S1: All right, it says we’re now recording a slight, slow burn, eight seconds, here we go.
S2: Stephen Engelberg is the editor in chief of ProPublica. Back in 2001, he was the investigations editor for The New York Times. One of his reporters was a Times veteran named Judith Miller.
S1: Maybe a couple of weeks after July 4th, 2001, Judy came to my desk and she said, got an amazing story. We’ve got to go. We got to go fast. This is really astounding stuff. And I said, OK, OK, so what do you got?
S2: What she had did sound amazing. An intercept of a conversation between two members of al-Qaida.
S1: And the first guy says something along the lines of it’s really a shame the United States did not retaliate for the attack on the USS Cole, which was an American ship. It had been attacked by a sort of suicide bombing dinghy. And then the second guy says, well, don’t worry, we’re planning something so big, they’re going to have to retaliate.
S2: Miller had been covering Islamic extremism for years. It seemed like she might have a huge scoop plans by known terrorists to launch a major attack against the United States. Engleberg was interested, but first he needed to know where the story came from.
S1: So what do we know? I mean, who are these two guys? My sources seem to know where are they? What country are there? They’re high level. Low level, or are they just two guys talking, you know, in a bar? Of course, they’re al Qaeda. They’re not in a bar. But I was sort of speaking metaphorically.
S2: Miller didn’t have those answers, but said she’d try to find out more.
S1: She came back and said, I just can’t get any more detail on this. This is what we’ve got. Can we write a story? And I said, Judy, I just don’t see how I said, I see paragraphs one and maybe two. But what’s paragraphs three, four and five? I we can’t do it.
S2: This story never ran. Two months later, al-Qaida hijacked four planes and killed 3000 people.
S1: And of course, you know, after 9/11, when we both sort of at some point caught our breath and talked about this and sort of thought, wow, what if we had done the story? You know, would it have changed history? Were they really onto this thing or was it just a coincidence? What was it?
S2: And do you feel like if you’d let her run that story, Bush might have paid more attention to that?
S1: Because who knows? You know, I just didn’t think we had enough.
S2: There are two ways to think about the decision to spike that story. The first, this is exactly how journalism is supposed to work. An aggressive reporter got a tantalizing bit of information. A careful editor pushed back to make sure it was properly sourced. It turned out the story just wasn’t there. So The New York Times didn’t publish it and the paper’s journalistic standards were upheld. The second way to think about it, The New York Times could have had one of the biggest scoops in history if they’d pushed harder to get it. Or maybe if they’d gone to press or something that wasn’t 100 percent buttoned up, you can even imagine a scenario where the paper prints a story and helps prevent the 9/11 attacks. Journalists have to balance two competing ideas, get the biggest story you can before the competition does, but also make sure that what you’re publishing is true. Sometimes they end up being cautious and big news never makes it into the paper. Times are aggressive, and that can cause its own set of problems in the run up to the Iraq war. Almost no one was more aggressive than Judith Miller.
S3: Why did I believe the people I believed, why did I believe the people who talked to me and not the people who wouldn’t? Because these people, by and large, not all of them, but most of them had been the very same people who were warning us about Qaeda and 9/11. I had every reason to believe them because they had been right before I got it wrong. I got it wrong because I believed people who also believed themselves.
S2: This is slow burn. I’m your host, Noreen Malone. If you read The New York Times in 2002 and 2003, you probably believe the Iraqis had weapons of mass destruction in the year before the invasion of Iraq, the media mostly backed the administration’s narrative about WMD even when the evidence was thin. So how did the press get the question of WMD so wrong? Why did so many reporters end up looking so credulous? And why was Judith Miller the one who took the fall? This is Episode seven, Judy. Howell Raines became the top editor of The New York Times six days before the Twin Towers fell. That made him Judy Miller’s boss. 9/11 was a defining moment for the paper and Raines seized it. Stephen Engelberg,
S1: literally every reporter in the world was trying to get a piece of, you know, the biggest story on the planet. And a friend of mine at The Wall Street Journal described it this way. He said the atmosphere was write it or read it. Meaning if you didn’t if you had a story idea, you didn’t write it, you’d read it somewhere else.
