Judith Miller is a journalist and author specializing in terrorism, the Middle East and other national security issues. She won the Pulitzer Prize while working for New York Times from 1977 to 2005, and was its first female bureau chief in the Arab World. She reported on the first Iraq war and then became famous—some would say infamous—for her reporting on weapons of mass destruction leading up to the second Iraq War. In 2005, she spent 85 days in jail to protect a confidential source, receiving a First Amendment Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. She is author of four books, most recently The Story: A Reporter’s Journey. Judy blogs at www.judithmiller.com and can be seen as a regular commentator for Fox News. She will be here it 1 p.m. to answer your questions under the Kinja user name @jmfreespeech.
This is our third interview with prominent voices and practitioners in the spying-and-killing game, a wall of fame that showcase views that readers of Gawker Media’s sites might not otherwise be exposed to or take the time to understand. I hope one day that our collection of interviews will include military and intelligence players from Michael Hayden to Chelsea Manning. I write the questions and try to push busy people to explain their world view and their work, and, of course, address the issues.
I know a lot of people don’t like Judy. A lot of people don’t like the Dalai Lama too. But whatever you think of her, she’s got a long career and experience going back 30-plus years, which is when I met her working as a cub Department of Energy reporter a the Times. Judy’s not only spent time answering my questions, but she’s here to answer your questions and face the heat. I sought in my chat with her to talk civilly about some of the things about the Iraq War that don’t get discussed much. I trust that readers will have some tough questions for her, and I encourage you to ask some.
Finally, as a—let’s say, difficult person, I sympathize with Miller and particularly her New York Times experiences. Whatever missteps, errors, and outright fabrications you may think infected the Times’ coverage of the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Miller seems to have taken on 100 percent of the blame for what was emphatically a team effort. Bill Broad, Steve Engleberg, Michael Gordon? They reported the same shit.
I for one don’t believe you or the news media are responsible for the Iraq War. But why do you think people hold on to such a simplistic explanation?
That’s one of the tough questions I’ve tried to address in my book. After no WMDs were immediately found in Iraq and the war began going south, people understandably began searching for someone to blame for the Iraq disaster. I think the New York Times in particular, contributed to the widespread—and in my view, false—perception that the press somehow caused the war. Here’s how I think it happened.
When anti-war bloggers and other war critics began criticizing the paper’s, and particularly my pre-war coverage, then-executive editor Howell Raines, managing editor Gerald Boyd, and their top editors all defended our reporting. When they were fired in June 2003 (for other reasons), their successors initially did the same. But as criticism spread and the blogosphere became ever more influential, I think they panicked.
In May, 2004—before two independent, bi-partisan panels concluded that the U.S. intelligence community had gotten the pre-war estimates tragically, catastrophically wrong—the paper issued an “Editor’s Note” apologizing for some of its insufficiently skeptical and qualified pre-war coverage. (Raines and Boyd, who died in 2006, both denied having rushed stories into the paper for “scoops,” and complained that they had never even been asked about their handling of the pre-war stories.) But I suspect that the new editors feared winding up like their predecessors. Bill Keller, the executive editor who had written a pre-war column explaining why he had become a “reluctant hawk” on Iraq, was particularly sensitive to charges that the paper had helped “sell” the war. Rather than quell the growing media fury, the “Editor’s Note” was repeatedly cited as proof that the Times and the other mainstream papers could no longer be trusted.
I wrote my memoir partly to accept responsibility for mistakes in my reporting and explain how they happened. I also sought to defend my reporting where I believed it had been unfairly criticized. I continue to believe that the paper’s primary fault was not in getting some of the initial intelligence stories wrong—classified information is tough to get and first reports are often inaccurate or incomplete—but in failing to revisit the WMD and other intelligence failures in a sustained, systematic investigative series to explain how and why U.S. and foreign analysts screwed up. While former colleagues wrote several superb pieces about the intelligence failures, senior editors never commissioned an in-depth inquiry comparable to the award-winning series on Al Qaeda it published prior to 9/11. Their refusal to do so contributed to my decision to leave the paper.
