Press Box

Defending General Judy

Sort of. In the margins. Sotto voce.

On Wednesday, Howard Kurtz offered a scoop in the Washington Post about the imperious conduct of New York Times reporter Judith Miller in Iraq (“Embedded Reporter’s Role in Army Unit’s Actions Questioned by Military“). I’ve disparaged the substance of Miller’s WMD reporting for more than six months, devoting many columns to her dubious stories. But should we automatically assume that Miller’s behavior—as distinct from her reporting—is beyond the pale?

In his story, Kurtz cites more than a half-dozen unnamed military sources who claim Miller “intimidated” and “threatened” Army soldiers searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, threatening negative stories in the Times. Miller, who had a long-term reporter/source relationship with Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi, “came in with a plan,” one senior staff officer tells Kurtz. “She ended up almost hijacking the mission.” Another says that Miller turned MET Alpha, the military outfit searching for WMD whom Miller traveled with, into a “Judith Miller team,” one officer says. Indeed, Miller grew so close to MET Alpha’s leader, Kurtz reports, that when he got a promotion she was the one to pin the rank to his uniform in a Baghdad ceremony.

But let’s uncouple our judgment of what Miller writes (faulty and biased copy, basically) from the methods she used to cover the Iraq story. Viewed in this light, Miller starts to look like a victim of a turf battle in which one military faction used the Washington Post to punish another—MET Alpha—by trashing Miller. Government sources routinely use the press to punish their bureaucratic enemies; it just isn’t something journalists like to acknowledge. For example, in the orgy of finger-pointing last summer about who was responsible for letting two 9/11 hijackers into the country, the FBI told its CIA-disparaging story to Newsweek, and the CIA ripped the FBI in the Washington Post.

I think that’s what’s going on in the Kurtz story. The anonymous officers are upset with MET Alpha for interviewing potential Iraqi informers rather than leaving them for military experts to interrogate. By lambasting Gen. Judith Miller in the Washington Post, the officers undermine MET Alpha’s credibility. It’s worth noting that all of Miller’s critics in the Kurtz piece snipe at her and MET Alpha from the safe-house of anonymity, the hallmark of a turf battle that spills into the press. (Miller should have talked to Kurtz, telling him her side, and her Times editor should have done a better job of placing her rudeness in context.)

Miller makes an inviting target for the anonymous officers because she’s obnoxious and aggressive, not because she’s a biased and unreliable reporter (which the officers barely comment on). Now, you might not want a cutthroat reporter like Miller as a next door neighbor. She doesn’t have a reputation for playing well with others. And she’s a relentless bigfooter within the Times, shiving anybody she considers a threat. (See this previous Kurtz piece about her intra-Times turf scuffle with Baghdad bureau chief John Burns.)

But sometimes a smile can only get you a small part of the story and you need somebody like Miller to break a difficult story. Miller cracked heads in Iraq in her pursuit of the WMD story, which is what an editor loves to hear. And so what if she convinced some officers that her intelligence leads, apparently gleaned from Chalabi, were better than theirs? They certainly turned out to be no worse. Yes, Miller is said to have threatened the anonymous officers with unflattering stories in the New York Times and to rat them out to her buddies, Donald Rumsfeld and Douglas Feith, if they didn’t conduct the WMD investigation to her specs. But if she caused soldiers to cave out of fear, she did us all a great service by exposing their weakness. When the greatest army in the history of the world can’t stand up to one belligerent harpy of a reporter, freedom is in trouble.

In fact, Miller’s brass-knuckling in Iraq isn’t all that different from the methods used by many crime, politics, and intelligence beat reporters. They shout and scream at their sources and subjects, and even vow to destroy them from time to time. It isn’t a pretty sight for an outsider to watch the production of news from up close, but the honest reader (like the honest sausage-eater) benefits from seeing how the stuff is constructed. God bless Howard Kurtz for demystifying the process.

Sure, Miller could use a personality makeover. But it’s a mistake to obsess on her journalistic methods when what deserves our attention is the wretched wake of misinformation she’s stirred in Iraq. Was Miller a cheerleader or a reporter? A propagandist or a journalist? How tainted was her work by a demonstrable bias for one set of informers—the former Iraqi exiles, who have their own agenda to push? Did the Times publish inaccurate stories because it failed to police her bias? Never mind her high-handedness: The Times owes its readers a comprehensive review of her recent work.

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