In our new book, The Exception To the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers and the Media That Love Them, we titled one chapter “The Lies of Our Times” to examine how The New York Times coverage on Iraq and its alleged stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction helped lead the country to war. Yesterday, The New York Times, for the first time, raised questions about its own coverage in an 1,100-word editor’s note. Here is an excerpt from our section of the book on the New York Times and
“From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” — Andrew H. Card, White House Chief of Staff speaking about the Iraq war P.R. campaign,
In the midst of the buildup to war, a major scandal was unfolding at The New York Times-the paper that sets the news agenda for other media. The Times admitted that for several years a 27-year-old reporter named Jayson Blair had been conning his editors and falsifying stories. He had pretended to be places he hadn’t been, fabricated quotes, and just plain lied in order to tell a sensational tale. For this, Blair was fired. But The Times went further: It ran a 7,000-word, five-page expose on the young reporter, laying bare his personal and professional escapades.
The Times said it had reached a low point in its 152-year history. I agreed. But not because of the Jayson Blair affair. It was The Times coverage of the Bush-Blair affair.
When George W. Bush and Tony Blair made their fraudulent case to attack
If only The New York Times had done the same kind of investigation of Miller’s reports as it had with Jayson Blair.
The White House propaganda blitz was launched on
“I don’t know what more evidence we need,” crowed Bush.
Actually, any evidence would help-there was no such IAEA report. But at the time, few mainstream American journalists questioned the leaders’ outright lies. Instead, the following day, “evidence” popped up in the Sunday New York Times under the twin byline of Michael Gordon and Judith Miller. “More than a decade after Saddam Hussein agreed to give up weapons of mass destruction,” they stated with authority, “
In a revealing example of how the story amplified administration spin, the authors included the phrase soon to be repeated by President Bush and all his top officials: “The first sign of a ‘smoking gun,’ [administration officials] argue, may be a mushroom cloud.”
Harper’s publisher John R. MacArthur, author of Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War, knew what to make of this front-page bombshell. “In a disgraceful piece of stenography,” he wrote, Gordon and Miller “inflated an administration leak into something resembling imminent Armageddon.”
The Bush administration knew just what to do with the story they had fed to Gordon and Miller. The day The Times story ran, Vice President Dick Cheney made the rounds on the Sunday talk shows to advance the administration’s bogus claims. On NBC’s Meet the Press, Cheney declared that
This was the classic disinformation two-step: the White House leaks a lie to The Times, the newspaper publishes it as a startling expose, and then the White House conveniently masquerades behind the credibility of The Times.
“What mattered,” wrote MacArthur, “was the unencumbered rollout of a commercial for war.”4
Judith Miller was just getting warmed up. Reporting for
After the war, Shafer pointed out, “None of the sensational allegations about chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons given to Miller have panned out, despite the furious crisscrossing of
Did The New York Times publish corrections? Clarifications? Did heads roll? Not a chance: Judith Miller’s “scoops” continued to be proudly run on the front pages.
Here are just some of the corrections The Times should have run after the year-long campaign of front-page false claims by one of its premier reporters, Judith Miller.
FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS
Oops: As UN weapons inspectors had earlier stated-and
Scoop: “White House Lists
Oops: Rather than run a major story on how the United States had falsely cited the UN to back its claim that Iraq was expanding its nuclear weapons program, Miller and Gordon repeated and embellished the lie.
Contrast this with the lead paragraph of a story that ran in the British daily The Guardian on September 9: “The International Atomic Energy Agency has no evidence that
Miller’s trumped-up story contributed to the climate of the time and The Times. A month later, numerous congressional representatives cited the nuclear threat as a reason for voting to authorize war.
Miller airs the INC’s chief complaint: “Iraqi dissidents and administration officials complain that [the State Department and CIA] have also tried to cast doubt on information provided by defectors Mr. Chalabi’s organization has brought out of
Oops: Miller championed the cause of Chalabi, the Iraqi exile leader who had been lobbying
Times readers might be interested to learn the details of how Ahmed Chalabi was bought and paid for by the CIA. Chalabi heads the INC, an organization of Iraqi exiles created by the CIA in 1992 with the help of the Rendon Group, a powerful public relations firm that has worked extensively for the two Bush administrations. Between 1992 and 1996, the CIA covertly funneled $12 million to Chalabi’s INC. In 1998, the
In the lead-up to war, the CIA dismissed Chalabi as unreliable. But he was the darling of Pentagon hawks, putting an Iraqi face on their warmongering. So the Pentagon established a new entity, the Office of Special Plans, to champion the views of discredited INC defectors who helped make its case for war.