In the end, I see this whole sad saga as part of an even broader story: the decline of the establishment press—and especially The New York Times—relative to internet news sites, blogs, and other players in new media. In my book I describe pressures on the paper stemming from its declining financial fortunes, due partly to the explosion of gossip-filled social media whose members mock the Times’ self-regard. The “Editor’s Note” suggests that the paper rushed to embrace the false narrative that it had helped start the war because, consciously or not, its senior editors already feared that the Times no longer had the power and influence to do so. Better to accept blame for something the paper didn’t do than acknowledge that it lacked its former reach and clout.
You’ve acknowledged that many of the claims in your pre-war WMD reporting were wrong, and that raises questions about how good official intelligence was. But what about the reporting that was based on people coached by Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress? Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, an Iraqi defector who told you that he had been renovating WMD sites for Saddam. Or Ahmed al-Shemri, who told you and Michael Gordon that Saddam had “12,500 gallons of anthrax, 2,500 gallons of gas gangrene, 1,250 gallons of aflotoxin and 2,000 gallons of botulinum throughout the country.” Khidhir Hamza, who told you Iraq would soon be mass-producing its own centrifuges for uranium enrichment. Who is at fault for those errors?
As I wrote in The Story, Ahmad Chalabi was the source of only one of 10 stories about WMD intelligence on Iraq that I wrote in the 15 months before the war. That was the story I wrote in December 2001 about Adnan Saeed al-Haideri, the Iraqi defector, a story I wrote before CIA agents were even tasked to seek information about Iraq’s WMD programs. I disclosed in the fourth graf of that story that Chalabi had introduced me to the defector in Bangkok and identified him as the leader of the “main Iraqi opposition group which seeks the overthrow” of Saddam so readers would have no doubt about his motive. My story also quoted Charles Duelfer, the former deputy chief of the UN inspectors, and Australian Richard Butler, the former chief, as saying that Haideri’s claims seemed “plausible” and consistent with UN reports on Saddam ‘s covert WMD program. I doubt there is a paper in the country that would not have written a story about his charges had they found him first. Plus, I continued to track him.
Though other reporters would later assert that the CIA had branded Haideri a fabricator, and the Times reported in 2004 that he could not be located, I had told senior editors that he was still living in Centreville, Virginia, and even had a Facebook page. Times readers were never told this, however. In his 2009 book on the WMD hunt, Charles Duelfer wrote that some of what Haideri had claimed was correct, but that “sometimes he was inferring too much.” He did not use the word fabricator. The DIA continued to support Haideri on the record as someone who had “provided a lot of useful information.” Haideri himself claims to have received a six-figure payment from the CIA in exchange for his pledge of silence, though I have not been able to verify this. Since the publication of my book in April, he says that no reporter has contacted him to inquire about his claims.
As for Shemri, a pseudonym, I met him not thru Chalabi but through an opposition group that the CIA preferred. I suspect that he did lie to me and exaggerate. I wish I hadn’t included him in the story about what U.S. intelligence thought about the Iraq’s WMD capabilities that Michael Gordon and I wrote together. But Chalabi had nothing to do with Shemri, and I could not locate him after the war.
I met Khidhir Hamza once again not thru Chalabi, but David Albright, who remains a leading analyst in Washington on WMD programs, now Iran’s. The U.S. government sent Hamza back to Iraq after the invasion to work with Iraqi nuclear scientists. Albright never told me that he had lost confidence in the man with whom he had planned to write a book about Saddam’s nuclear program.
Who is at fault for having published these accounts? As I discuss in my book, reporting defector information is always tricky, but vital. Ken Alibek, the defector I interviewed about the former Soviet Union’s illegal bio-weapons programs, is still widely regarded as a crucial link in America’s understanding of Moscow’s violations of the treaty banning germ weapons. I always tried hard to verify defector claims, and tell readers specifically what I knew and didn’t know about them. But defectors provide the “humint” [human intelligence] that shape our intelligence reports. Are we not supposed to try to independently find these individuals and report their claims?
Once again, the journalistic sin is not the original stories I and others wrote about Iraqi WMD, but in not continuing to report on them. I tried hard to persuade Times senior editors to write follow-up stories about Haideri et al. I failed.
Judy Miller—war criminal. It’s both over-the-top and yet completely characteristic of our ridiculous overstated era that such terminology is thrown around so easily. Now you have your own blog and you appear on Fox News, and that suggests that you dish it out and so you should take it, that you are just a part of the circle of Internet-life. Do you ever get tired of the volume? The noise? Do you regret being a part of something that is so polarized?