S2: Raines wanted to win at the game of journalism. He made that very clear to his staff and breaking huge stories was one way to win. Seth Mnookin wrote a book about the New York Times called Hard News.
S1: He liked big flashy scoops, often times more than he liked nuance. I would actually say all the time, more than he liked nuance.
S2: And Raines also believed in a star system.
S1: What that meant was when those reporters would hand in stories that other people at the paper had concerns or questions about those questions or concerns were essentially brushed aside, or those people, those editors or other reporters were explicitly told essentially to, you know, shut up and get out of the way.
S2: Raines’s denied this characterization in the past, and he didn’t get back to us when we reached out for an interview. It’s undeniable, though, that Judy Miller quickly became one of Howell Raines favorites. And Miller told me their affection was mutual.
S3: How I was kind of a guy’s guy and into kind of macho fishing and hunting and all that. And I wasn’t. But I found him extremely easy to work with and supportive.
S2: Mnookin says it Raines wanted to prove he wasn’t reflexively left wing to push back against the reputation he brought after running the famously liberal New York Times editorial page. Many people who worked at the Times back then generally agree with that assessment, but not Judy Miller.
S3: I never remember how pushing one set of beliefs over another in my area when it came to Iraq and the intelligence community. He wanted to know, you know, what was the intelligence saying? What was Bush hearing? Was Bush likely to go to war? And those were all the things we were all interested in.
S2: There was one scoop that Raines really wanted. In the fall of 2001, the White House was pushing the theory that there was a link between Saddam and al-Qaida. Specifically, the story went. One of the 9/11 hijackers had met with an Iraqi agent in Prague. You heard about this in episode three. Raines pushed the Times to find confirmation. And in October 2001, the paper published a story that seemed to back up the idea that the Prague meeting had taken place. The headline was Czechs Confirm Iraqi Agent Met with terror ringleader. James Risen is a former national security reporter at the Times. He’s kind of a classic newsroom type, a crusading pessimist risin was very well sourced in the intelligence community and he was dubious of the Iraq al-Qaida link.
S1: And so I went to Prague and the CIA people who I knew told me who I should talk to, where to go to get good information on it. And it was really funny. It was like the mouse that roared. It was people in the Czech Republic’s intelligence and political circles were all laughing that the story had become such a big deal and that and they all knew it was total bullshit.
S2: In October 2002, a year after the paper had seemed to confirm the Prague meeting, Risen wrote a story that debunked it.
S1: My editor, Doug Frantz. He later told me that he had to fight to get it into the paper because Howell Raines was, who was the executive editor was then becoming. Everybody believed anyway he was becoming very pro-war. And Doug slipped it into the paper on a Monday morning when Raines wasn’t around on that Sunday to try to block it.
S2: Raines has denied this. And more broadly, he said he’s never told anyone that he wanted stories that supported the war. Still, James Risen found it very difficult to get his reporting highlighted in the paper.
S1: I was also hearing a lot of things from other sources. The analysts were saying, you know, that there was no proof to justify the Iraq al-Qaida link and that they were skeptical of the Bush administration’s case for war. And I kept trying to write stories saying that, and they kept getting held and cut and buried. I kept asking the editors what’s going on with my stories and always act like they didn’t know.
S2: What the Times did publish on terrorism was often excellent reason, and Judith Miller were on a team that won the 2002 Pulitzer for its coverage of al-Qaida. It would turn out to be her professional peak. Judy Miller grew up in a showbiz family. Her father ran a nightclub in New Jersey and put on glitzy shows in Las Vegas hotels. Miller’s half brother, Jimmy, had his own brushes with glamour. He produced Rolling Stones albums. Judy got to hang out in the studio while he worked. Miller did the 60s in true boomer style. She got arrested several times for protesting the Vietnam War. She wound up in journalism covering the Middle East for NPR and the progressive. Here’s Frank, for he wrote a profile of Miller for New York magazine in 2004.
