Press Box

Deep Miller

Did the New York Times just change the rules of journalism? 

Judith Miller scores a sizzling scoop on Page One of today’s New York Times. Her story, “Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said To Assert,” asserts that an Iraqi scientist who claims he worked on Saddam’s chemical warfare program for a decade has led U.S. military investigators to a “supply of material that proved to be the building blocks of illegal weapons” that he buried as proof of the weapons program.

The scientist also says Iraq destroyed chemical weapons and biological equipment before the war commenced, that it sent “conventional [Correction 4/23: that should be unconventional] weapons and technology to Syria,” that recently “Iraq was cooperating with Al Qaeda,” and that Iraq had shifted its efforts to R&D on weapons more difficult for inspectors to detect. Miller describes the source’s allegations and rudimentary proof as “the most important discovery to date in the hunt for illegal weapons.”

Journalistic bombshells all (pardon the pun). But one-third of the way into Miller’s story come these two paragraphs about the sourcing deal behind the scoop that she struck with Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, the U.S. military team searching for WMD in Iraq. Raising more questions about her relationship to MET Alpha than she answers, Miller writes:

Under the terms of her accreditation to report on the activities of MET Alpha, 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. They said they feared that such information could jeopardize the scientist’s safety by identifying the part of the weapons program where he worked.

I’ve read a lot of news stories in my time, and a fair chunk of the reporting from Iraq, but terms of accreditation to report is a new piece of journalistic jargon to me. Is it Miller’s way of saying she’s an embed, and as an embed she’s agreed not to divulge any information that may harm the “operational security” of an ongoing military action?

Or is Miller implying that she struck a more complex ad hoc deal with MET Alpha? (I think she is.) It’s quite a deal when you read the story closely. She agreed not to interview the scientist, visit his home, divulge his identity, write about the MET Alpha for three days, or disclose the composition of the chemicals. And, most pungently, she consented to pre-publication review—oh, hell, let’s call it censorship!—of her story by military officials.

Did the “military officials” who checked her story require her to redact parts of the story, or did she do so on her own accord? Were any other “terms of accreditation” imposed on Miller? Other levels of censorship? Are other Times reporters filing dispatches under similar “terms of accreditation”? When and where were the terms of accreditation negotiated? Where are they stated?

Did Miller, who co-wrote the well-received Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War, agree to these “terms of accreditation to report” because she’s writing another book about unconventional weapons and agreed to withhold her findings until the book comes out? Then, when she got this big scoop, did she ask for permission to sluice her early findings into the Times? Just a theory.

Miller’s relationship with MET Alpha does seem to be close. Is it too close? According to Nexis, the first mention of the outfit appeared in an April 10, 2003, Times article by Miller (“Hunt Finds Hint of How Iraqis Fill Power Void”). Miller’s relationship with MET Alpha is so tight that, as she writes today, members of the group permitted her to accompany them in their search for the unnamed scientist. They also allowed Miller to watch the scientist from a distance as he pointed to the sites where he said the precursor biochem materials were buried.

Journalists hammer out agreements with sources all the time. They agree to fudge the identities of sources. They agree to put information on deep background, publishing what they’ve been told without directly attributing it to anybody. In extraordinary instances, as Washington Post Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee wrote in 1986, newspapers will consult with the government about sensitive stories and withhold information for national security reasons. But, Bradlee, snarled, “we don’t allow the government—or anyone else—to decide what we should print. That is our job, and doing it responsibly is what a free press is all about. … Trouble starts when people try to sweep a lot of garbage under the rug of national security.”

Give Miller kudos for her scoop, but it’s worth asking if she and the Times secured it at a price too dear. If the paper of record has changed the rules of sourcing to the advantage of the U.S. military and the Bush administration, it ought to inform its readers of those changes, preferably in a meaty “Editor’s Note” on Page Two.

Finally, what chance do more independent newspapers have of covering terrorism and war without (ahem) fear or favor if the Times is cutting slippery deals on the side?


Send your e-mail comments (on the record, only) to