Yes. But in an era of tweets and soundbites, failing to respond to outlandish assertions is often equated, however falsely, with confirmation of such charges. My discomfort and anger are nothing compared to that of those who’ve lost loved ones in war, or those who have been wounded in real, rather than internet combat. War is the most consequential action a nation can take. And people should have strong feelings and vigorous debate about it. Although I never reported on the political and policy decisions that took us to war, I have always welcomed such debate. I love debate, however heated, not staged-for-TV shouting matches.
After returning in 2003 from my four-month embed with U.S. soldiers assigned to hunt for WMD in Iraq—a true “mission impossible”—someone accused me of having “blood on my hands.” That was painful, because I have had blood on my hands, literally. As a new foreign correspondent in the Middle East in 1983, I covered Hezbollah’s bombings of the U.S. Marine and French “peacekeepers” compounds in Beirut, which killed 241 American and 58 French servicemen. I spent hours roaming through the American compound ruins, examining blood-soaked photos and letters, dog tags, and other possessions of those who had been killed there. I will never forget it.
Here’s how I see the 2003 war: After UN inspections ended in 1998, everyone just assumed that the only logical explanation for Saddam throwing out the international community when he was so close to having sanctions lifted was that he was hiding something huge. After 9/11, especially after the Taliban fell so easily, the U.S. military had built up in the Middle East with seemingly nothing to do, and the United States still had a policy of regime change. It didn’t take a John Nash to do the arithmetic: Saddam could stop a war by admitting that he had perpetrated a giant lie to fool his generals and Iran and the Iraqi people, but that was unlikely. So the march to war was inevitable—that is, as long as it was about WMD. I don’t even see the press playing a role. What I see is the failure of the expert and academic community to learn anything about Iraq in a decade—and so there was just no powerful voice of authority speaking out.
I don’t know whether the war was inevitable. But your sequence of events sounds about right to me. I would add two points. First, after 9/11, President Bush endorsed a new national security strategy of “preventive war,” or acting “preemptively” to thwart danger from hostile states or terrorist groups “armed with, or seeking, nuclear biological and chemical weapons,” as the 33-page national security strategy document stated. The goal was obvious: prevent a nuclear or biological 9/11.
What better test case of this new doctrine than Iraq? The U.S. had tried under three presidents, 16 U.N. resolutions, and international sanctions to contain Saddam. But many politicians and analysts feared that the containment effort was unraveling. In 1995, for example, the U.S. learned that Iraq was still hiding and lying about the bio-weapons program it had pledged to dismantle. (My Times colleague Bill Broad and I wrote in 1998 about how UN inspectors uncovered that deception.) By 2003, it seemed clear that the sanctions regime that had contained Saddam (far more effectively it turned out than U.S. analysts realized) was, in fact, crumbling. As Charles Duelfer documented in his exhaustive, CIA-led study of Iraq’s WMD efforts, Saddam had bribed foreign officials and corrupted the U.N.’ s Oil-for-Food program to buy banned military items and build palaces for himself. He seemed on the verge of a WMD break-out, as Broad and I were repeatedly told by international inspectors and U.S. analysts who had helped us with our earlier stories about Saddam’s germ and chemical weapons programs.
A second key impetus for war were the anthrax attacks less than a month after 9/11 in which five people died and 17 were infected. Bush, Cheney, and other White House officials were stunned by the trauma and cost inflicted by a few powder-filled letters and other false bio-alarms that were only belatedly publicized. (I got one of those letters at the Times, which turned out to have contained a simulant, not live spores, but which shut down the paper for half a day.) In my book, I note that between 9/11 and mid-2003, the CIA was reporting an average of 400 specific threats a month and tracking more than 20 alleged large-scale plots against U.S. targets. Cheney warned at the time that America had to act to thwart such threats if there was only a “one percent chance” that Al Qaeda or another like-minded group might get a nuclear bomb or germ WMD. The possibility that a bully like Saddam (or his even more psychotic sons) could give WMD to terrorists who might use them against Americans reinforced Bush’s determination to invade.