S4: She just became incredibly well sourced in the region. Nina Totenberg, the legendary NPR reporter who was her colleague, told me a story about how she was at a party and King Hussein of Jordan was there and he caught a glimpse of her across the room and began to howl, Judy. And she responded, king and they went and embraced.
S2: Miller says she stood out on the male dominated beat, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
S3: I once asked King Hussein why he gave me so many interviews and he said, Well, you’re a woman. And he said, yes, I prefer women reporters because women tend to listen to the answers of the intelligence questions they ask.
S2: When Miller got hired at The Times in 1977, she was dating Congressman Les Aspin, a powerful Democrat. She occasionally quoted him in her stories. That’s when the catty whisper started that Judy Miller broke boundaries with her sources, used her sexuality to get information.
S4: There were certain of her colleagues who would read her stories aloud. And each time the phrase Aspin said appeared, reporters would joke to one another about how it should be followed. Aspin said, comma, rolling over in bed.
S2: Miller says that her relationship with the congressman actually held her back, not helped her.
S3: I couldn’t cover anything that I really cared about because I was dating him. The Times had strict rules about that. I observed them and when Les Aspin and I finally broke up, it was only after that that the bulk of my national security reporting, which had always been my passion, was I was really able to work in that area. Before that, I hadn’t been able to. I wonder how many people would talk about whether or not Woodward or Bernstein actually slept with sources to get stories. I don’t remember hearing that, but it happened all the time, not just to me, but to women in general in reporting in Washington in those days.
S2: So there’s no there’s no. Oh, no,
S3: no, no, no, no, no. It was working Saturdays and Sundays as a young, ambitious reporter, knocking on doors, calling 100 people who didn’t want to talk to you,
S2: people who worked with Miller directly, including Stephen Engelberg and James Risen, tended to have good relationships with her, but she could be territorial.
S4: She was a figure who was invariably described as possessing sharp elbows. I mean, there was one story that I remember. This reporter had left his desk for a day or two to go on a reporting assignment. And when he came back, he found that Miller was sitting at his desk and he said, Nice to meet you. Can I please have my desk back? And she said, no, you’re going to have to go work elsewhere. And she just kind of hijacked his desk.
S2: Miller rose fast at the Times in the 1980s. She reported from Egypt and Lebanon. In the 90s, she became a roving investigative reporter on threats to national security. She covered bio weapons and the rise of Islamic terrorism. Not everyone understood the significance of those topics back then. Judy Miller did. Miller was a recognizable byline. She also went on TV a bunch as a pundit, her reporting blended with commentary, especially on the subject of Islamic terrorism.
S3: Fanatic is actually a very good word to describe them. They are highly motivated, they are highly disciplined, and we underestimate them at our peril.
S2: Miller had developed well-connected sources in the neoconservative movement, but Stephen Engelberg says that Miller didn’t only talk to Top-level sources.
S1: Judy knew a lot of people and a lot of levels of government, and she knew people you’ve never heard of. And she would talk ceaselessly to all of them and then become incredibly excited by what she learned more than once. When I was her editor, Judy would call me at 10, 30, 10, 45 in the evening to tell me about what she just learned at dinner. And I just couldn’t wait until tomorrow. She had to tell me
S2: the challenge for Miller was never finding information, but she and Engelberg had to work hard to sort the real confirmable stuff from everything else. And after 9/11, that job was harder than it had ever been before.
S3: If you want to look at an instance where the administration was really pushing a line that wasn’t there, it was on the terror connection, alleged terror connection between Saddam and Osama bin Laden, and that the Cheney people and the Bush people and everybody was kind of pushing like crazy
S2: that ever give you pause that they were pushing so hard on something that seemed to not be true? Miller didn’t really answer that question. She pivoted instead to talking about the Intel world.
S3: Well, they weren’t, you know, because I had covered the intelligence community for so long that I knew that they disagree on just about everything. I mean, you know, my concern about the intelligence community was not disagreement, but were they underestimating a threat
S2: in the lead up to the Iraq war? Miller piled up splashy stories on WMD reporting was enormously influential. Frank, for
S4: again, The New York Times is the paper of record, and her reporting represented extremely prestigious, seemingly rigorously sourced validation of what would become the official government line about Iraqi WMD.
