rip My Flesh (Feb 1, noonish, ET) Beating me to the Miller story were The Left Coaster ("Is The Bush Administration Working To Install Ahmed Chalabi In New Iraqi Government?"), Eschaton ("Here we have a New York Times reporter going on the record saying that according to a source, the Bush administration was in talks with Chalabi about a position in the new Iraqi government."), and You Will Anyway ("I wouldn't be surprised if Allawi is marginalized by these elections and the U.S. puts its chips on their old partner-in-crime, Ahmed Chalabi. American officials are already starting to 'reach out' to Chalabi, as New York Times reporter Judith Miller put it on MSNBC's Hardball, offering him all sorts of plum positions in the new Iraqi Cabinet.") Xymphora, taking Miller at face value, riffs off of Eschaton: "Whether it be Baghdad or Cleveland, the people running the United States have developed a certain expertise at running crooked elections staged as a series of televised photo-ops intended to disguise what is really going on." Vegacura asks, "Why, oh why, is Judith Miller still employed as a reporter by the New York Times?" The Sorest Loser: "It's entirely possible that our attempt to discredit [Chalabi] was a mere ruse to make him more popular." The War in Context: "Though Judith Miller doesn't know what a reliable source looks like when it comes to intelligence, there's little question that she has is well informed about the workings of the Bush administration."

(Feb. 1, 3:45 p.m. ET) Media in Trouble: "While I love the fact that Atrios and Shafer are barking up Judith Miller's tree about the Ahmed Chalabi bomb she dropped on Hardball. They seem to be barking up the wrong tree. I realized this because I was watching my DVR recording of the Capital Gang last night and noticed that they had dropped that bomb first. … I wrote them maybe they will link me." The Scooter's Freakin' Wicked Weblog: " … there are a few questions that someone should ask Miller. First, who was her unnamed source? Was it, in fact, Ahmad Chalabi?"

Jack Shafer is Slate's editor at large.
Photograph of Judith Miller courtesy of the New York Times.

Why hasn't this reporter or her bosses been fired? She lies, they print her lies, they apologize for her lies, then she goes on Hardball and lies some more. These amateurs in the media are somewhat akin to the amateurs in the White House.

There are other striking familiarities. Both the White House and the media knowingly mislead or lied to us about war and neither of them hold themselves or their subordinate responsible. In other works, failure is now an acceptable option and it's even rewarded.

The dumbing down of America is complete.