I agree that nothing the media reported would have made much difference in light of those two, unrelated attacks, neither of which Iraq had conducted. But after 9/11 and anthrax, Bush seemed determined to “resolve” the Iraq problem once and for all to punish Saddam and deter other states that were believed to be pursuing covert WMD.
After Saddam was driven from office and Baghdad fell, you spent time embedded with the very WMD inspectors— veterans of a decade of United Nations work—when they went into Iraq. What was their attitude about Iraq’s secret stockpile and what they were going to find? They must have thought they were going to make a gigantic find and I can’t imagine they thought so because of reading the New York Times.
In my book, I describe the frustrating, infuriating hunt for WMD and the reaction of the soldiers tasked with conducting it. My book opens, in fact, in Anbar province in 2010 covering Ryan Cutchin, one of the soldiers who was on his fourth deployment in a then stabilized Iraq. Ryan was still fuming about the WMD search he had helped lead. I’ve stayed in touch with the soldiers I covered back then and my book talks about their views of that mission and the war. They remain friends. Four of them, including Ryan, who had been on a training mission in Germany, traveled to New York in April for a mini-reunion to help celebrate my book’s publication. Their presence and support meant a lot to me.
We’ve called the first Iraq war—Desert Storm—the CNN war. Then we called the Kosovo war in 1999 the first Internet war. What do you think is an appropriate name for the 2003 war? The post-truth war? The beginning of the age of automation and perpetual war? American PTSD from 9/11?
September 11 and anthrax PTSD for sure! But Bush got it almost right when he called the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq the start of a “global war on terrorism”—which critics subsequently mocked as the “GWOT.” I see both wars as the start of a global campaign not against “terrorism,” which is a tactic, but against “terrorists”—wherever and whoever they are if they target Americans at home and/or key American allies and interests abroad. Obama was right about another aspect of the still ongoing campaign: Our war against ISIS in the Middle East will be protracted—perhaps, as he put it, a generational struggle—which will require American patience and resolve. Neither is an American strength.
Donald Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, Cheney, Bush, Douglas Feith, George Tenet have all written their own books dealing with WMD and Iraq. Have you learned anything from reading them that explains the dynamics of why we went to war, of how they were fooled? Can you explain how two beloved figures like Powell—America’s first African-American chairman of the Joint Chiefs and a product of all that is great about the U.S. military—and Rice—a classical piano playing uber-academic and consummate expert on everything—fell so far in public esteem? And while we’re at it, do you think anyone has suffered because of mistakes made regarding the Iraq war? Anyone in Washington, that is?
I’ve read them all for my book! And I learned something from each, no matter how self-serving or clearly an effort to shape his/her legacy. Since I have never met George Bush and didn’t meet Dick Cheney until years after he left office, I needed to better understand what they thought about the WMD threat and how important it was in the decision to go to war. I’m sorry that Colin Powell, a war skeptic who nevertheless backed his boss’s decision and gave the infamous UN speech laying out the WMD intelligence, has not written his own book about that “painful” episode, as he subsequently called it, still defending the decision to oust Saddam. Powell later said he was “devastated” when he was told after the invasion that some analysts had doubts about the intelligence they had not shared with him. His speech had helped convince many Americans that war was justified.
The least interesting and reflective memoir is Condi Rice’s, which given her intellect and education could have been both. Among the most inadvertently interesting is Bush’s Decision Points, which gave me a better sense of how his personality and self-image—that of a resolute “Decider”—led us to war. “America is safer without a homicidal dictator pursuing WMD and supporting terror at the heart of the Middle East,” he asserted in his memoir after leaving office in 2008. His invasion was supported by the man to whom he is often, and unfavorably, compared: George Herbert Walker Bush. Pundits have often said that Bush 41 would not have invaded Baghdad because some of his advisers opposed the 2003 invasion publicly, and because he could have ousted Saddam in 19991, but did not do so. But an exchange of hand-written letters in his son’s book suggests otherwise. “Dear Dad,” W writes, telling his father that he has just launched “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Calling the decision an “emotional” one, he writes, he prays few lives will be lost. “Dear George,” his father replies, “you are doing the right thing.”
You spent 85 days in jail to uphold journalistic principles. I’m curious what you read when you were in prison? What did you think about?