S2: The problem was that some of the stories Miller was publishing turned out to be based on bad information. There are two key stories that Judy Miller wrote in the lead up to the Iraq invasion. These aren’t the only ones that people point to as problems, but they were high profile. The first was published in December 2001. Miller wrote about an Iraqi defector she met through Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress. The defector claimed that within the last year he’d helped create secret facilities in Iraq for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. The story ran on page one. Stephen Engelberg edited the piece.
S1: We tried various Americans and I don’t really know much about this guy. And they said stuff like what he’s saying is consistent with other reports we’ve had. It’s along the same lines of the intelligence we’ve had. We don’t know this person specifically, but we think this is you know, what you’re saying is plausible. It’s in line with the things we’re hearing. So she and I together worked out a bunch of paragraphs. If you go back and look at this story, the story is like 10 paragraphs of interviews and 12 paragraphs of caveats about this guy is a defector. Defectors have been known to say things that people want to hear because that’s how they make their livelihood. And I’m doing this from memory. But I think you’ll find there’s a whole bunch of sort of like intelligence, one on one paragraphs about why this might not be true.
S2: According to the CIA, the defector turned out to be a fabricator. The story he told was false.
S1: If I had it all to do again, I would never do the story. You know, they say in baseball is the ball is flying out of the park for the pitcher. Really wishes you to have that one back. And so that would be a pitch I really wish I had back.
S2: Miller feels differently.
S3: I don’t think anything did go wrong. He told the CIA what he thought was going on. He was pretty clear about what he knew and what he was surmising.
S2: Steve Engelberg said that he that was one story he wishes he could take back. Sounds like you don’t feel the same way.
S3: No, I don’t feel the same way and not at all.
S2: Miller says that not everyone in the CIA has deemed the guy a fabricator. She argues that it’s important she got former U.N. weapons inspectors on the record to say the defector story seemed plausible. But mostly she defends her story because she says it reflects what the Bush administration was hearing and that she believes was the best she could do at the time. Not long after the defector story, Engelberg left The New York Times for a job at The Oregonian. Seth Mnookin says that move had real consequences for the Times and for Miller.
S1: A lot of investigative reporters have a sort of tendency to see conspiracies behind every corner. That’s something that you sort of need to be an investigative reporter. But for that to work, you also need someone behind the scenes who’s able to say, let’s make sure that what we think is going on here is what’s going on here. And when Steve left the paper, that person was really no longer there for Judy.
S2: The second significant Miller story came in September 2002. Raines had asked his reporters for a definitive account of why the administration believed Saddam had weapons. Miller and her colleague Michael Gordon Co bylined a Page One story. That piece said that Iraq had stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons. According to Miller and Gordon, that quest included efforts to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes. This was a story in which the public first encountered the White House’s famous line that the first sign of a smoking gun, maybe a mushroom cloud, the story was attributed to unnamed American officials and Bush administration officials. And after it was published, the White House used it as evidence that Iraq was working on nuclear weapons. Here’s Dick Cheney on Meet the Press the day the article ran.
S1: There’s a story in The New York Times this morning. This is and I want to attribute to the Times, I don’t want to talk about obviously specific intelligence sources, but it’s now public that, in fact, he has been seeking to acquire and we have been able to intercept and prevent him from acquiring through this particular channel the kinds of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge and the
S2: centrifuges the White House was using The New York Times as a laundering service. First, they confirm the paper’s information. Then they went on TV and said, hey, you know, not to believe me, believe The New York Times. They cited your work. How did you feel about that, about turning on, you know, Meet the Press and hearing them? Dick Cheney referring to a story you’d done?
S3: Well, I wasn’t happy about that because I knew that, look, every administration leaks for a political purpose. Right? So this was nothing new. On the other hand, you know, we had finished our work on this story when Michael got his tip. I think it was about forty eight hours before this long, long examination of the WMD case was set to appear. And Michael and Michael got a tip on the aluminum tubes. And this was the first new thing we had heard.
