Press Box

Surrender, Judith Miller!

Knight Ridder has the goods on you.

If New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller needs a stronger news hook to justify the reinvestigation of Judith Miller’s prewar WMD reporting than Colin Powell’s Sunday interview on Meet the Press, during which the secretary of state allowed that he and the CIA were deliberately misled by an Iraqi defector, I recommend that he read today’s (May 18) piece by Knight Ridder Washington Bureau reporter Jonathan S. Landay, “White House released claims of defector deemed unreliable by CIA.”

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According to unnamed U.S. officials, the Bush administration publicized the claims of Iraqi defector Adnan Ihsan Saeed al Haideri to win support of the Iraq war—even though the CIA and DIA had declared Saeed an unreliable source nine months earlier.

Saeed, a purported civil engineer, went public in a Dec. 20, 2001, Page One New York Times story by Miller (“Iraqi Tells of Renovations at Sites for Chemical and Nuclear Arms”). Iraqi National Congress officials introduced Saeed and Miller in Bangkok, where he told her volumes about Iraq’s WMD programs: Iraq had purchased equipment with the approval of the United Nations and then used it in weapons programs. He also described production and storage facilities for Iraqi WMD hidden behind government companies, on the grounds of private villas, in underground faux water wells, and even beneath Baghdad’s Saddam Hussein Hospital. Saeed told Miller he had visited 20 sites in Iraq he believed were associated with WMD, including a “clean room” in a biological facility located in a residential neighborhood and lead-lined storage containers on farms around Baghdad. “But my assumption is that there was radiation there,” Miller quotes Saeed. “Why else use the lead?”

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Weapons experts told Miller that Saeed’s information sounded reliable, and she reported that officials were trying to verify it. She also included the short caveat that American intelligence has long been skeptical of defectors because of their tendency to embellish. But it appears that Saeed did nothing but embellish: When the CIA-run Iraq Survey Group took Saeed back to Iraq earlier this year, he failed to identify a single illegal-weapon site, Knight Ridder reports.

The CIA and DIA were onto Saeed’s game early on, according to unnamed U.S. officials. Three days before Miller’s New York Times article about Saeed appeared, he “showed deception” in a CIA-administered lie detector test, and the CIA and DIA deemed him unreliable. Miller gives no indication of whether she knew this.

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Despite this negative appraisal, Saeed’s allegations were ultimately included in the Sept. 12, 2002, White House background paper, “A Decade of Deception and Defiance.” How did that happen? The backgrounder was “the administration’s first major compendium” of Saddam Hussein’s violations of Security Council resolutions over the past decade, reports Knight Ridder, and was released the day President Bush addressed the U.N. General Assembly about Iraq. Knight Ridder surmises that Saeed’s allegations made it into the backgrounder because the document appears not to have been vetted through the CIA. A footnote in one version of the backgrounder attributed Saeed’s WMD revelations to Miller’s Dec. 20, 2001, article. (See the footnoted version on the CBS News site.) This means that one sliver of the official case for war with Iraq was based on Miller’s reporting about Saeed, not on U.S. intelligence—which rejected Saeed.

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Knight Ridder isn’t the first news organization to debunk Saeed, only the most thorough. Seymour M. Hersh wrote in the May 12, 2003, New Yorker that U.N. teams using ground-penetrating radar failed to verify Saeed’s claims in the winter of 2002. According to Michael Massing’s New York Review of Booksinvestigation of WMD and the press, the BBC program Panorama reported in November 2003 that the Iraq Survey Team searched for and failed to find the facilities described by Saeed.

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The INC’s credibility took another hit this morning as the New York Times reported that the U.S. government is defunding the organization after pouring $27 million into its coffers. The government is also shuttering a program it established in the summer of 2002, which paid the INC $335,000 a month to help collect intelligence in Iraq. Internal government reviews found that “much” of the information collected by the INC was “useless, misleading or even fabricated,” states the Times.

It was upon such useless, misleading, and fabricated information that Miller based a good part of her prewar WMD reporting. If the Knight Ridder exposé isn’t enough to prod the New York Times into a reassessment of her work, what is it going to take?

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Send your defense of Judith Miller via e-mail to pressbox@hotmail.com, and I’ll excerpt and publish the best of the lot. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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