Press Box

Judith Miller, Interrogator

Her brief career as a questioner of a Hamas suspect in an Israeli jail.

The Chicago Sun-Times confirmed yesterday Oscar Wilde’s maxim that modern journalism is valuable because it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community when it published a story titled “N.Y. Times Reporter Named in Court Filing: Bridgeview Man Interrogated In Israel Says Miller Watched.”

The Sun-Times plays up as hot news a charge by Muhammed Salah that Judith Miller witnessed his 1993 interrogation in Israel. Salah currently faces federal charges in Chicago of laundering millions of dollars over 15 years to support the terrorist organization Hamas. He wants his confession to Israeli authorities from 1993 suppressed in this prosecution, claiming that interrogators tortured it out of him, and hopes that dragging Miller into his case will help accomplish that.

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Salah’s court filing, quoted by the paper, finds it curious that the prosecutors don’t reveal the name of the news reporter who observed the interrogation. “She is the infamous Judith Miller, who recently left her position at the New York Times amidst a swirl of controversy and claims of highly unprofessional and politically motivated conduct,” the Sun-Times quotes the filing.

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But Miller’s proximity to Salah’s interrogation hasn’t been news since 1996, when Miller described the scene in her book God Has Ninety-Nine Names. This salient fact, which the Sun-Times seems to have missed, also gives us another excuse to examine the unusual sources and methods Miller brings to the practice of journalism.

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In her book, Miller writes of arriving at the Governor’s Building, “Israel’s highest security prison in the occupied West Bank,” on Feb. 11, 1993. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had given personal approval for Miller’s prison visit, she writes, because he wanted her to hear with her own ears the testimony of Salah, who had confessed to holding rank as a “senior figure in the clandestine military wing of the U.S.-based command structure” of Hamas. The CIA and FBI denied the existence of such a network despite Israeli protests, and Rabin thought a New York Times reporter such as Miller might persuade Washington otherwise.

Miller settles into a room down the hall from Salah and observes him via closed-circuit television. Salah’s interrogator, “Nadav,” asks Miller what question she wants asked before he goes down to see the prisoner. She writes:

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His request made me deeply uncomfortable. On the one hand, I wanted to hear Salah repeat what the Israelis insisted he had been telling them. On the other hand, I did not want to become part of an actual interrogation. Where was the line between journalism and participating in an official inquiry, and, for all I knew, torture? 

How uncomfortable was she? The book gives no clue as to how much time passed from the arousal of her unease to her self-examination of the line separating journalism and torture. In her very next sentence, Miller writes:

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“Ask him to discuss how and why he got involved with Hamas,” I suggested tentatively. “Or the material you say you found on him implicating him in military activities in the West Bank and Gaza.”

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Nadav takes his place with Salah and “steers the conversation toward” Miller’s questions while she watches the show on the monitor. Salah sings and sings, and Miller deduces from his cheeky tone to some of Nadav’s queries that he’d not been tortured, an assertion made by his West Bank lawyer. (You can read these quoted passages from God Has Ninety-Nine Names by using Amazon.com’s “Search Inside” feature.)

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Should reporters witness the interrogation of prisoners? Having raised the question, Miller doesn’t answer it—unless you regard her participation as some sort of answer. In my book, a reporter shouldn’t flinch from observing a scene that he isn’t prohibited from writing about, including an interrogation, so I’d give Miller the benefit of the doubt.

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Should reporters “suggest” questions for interrogators, even questions that reprise questions the interrogator has asked before? Hell, no. If Judith Miller wanted to hear Salah’s words for herself, she should have demanded that Rabin authorize a visit in a noninterrogation setting—Salah’s cell or a visitor’s area where coercion isn’t implied. Let her ask questions such as, “Are you being treated humanely?” But a reporter who conducts a prisoner interrogation—or even a reinterrogation—by remote control crosses the line from observer to participant.

Miller published a Page One story about Salah in the New York Times on Feb. 17, 1993, six days after her visit to the prison. Her account teems with assertions made by Salah to his interrogators, but her cited sources are conversations with Israeli authorities and “notes of the session provided” by the Israelis. She makes no mention of the closed-circuit hookup that allowed her to view Salah’s questioning in real time and doesn’t disclose that she suggested questions to the interrogator.

The good news in this anecdote is that before plowing ahead Miss Run Amok-style, Miller at least recognized the ethical questions. She knows the words, she just can’t carry the tune.

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“The Ballad of Judith Miller.” Write the lyrics (or whatever you have on your mind) and send to me via e-mail. The address is slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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