S2: The aluminum tubes information turned out to be false. There’s no evidence that Iraq was using the tubes to make nuclear weapons. According to Miller did write a follow up story that mentioned some of the dissent about it in the intelligence community. But it was buried inside the paper and it didn’t seem to take the dissent all that seriously.
S3: I stand by what we wrote. We wrote what we knew at the time. As we got more information, we wrote more information. Was it enough or were the subsequent stories played well enough? You know, I don’t write the headlines and I don’t determine where stories go in the paper. But this notion that reporters were trying to sell a war, I think that’s really is just not what happened. And it’s it’s really not fair to anyone who tried very hard in those days to get this right.
S2: By the end of 2002, critics were starting to ask questions about Miller’s work. Writing in Slate, Jack Shafer pointed out that her sourcing was awfully anonymous and just one story. She cited senior American officials, foreign scientists, an administration official and an informant whose identity has not been disclosed. There were internal complaints, too, that Howell Raines wanted editors to give Miller one of his stars lots of freedom, and that meant she wasn’t getting the oversight she needed for her part. Miller says she was overextended.
S3: Everybody was working flat out during that period. But I’m more than others because, uh, more than others that my paper, because I had this broad portfolio, I wish there had been someone else in at the paper who had spent, you know, 20 years in the Middle East and knew all the cast of characters and knew the intelligence communities in those countries who also had weapons expertise. I wish there were other people who could have picked up the load because I, I was really I was very tired.
S2: Not everyone at the Times was hearing what Judy Miller was hearing, James Risen was getting from his sources that the intel on WMD was full of holes. He tried to get some of those people to go on the record, but they were afraid to talk. After all, it wasn’t just unfashionable at the Times to be skeptical of the war narrative. It was the minority opinion in the intelligence world, too.
S1: It’s really hard to counter something with nothing. The pro WMD people would come with some nugget of information and you could say, well, that seems really like a weak argument to me. And then your boss would say, well, how do you know it’s not true? And so, you know, how do you prove a negative? It got to be a point where nobody really wanted to hear the alternative, which was maybe this intelligence is weak and maybe they don’t really know. That’s the kind of story editors do not get excited about.
S2: Verizon is right. Editors do always prefer big scoops to uncertainty and doubt this thing exists is more exciting than the evidence for this thing is full of holes. It just is. That attitude helps explain why Reisen stories were often buried deep inside the paper. At the same time, journalists tend to pride themselves on being skeptical of power. The most legendary thing the Times has ever done is publish the Pentagon Papers, which revealed how the government lied about what was happening in Vietnam in 2001 and 2002. There were people raising doubts both inside and outside the. It about the story the Bush administration was pushing, it’s weird that at the Times and other papers, there wasn’t much interest in trying to prove the White House wrong. There were some notable exceptions, the Knight Ridder News Service, Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus of The Washington Post. But mostly Risen says there seemed to be a race to back the White House.
S1: The thing that pissed me off the most is that they would ask me to match stories in other news organizations have had and I refused to do it. And I got in a lot of trouble. And The Washington Post, which was The New York Times major competitor at the time and still is, they had a story splashed on the front page saying that there was evidence that Saddam Hussein had given nerve gas to al-Qaida or to terrorists. And some editor came around and asked me to match it. And I I was just sick and tired of the whole process by that point. And I said, no, I’m not going to do it. That’s bullshit. And he really got pessimistic. You mean you’re not even going to make a phone call on that? And I said no. It’s bullshit. I’m not going to do it.
S2: Did you have this feeling at the Times that there really was this top down sort of warmongering?
S1: Yes, absolutely. Yeah, there was. I know Reinstill denies it, but there’s no question that there was a war fever inside the Times at the time.
S2: Judy Miller wasn’t the only reporter who got the WMD story massively wrong, nor was The New York Times the only outlet that screwed up part of the problem. As James Risen saw it was naiveté from reporters who’d been thrown in the deep end.
S1: I think it’s fair to say that the people who were actually the CIA beat reporters at major news organizations at that time were not the people who did the WMD stories we were covering. And I was covering terrorism after 9/11 full time. And I think a lot of the coverage of WMD suffered because you had new people coming and maybe they had met somebody close to Chalabi or maybe they had met with one of Cheney’s aides or somebody on the Hill or something. And so they were new to this whole world.