As Howard Kurtz later asked in The Washington Post: “Could Chalabi have been using The Times to build a drumbeat that
Scoop: “C.I.A. Hunts
Smallpox was cited by President Bush as one of the “weapons of mass destruction” possessed by
Oops: After a three-month search of Iraq, ” ‘Team Pox’ turned up only signs to the contrary: disabled equipment that had been rendered harmless by UN inspectors, Iraqi scientists deemed credible who gave no indication they had worked with smallpox, and a laboratory thought to be back in use that was covered in cobwebs,” reported the Associated Press in September 2003.
Scoop: “Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert,” by Judith Miller,
Who is the messenger for this bombshell? Miller tells us only that she “was permitted to see him from a distance at the sites where he said that material from the arms program was buried. 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.”
And then there were the terms of this disclosure: “This reporter was not permitted to interview the scientist or visit his home. Nor was she permitted to write about the discovery of the scientist for three days, and the copy was then submitted for a check by military officials. Those officials asked that details of what chemicals were uncovered be deleted.” No proof. No names. No chemicals. Only a baseball cap-and the credibility of Miller and The Times-to vouch for a “scientist” who conveniently backs up key claims of the Bush administration. Miller, who was embedded with MET Alpha, a military unit searching for WMDs, pumped up her sensational assertions the next day on PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer: Q: Has the unit you’ve been traveling with found any proof of weapons of mass destruction in
JUDITH MILLER: Well, I think they found something more than a smoking gun. What they’ve 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.
Q: Does this confirm in a way the insistence coming from the
JUDITH MILLER: Yes, it clearly does…. That’s what the Bush administration has finally done. They have changed the political environment, and they’ve enabled people like the scientists that MET Alpha has found to come forth.
Oops: The silver bullet got more tarnished as it was examined. Three months later, Miller acknowledged that the scientist was merely “a senior Iraqi military intelligence official.” His explosive claims vaporized.
A final note from the Department of Corrections: The Times deeply regrets any wars or loss of life that these errors may have contributed to.
UP IN SMOKE
Tom Wolfe once wrote about a war-happy Times correspondent in Vietnam (same idea, different war): The administration was “playing [the reporter] of The New York Times like an ocarina, as if they were blowing smoke up his pipe and the finger work was just right and the song was coming forth better than they could have played it themselves.” But who was playing whom? The Washington Post reported that while Miller was embedded with MET Alpha, her role in the unit’s operations became so central that it became known as the “Judith Miller team.” In one instance, she disagreed with a decision to relocate the unit to another area and threatened to file a critical report in The Times about the action. When she took her protest to a two-star general, the decision was reversed. One Army officer told the Post, “Judith was always issuing threats of either going to The New York Times or to the secretary of defense. There was nothing veiled about that threat.”
Later, she played a starring role in a ceremony in which MET Alpha’s leader was promoted. Other officers were surprised to watch as Miller pinned a new rank on the uniform of Chief Warrant Officer Richard Gonzales. He thanked her for her “contributions” to the unit. In April 2003, MET Alpha traveled to the compound of Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi “at Judy’s direction,” where they interrogated and took custody of an Iraqi man who was on the Pentagon’s wanted list-despite the fact that MET Alpha’s only role was to search for WMDs. As one officer told the Post, “It’s impossible to exaggerate the impact she had on the mission of this unit, and not for the better.”
After a year of bogus scoops from Miller, the paper gave itself a bit of cover. Not corrections-just cover. On
The Iraqi National Congress had made some of these defectors available to…The New York Times, which reported their allegations about prisoners and the country’s weapons program. Poof. Up in smoke went thousands of words of what can only be called rank propaganda.
This Times confession was too little, too late. After an unnecessary war, during a brutal occupation, and several thousand lives later, The Times obliquely acknowledged that it had been recycling disinformation. Miller’s reports played an invaluable role in the administration’s propaganda war. They gave public legitimacy to outright lies, providing what appeared to be independent confirmation of wild speculation and false accusations. “What Miller has done over time seriously violates several Times’ policies under their code of conduct for news and editorial departments,” wrote William E.
More than that, Miller’s false reporting was key to justifying a war. And The Times’ unabashed servitude to the administration’s war agenda did not end with
The author? Judith Miller-preparing for the next battlefront.
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