Press Box

Judith Miller: Duped?

Did the New York Times swallow Saddam’s disinformation?

No reporter was more go-go on the prospect of finding caches of unconventional weapons in Iraq than New York Times correspondent Judith Miller, who published numerous stories during the 18 months leading up to the war that supported allegations that Saddam Hussein was illegally developing, building, and storing chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Miller’s stories relied in great part on the testimony of Iraqi defectors, some of whom were provided to her by Iraqi National Congress leader Amad Chalabi and government officials such as Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who believed their claims.

The coalition’s spectacular failure to capture unconventional weapons in the five months since the invasion poses this pressing question: Whaaa? What convinced the New York Times and the U.S. government that Saddam was up to his mustache in bio-chem-nuke weaponry? Writing in the Los Angeles Times yesterday, reporter Bob Drogin surmises that the bogus notion came from Saddam Hussein himself (see “U.S. Suspects It Received False Iraq Arms Tips“).

According to Drogin, U.S. and allied intelligence agencies are reviewing the information provided to them by Iraqi defectors to, as a senior U.S. intelligence official put it, “see if false information was put out there and got into legitimate channels and we were totally duped on it.” Drogin writes:

[O]fficials say former Iraqi operatives have confirmed since the war that Hussein’s regime sent “double agents” disguised as defectors to the West to plant fabricated intelligence. In other cases, Baghdad apparently tricked legitimate defectors into funneling phony tips about weapons production and storage sites.

He continues:

One U.S. intelligence official said analysts may have been too eager to find evidence to support the White House’s claims. As a result, he said, defectors “were just telling us what we wanted to hear.”

Why would Saddam peddle such dangerous disinformation to the West, knowing that it could prompt an invasion? Michael Schrage answered this question long before the WMD trail went cold in a prescient piece titled, “No Weapons, No Matter. We Called Saddam’s Bluff,” and published three and a half months ago, in the Washington Post “Outlook” section. Schrage theorized that Saddam kept his nearby adversaries—the Kurds, Iranians, and Saudis—respectful of his “imperial ambitions” by signaling that he could and would strike them with VX or anthrax if they menaced him. At the same time, Saddam had to be careful not to oversignal unconventional warfare capabilities, lest he invite invasion by the United States, Israel, and Europe. This explains why his regime promised its foes a “sea of fire” and horrific defeat at the same time as it claimed to have shuttered its unconventional weapons programs. “To the very end of his brutal regime, Saddam Hussein behaved as if preserving WMD ambiguity and preserving his power were one and the same,” Schrage writes.

What destroyed Saddam’s policy of “strategic ambiguity” was 9/11. Inside the new context of jihadists flying jets into skyscrapers, the Bush administration could no longer tolerate Iraqi ambiguity. If Saddam really had such weapons, he could sell them to al-Qaida, who would have no compunctions about using them. Instead of erasing WMD ambiguity when pressured by the United States, Iraq dug in, hoping to bluff its way out of trouble at the 11th hour. The rest is military history.

No mainstream journalist bit harder on the Iraqi defectors’ claims than Judith Miller. In the 18-month run-up to the war, Miller relied on their testimony again and again, as this earlier “Press Box” column documents. If the Iraqi defectors were indeed trafficking disinformation, they found a willing propagator of it in Miller and the New York Times. Although Miller salted her stories with disclaimers that the CIA and State Department tended to doubt many of the defectors, she and her editors continued to give prominence to their claims. Her closeness to Chalabi cannot be denied. As reported by the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz, Miller e-mailed New York Times Baghdad bureau chief John Burns on May 1 stating, “I’ve been covering Chalabi for about 10 years, and have done most of the stories about him for our paper. … He has provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper.”

Did Miller’s extreme closeness to her sources blind her? A brief review of the defectors’ yet-to-be-proved claims in Miller’s stories:

Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, an Iraqi civil engineer, told Miller that he’d done repair work on nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons facilities (Dec. 20, 2001). With Times colleague Michael R. Gordon, Miller reported the pseudonymous Ahmed al-Shemri’s allegations about Saddam’s ongoing chemical weapons program (Sept. 8, 2002). Nuclear weapons maker Khidhir Hamza told Miller Iraq was two to three years from producing the centrifuges needed to enrich uranium into weapons-grade quality (Sept. 18, 2002). Miller gave sympathetic treatment to complaints by Pentagon adviser Richard N. Perle and Ahmad Chalabi that the CIA and State Department were unnecessarily hostile to the Iraqi National Congress and Iraqidefectors (Oct. 2, 2002). Citing numerous anonymous U.S. officials, Miller aired the allegations of an “unnamed informant” who said a deceased Russian scientist by the name of Nelja N. Maltseva might have given Iraq a virulent strain of smallpox (Dec. 3, 2002). Miller reported Wolfowitz’s ongoing enthusiasm for the Iraqidefectors (Jan. 24, 2003).

The detailed WMD information provided by Miller’s defectors proved ultimately worthless. The Los Angeles Times does not name any discredited Iraqi defectors but discounts the bona fides of three: Drogin notes that U.S. intelligence has dismissed one defector as a fraud, and the information offered by two others bore no fruit. Let’s hope Drogin files a follow-up soon.

Just because no unconventional weapons have been found in Iraq doesn’t mean that Iraq didn’t have a WMD program or stockpiles of gases and germs. Likewise, the fact that Iraqi defectors might have been hawking disinformation to the U.S. government and media doesn’t in any way disprove Iraqi aims or capabilities on the WMD front. Indeed, if there was a disinformation campaign, a thorough investigation of it may produce clues pointing to Iraqi’s hidden program.

If U.S. intelligence agencies fear that Saddam duped them with Iraqi defectors and have commenced a complete review of the defectors and their claims, what’s keeping the New York Times from doing the same? Remember, Times reporting gave credence to the defectors’ allegations and helped build the case for war. If the defectors’ revelations were news when Miller reported them, surely they qualify as news if the government now believes they were disinformation. How about putting Times national security reporter James Risen on the story?


Disinformation only to Your name and comments may be used in future columns unless you stipulate otherwise.