S2: The larger pattern in most places was the same as at the Times. Frightening scoops with administration sources ended up on the front page and more skeptical work tended to get buried inside. And in 2002, where something ran in the paper actually mattered. And this wasn’t just a print journalism problem. TV News ran very little skeptical coverage in the run up to the war. And it wasn’t just Fox. CNN and MSNBC were among the worst offenders. Dan Rather was the anchor of CBS Evening News. He believes most of the media got swept up in the patriotism of the moment.
S1: Certainly in retrospect, we didn’t resist strongly enough. We didn’t ask the tough questions, but no news organization had the capability of flatly disproving these things at the time. And so when when you start to raise questions, it finally gets down to listen. The president of the United States says that he has evidence that Saddam Hussein has the weapons of mass destruction that he is building toward building a nuclear weapon. Now, Mr. Reporter, Mr. Journalist, where is your proof to the contrary? The president of the United States, the secretary of defense, secretary of state and the vice president of the United States says these things are true. You’re going to be irresponsible if you create an impression that maybe they aren’t true.
S2: When the search for WMD began after the invasion, Judy Miller was desperate to be there. She convinced the Pentagon to let her embed with the unit leading the search. She was the only reporter granted that access. The military got to look at her stories before they ran, which was standard for embeds working in sensitive posts. And since the unit she shadowed was dealing with intelligence, she could only talk to the Times as two top editors about what she was seeing. Miller wrote a big page one story from Iraq that April. It said that a scientist who’d supposedly worked on Saddam’s chemical warfare program had revealed where he’d buried the building blocks of illegal weapons. She wrote that the military wouldn’t let her near him or let her name him. But from afar, she watched him point to spots in the sand for the weapons were in a TV appearance. She vouched for this source’s credibility.
S1: Has the unit you’ve been traveling with found any proof of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?
S5: Well, I think they found something more than a, quote, smoking gun. What they found is a silver bullet in the form of a person, an Iraqi individual scientist, as we called him, who really worked on the program, who knows them firsthand and who has.
S2: By early May, the WMD task force was making plans to leave Iraq, having found nothing at that point. General David Petraeus said the chemical engineer for Miller Story had been just sharing one theory for most of the lead up to the war. Miller had been part of the pack out in front, sure, but not totally off on her own. But now a lot of other reporters were swerving when the weapons didn’t turn up. Miller was increasingly alone, still standing by. Her sources still reporting on the search for WMD as late as July. She was blaming the search process, not saying the Iraqi WMD didn’t exist. Seth Mnookin.
S1: I think that we would not remember the story the same way. It would not be sort of The New York Times helped lead this drumbeat into war. I think one of the reasons why that story kind of calcified was because they continued to beat that drum long after it was clear that that was not going to pan out, that that was not an accurate representation of what was going on.
S2: According to Frank, for another reason, Judy got singled out is that her work seemed overly mission driven.
S4: She was just an advocate. And I think that that that was the big difference. She made a crusade out of this. And that’s why I think a lot of stuck to her. You know, she she was treated in some ways, maybe a little unfairly, and that there was this prurient and sexist fascination with her relationship to her sources. But on the other hand, it’s pretty clear that her relationship to her sources was a constant problem in her career. And as much as we we tried to be objective, you know, we never really are. And for her, it was a problem.
S2: Miller often defends her work by saying she was just reporting what her sources believed. Of course, pretty much the first rule of journalism is check everything in interviews, including ours. Miller has had that kind of verification wasn’t always possible in the lead up to the Iraq war.
S3: You know, I wish some of the dissenters had spoken to me, but they didn’t. And it isn’t that I didn’t try. I tried really hard.
S2: Without the voices of the skeptics, Miller’s work could sometimes appear more certain and more definitive than it really was. You what you’re saying to me, if I’m understanding correctly, is I was just saying that this is what the intelligence community was excited about at the time. And as a journalist, I understand that. But if you’re a reader of The New York Times, you read this, you believe that the reporter would only be putting this in the paper if they, too, believed what the source was saying.
