Press Box

Leak of the Week: Madame Smallpox

“C.I.A. Hunts Iraq Tie to Soviet Smallpox,’ by Judith Miller, Dec. 3, New York Times.

Judith Miller covers the weaponized germ beat for the New York Times and, with fellow Times reporters William Broad and Stephen Engelberg,wrote the well-received Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War last year. Miller got the bug bug when she viewed 10 large fermenters for making anthrax at a now-shuttered Soviet bioweapons factory. “I thought, ‘My God, Ronald Reagan was right, it really was an evil empire,’ ” she said this year in an interview.

Miller’s Tuesday scoop in the Times, “C.I.A. Hunts Iraq Tie to Soviet Smallpox,” explores the theory that a Russian virologist named Nelja N. Maltseva might have given “a particularly virulent strain of smallpox” to the Iraqis, a finding that obviously grows out of the expertise she acquired in writing the book.

But the prolific blind sourcing in Miller’s article to “senior American officials,” “foreign scientists,” “American officials,” “an administration official,” “administration officials,” and “an informant whose identity has not been disclosed” calls into immediate question who talked to Miller about the alleged Madame Smallpox and why. Not to denigrate Miller’s enterprise, but if the CIA is investigating Maltseva and people in a position to know are talking to Miller, why aren’t they speaking for attribution?

My gurus in the discipline of blind sourceology are journalist Edward Jay Epstein and Brookings’Stephen Hess, who counsel us to view leaks through a skeptical lens. Leaks come in both the authorized and unauthorized form, and the leaker almost always has a motive. If you have a moment, click here for a primer on their views, including Hess’ taxonomy of leaks, before reading on.

With the Epstein and Hess primer as our guide, let’s dissassemble Miller’s scoop.

Who Didn’t Leak? Although the story is about a CIA investigation of virologist Nelja N. Maltseva, nowhere in the story does Miller cite an intelligence source. That doesn’t mean that Miller didn’t talk to intelligence sources or get information from them that she then confirmed with sources outside of the intelligence community. But the absence of a blind sourced “intelligence official” indicates that the CIA probably didn’t tip her. Nor does it cite Department of Defense sources, who might conceivably leak the info to make their sometimes friend, sometimes enemy, the CIA, look bad.

Then Who Were the Leakers? Halfway through the piece, Miller candidly writes, “Administration officials said the C.I.A. was still trying to determine whether Dr. Maltseva traveled to Iraq in 1990, and whether she shared a sample of what might be a particularly virulent smallpox strain with Iraqi scientists.” This is essentially a better written and better sourced version of her lede, which attributes the scoop to both senior American officials and foreign scientists. So which is it? American officials or foreign scientists?

Why Would Senior American Officials Leak? Senior officials from the Bush administration might leak the sketchy details of the CIA’s smallpox investigation 1) to add urgency to its mass smallpox innoculations plan; and 2) to gin up support for the coming war with Iraq. To use Hess’taxonomy, that would make them Policy Leakers.

Why Would Foreign Scientists Leak? As the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman chided Slate’s Chatterbox a few weeks ago, it’s fun to unmask other journalists’ sources, but we should remember that the source doesn’t always drive the transaction with a reporter. It could be that Miller’s story started with the foreign scientists at the Research Institute for Viral Preparations in Moscow, where Nelja N. Maltseva worked until two years ago, when she died. The scientists might have informed Miller of their interviews with the CIA. From those contacts, Miller could have worked back to administration officials who gave her multiple Good Will Leaks confirming what she had learned rather than stonewalling her. The foreign scientists might be, to use Hess’ terms again, Ego Leakers, Good Will Leakers, Animus Leakers, or Whistle-Blower Leakers.

Who Benefits From the Leak? The Bush administration. As already argued, it helps make the case against Saddam. But does it? When reduced to its base elements, Miller’s story is about a CIA investigation of a dead virologist who might have handed off a virulent strain of Soviet war-machine smallpox or might not have. To begin with, we don’t know if Maltseva visited Iraq in 1990, as the mysterious “informant” alleges. (Miller writes that the informant’s “identity has not been disclosed.”) We don’t even know for sure if the smallpox strain—said to have caused an epidemic of smallpox in Aralsk, Kazakhstan, in 1971, when Kazakhstan was a Soviet republic—even exists. The Russians still deny an outbreak happened and, logically, refuse to give the United States samples of the rumored pathogen.

Who’s Hurt by the Leak? The Russians look terrible, because the story accuses them of weaponizing smallpox and transferring it to the Iraqis. The Iraqis suffer, too, although it’s not as if they’ve got reputation to lose.

Why the Administration Would Never Leak the Story. If the CIA is really investigating Maltseva and the Aralsk strain, all this blabbing would probably scare potential sources away.

Why the Administration Would Leak It in a Heartbeat. Or maybe the administration has decided publicity might elicit new sources of information in the stalled investigation. Or maybe the leak is designed to send a message to the Russians about how much the United States knows about their bioweapons programs. By publicizing the role of Maltseva, the United States might be putting new pressure on Russia to cooperate in tracking smallpox strains and anthrax.

Is the Leak the Story, or Is the Leaker the Story? Both.

Where the Next Miller Scoop Might Drop. In the aforementioned interview, Miller notes that four former Soviet scientists now work for Iran’s advanced bioweapons programs.

Does Miller’s Reach Exceed Her Grasp? Miller presents only circumstantial evidence that Nelja N. Maltseva ferried to Iraq a germ that might not exist. The primary source for the allegation is not only unnamed but unknown to Miller. Maltseva had good reason to visit Iraq in 1972 and 1973, as Miller reports, because she was part of the global smallpox eradication effort. Likewise her trip to Aralsk to combat the 1971 smallpox epidemic. Maltseva’s daughter and her former laboratory deputy say she didn’t visit Iraq in 1990, as the mystery source says.

Yet the story is so carefully couched, right down to the underselling headline, “C.I.A. Hunts Iraq Tie to Soviet Smallpox,” and its placement on A18, that nobody can accuse Miller of hyping her material. It entertains speculation and listens to theorizers but it also quotes doubters. If it contains a hidden agenda, I can’t find it. And Miller is not out there whistling alone. Earlier this fall (Nov. 5), the Post’s Gellman reported findings from a CIA’s Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control Center study that said “a former Soviet scientist told U.S. officials that his country ‘transferred [smallpox] technology in the early 1990s to Iraq.’ ” Madame Smallpox, perhaps?

I’m looking for leaks to deconstruct. If you’ve seen a good one, throw it my way: