Suppose you had an advance copy of the testimony that Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton was scheduled to give to a House subcommittee today that details the dangers posed by Syria’s unconventional weapons program. And let’s suppose that you wanted to leak it to the reporter who would give it the most favorable bounce in today’s papers. Would you give it to New York Times reporter Douglas Jehl, who followed a Knight Ridder story on July 18, 2003, with a critical account of how the CIA and other agencies blocked Bolton’s July House appearance?
Or would you give it to Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter who has given sympathetic play time and again to leakers and defectors bearing information about weapons of mass destruction?
You needn’t ask.
Writing in today’s Times (“Senior U.S. Official To Level Weapons Charges Against Syria“), Miller gives Bolton and his leaked testimony a very friendly hearing. You’d never know from reading Miller that in July the intelligence agencies censored Bolton from testifying on the same subject to the same subcommittee because, according to Jehl’s anonymous sources, his speech did not jibe with the CIA’s less menacing findings about Syria’s unconventional weapons capacity. A memo exceeding 35 pages spelled out CIA objections, Jehl wrote.
Nor was this the first time Bolton overhyped intelligence findings. In May 2002, Jehl writes, Bolton gave a speech alleging that Cuba had a biological weapons program, an opinion not supported by intelligence data. Bolton’s June testimony to Congress about Syria’s nuclear and biological warfare programs sounded a much louder alarm than did an April CIA report to Congress, Jehl adds. This context, which appears nowhere in Miller’s story, would tell readers that Bolton is very much not an authoritative source on unconventional weapons in Syria. In fact, he’s a highly biased source with a weapons agenda that the CIA finds dubious. Perhaps someone should purchase Miller’s editors a gift subscription to the New York Times so they can acquaint themselves with the skeptical reporting of her colleagues.
Give Miller and her editors credit—but not too much—for describing the motives of the testimony leakers, who are “individuals who feel that the accusations against Syria have received insufficient attention.” Whenever reporters disclose the motives and interests of their leakers and anonymous sources, they improve their copy by giving readers a needed frame of reference through which they may judge the information. Is the source a disinterested party? One of the players? A whistleblower? A pay-back artist? The floater of a trial balloon? This is a prime example of the identity of the leaker or anonymous source having more news value than anything leaked.
Miller’s description of her leakers, combined with her selective portrayal of serial exaggerator Bolton and her undoubting write-up of his testimony, leads me to speculate that this leak was authorized on some official level. If calculated to drum up interest in Bolton’s views on the day of his congressional performance, the leak succeeded marvelously. What would have been just a one-day story in the newspapers (“Bolton Warns of Syrian Peril”) will become a two-day affair in which a preview and a review of his testimony receive wide exposure.
In the past two years, Miller has given ample evidence that she’s a sucker for Iraqi defectors. Has she now become a valued member of the administration’s publicity machine?
Leaks traced here: firstname.lastname@example.org.