S3: Well, of course, that source was saying or I wouldn’t have put it in the paper, but what was I supposed to do, tell the intelligence agency? No, you’re wrong because I know because I know Iraq. And no, I’m not going to do that. Boy, you sound like that’s not my job. I am. I am. My job was to tell people what was the case for war. What was what was President Bush relying on? What was the information that was taking us to war? I did the best I could. Was it perfect? No. Was it sometimes wrong? Yes. But not in the way that people are reporting. And and it isn’t that we didn’t check or we just pushed a line. We did check. I didn’t push a line. It’s easy now to look back and say, wow, that evidence was really flimsy. And that defector was kind of burnishing his own credentials and trying to make himself look invaluable and good. But that’s stuff you can only learn as you report as you go along.
S2: A lot of the reporters either work is iterative, you write a piece with a little bit of information and that brings more sources out of the woodwork and gets you closer to the truth. But take the aluminum tubes story. Miller says the only reason we know Iraq wasn’t using the tubes to build a nuclear arsenal is that she and Michael Gordon surfaced a story in the first place, which subsequently allowed her and other journalists to take a closer look. But that logic seriously underplayed the stakes, the beat she was working and the fact that initial stories make a lasting impression. Remember, Dick Cheney had cited the aluminum tubes story on TV to make the case for war when that story turned out to be bogus. He didn’t go back on TV to correct the record. Maybe Miller and the Times and the other newspapers and the TV networks had the same problem. Her sources in the administration did confirmation bias. They went shopping for the information that backed up what they already assumed, that there was no possible universe in which Saddam Hussein didn’t have WMD and that their only mission was to pin down the where and how of it. Howell Raines has tenure as executive editor of the Times, lasted less than two years. What brought him down had nothing to do with the lead up to the Iraq war, but it was connected to his love of hotshot reporters who got big scoops. One of those hot shots, Jayson Blair, turned out to have fabricated many of his stories. Raines’s his successor, Bill Keller, took over in July 2003. He commissioned a public examination of the paper’s Iraq coverage. Keller wrote, We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then and seems questionable now was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Miller’s byline was on most of the stories Keller cited, but the investigation didn’t name her. Keller said the Times his problems were bigger than any one person. Still, he said he wanted to take her off of national security stories. Other reporters thought Miller was getting off easy, Frank, for
S4: it felt like within the paper there were all these stories percolating up about how reporters really wanted a reckoning about how they could have screwed up so badly. There was a lot of anger about it within the Times, and Judy Miller was the focus of that anger.
S2: Miller didn’t stay out of the spotlight for long. In the summer of 2004, she found herself at the center of a national scandal. That scandal started with an op ed by a diplomat named Joseph Wilson. Wilson wrote that the Bush administration was twisting intelligence about Saddam trying to obtain uranium. That op ed made the White House angry. Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, happened to be a CIA officer. A few days after Wilson’s column ran, someone from the administration leaked her name to a reporter, blowing her cover. It seemed like an act of revenge against Wilson for challenging the administration’s case for war. Exposing an intelligence officer’s identity is a crime in some circumstances, and the Department of Justice opened an investigation into the leaker and eventually zeroed in on Scooter Libby, Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff. Prosecutors subpoenaed reporters. They thought Libby might have talked to one of them. Time magazine’s Matthew Cooper cut a deal to testify against Libby with Libby Sign-off. Judy Miller didn’t. She argued the journalist’s right to conceal her sources protected by the Constitution Judy.
S4: How close are you to going to jail?
S3: Well, you certainly do know how to get somebody’s attention. I think I’m unfortunately all too close. We have just about exhausted our appeals in this case.
S2: Miller went to jail and the pages of The New York Times, she was celebrated as a hero. Seth Mnookin,
S1: when she was in jail, there were editorials on the editorial page, sort of pieces lionizing and celebrating Judy and her bravery and saying that the government was never going to be able to get her to crack, et cetera, et cetera.
S2: In reality, the narrative was a little more complicated than that. Even after being misled by Bush administration sources, Miller was now taking a stand on behalf of a Bush administration source.
S1: There were a lot of people in the newsroom who felt like this is not the reporter or the story we want to make a stand on. You know, this is not the person that we should necessarily be celebrating on our editorial page and and in op ed columns as a sort of hero, a journalistic hero. And that opinion became much louder once she was released from jail.
S2: In the end, Miller cut a deal. Scooter Libby sent word that he was fine with Miller testifying and then he had been all along. The Times didn’t want her to cooperate with the government, but she did. After 85 days, she left jail. May be getting too close to her sources was Judith Miller’s biggest problem. She went to jail to protect one even when he didn’t particularly want her to, even when he wasn’t her source. Actually, years later, Miller went back and checked her notebooks. After all that, she realized that Libby hadn’t been the person who gave her the Valerie Plame tidbit. After Miller cut a deal with prosecutors, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger took her out for a champagne toast and arranged for her to get a manicure and massage. The NEWSROOM, on the other hand, didn’t pamper her. Bill Keller assigned a story on Miller’s Iraq reporting, and her dealings with Libby amounted to another very public internal investigation. And Miller wasn’t exactly cooperative.
S1: There was one famous example when she was in NEWSROOM and she had told Don Van Natta, who was the person who was supposed to be talking to her, that she would talk to him and he said, is now a good time? And she said, no, I’m off to talk to Barbara Walters. You know, that did not go over well, that she had time to talk to Barbara Walters and time to talk to Larry King, but kept refusing to talk to the paper’s own reporters. And remember, this was a paper that she still worked at at the time.
S2: She did wind up talking to them, but it didn’t help her much. The piece The Times ran on, Miller characterized her as divisive and pushy. It put her First Amendment stand in the shadow of the flawed WMD reporting, and it highlighted the criticism that she’d helped the Bush administration make the case for war. Miller says that Sulzberger told her he would find her an appropriate job at the paper, given her long service, but that she would no longer be a reporter. She resigned.
S3: This is a newspaper where news organizations we make mistakes. Your obligation as a reporter and as an institution that trades the news and makes money off of news is that when you learn you’ve been wrong is to say so. And I think the paper could have done that more gracefully and move on and continue to support the work.
S2: Since leaving The Times. Miller has found work as an analyst for conservative outlets like Fox News and Newsmax. Calls herself a rugged independent. Plenty of people made stupid catastrophic errors in the lead up to the Iraq war. Politicians, bureaucrats, pundits, journalists, very few of them faced serious professional consequences. Judy Miller did. Here’s Miller’s colleague, James Risen.
S1: One of the things that bothers me has bothered me ever since is that they managed they meaning The New York Times and the rest of the news media. Frankly, they managed to isolate Judy Miller as a scapegoat for all of the sins of all of the press for that time. And it’s been a very comforting narrative to say, well, you know, as you know, Judy Miller did this. They all did it and they all loved. And they all wanted it and the editors just wanted more and more and they didn’t want anything else.
S2: Next time on Slow Burn, our final episode on the invasion and its aftermath, the slow Burn is a production of Slate plus Slate’s membership program Slate. Plus members get bonus episodes of Slow Burn every week, where we’ll go behind the scenes into making the show and air clips, interviews that we couldn’t fit in here. And this week’s bonus episode, you’ll be hearing more Dan Rather and the bonus interview with Eli Pariser, who helped coordinate anti-war advocacy for MoveOn dog head over to dot com slash slow burn to sign up and listen. Now, it’s only a dollar for your first month. We couldn’t make Zlobin without the support of Slate plus. So please sign up if you can head over to sitcom slash. Slow Burn. Slow Burn is produced by me, Jason de Leon and Sofia HomeGround with Editorial Direction by Josh Levine and Gabriel Roth. Our mix engineer is Maria Jacob. Brendan Angelides Composer Theme Song, The Artwork for Soberness by Jim Cook. Special thanks to Rachel Strahm, Seth Brown Chao to Asha Solutia, Katie Raeford and Obvious. Gentlemen, thanks for listening.