Joe Lelyveld, a former Times executive editor, urged me to read Trollope, obviously envisioning a lengthy incarceration. But the jail’s rules and harsh fluorescent lights made reading tough. Alexandria Detention Center, a clean, safe, well-run facility, banned visitors from giving books to inmates, so the Times donated books that friends had bought to the jail’s library. Since I was a part-time prison librarian, I got to read them as I filed and put them on our mobile carts for distribution. I read some poetry—Yeats, Frost, Langston Hughes, and Emily Dickinson. I re-read the Old Testament, since the jail had an endless supply of bibles. I also read a few books I had always vowed to read but never quite found the time—including Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook, her exploration of female liberation, motherhood, communism, and nervous breakdowns, which holds up weirdly well after 50 years. A fellow inmate who had been sentenced to six months for having kidnapped her own daughter to prevent her ex-husband’s roommate from molesting her (yes, really) held impromptu yoga classes during gym sessions. She and I took turns reciting the 13th century Persian poet Rumi. I also memorized the lyrics to Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar,” Lonestar’s “I’m Already There,” and several verses of “Just a Lil Bit” by 50 Cent.
You started your career as a writer at the Progressive Magazine and spent much of your career covering nuclear weapons, even before Saddam. Looking back now, what do you think of the idea of nuclear disarmament?
“Zero” nukes was a noble if unrealistic goal, still worth pursuing. I continue to believe in verifiable arms control agreements that reduce, if not eliminate classes of WMD and help prevent proliferation. Former Senators Sam Nunn, Democrat of Georgia, and Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, deserve the Nobel peace prize for having sponsored the Cooperative Threat Reduction Act of 1993 which has provided equipment and expertise to dismantle and destroy former Soviet and American nuclear, biological and chemical weapon stockpiles. More recently, CTR [cooperative threat reduction] expanded its mission to protect against WMD “on the move” by securing fissile and other dangerous material in some other countries and strengthening land and maritime border security in the former Soviet Union.
Any heroes? Here’s your chance for a shout-out to someone we should read or listen to…
My heroes tend to be the men and women in and out of uniform who fight to keep our nation safe and true to its values. I write about several of them in my memoir.
Charles Duelfer was deputy chief of the international inspectors who led the WMD hunt in Iraq. His Iraq Survey Group report on WMD is required reading for those seeking to understand Saddam’s WMD programs and intentions. So is his personal account of the hunt, Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq.
Richard Clarke, Clinton’s and Bush’s counter-terrorism adviser, remains controversial in Washington. But I think he did more to try to kill Osama bin Laden and prevent 9/11 than any other single official I know. He also spotted hacking and cyber-terror as national security challenges long before they became household threats. He has just published Sting of the Drone, a thriller at the top of my beach reading list.
As the State Department’s Deputy Coordinator for Ebola Response, Andy Weber helped assure a speedier response to that terrible epidemic. We met in the mid-1990s when he was at the Pentagon persuading former Soviet officials to come clean about their WMD programs. I profiled him in Germs, Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War, co-authored in 2001 with Bill Broad and Steve Engelberg. David Franz, a former head of the U.S. military’s premier bio-defense lab, has continued to travel the world seeking partners in the fight against germ weapons and natural outbreaks of deadly disease.
Ret. General Jack Kean, a fellow commentator at Fox News, is widely regarded as a key promoter of the “surge” of forces under President Bush which helped stabilize Iraq, temporarily.
At home in New York City, Becca Heller, who founded the Iraq Refugee Assistance Project, has saved thousands of Afghan and Iraqi lives by badgering State Department officials into issuing visas to the brave men and women who worked with the U.S. military overseas.
Also in New York, I often seek advice from former police commissioner Ray Kelly, who reduced violent crime and created the counter-terrorism program which has helped protect New York from another 9/11. Ray’s memoir, Vigilance, is being published in September by Hachette.
There are many others who struggle against threats to our security and civility. Some are known; most are anonymous. I would name them, but then they would have to kill me.
We will be screening Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’ Academy Award-winning documentary about Edward Snowden, at the Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn tomorrow evening. The film starts at 7:30 pm and Judith Miller will be joining us for a short panel discussion following the documentary. Buy your tickets here. Judith’s latest book is, The Story: A Reporter’s Journey.
[Photo courtesy of Judith Miller.]
Update (2:30 pm): We’re going to wrap it up for today. Big thank you to Judith Miller for taking the time to do this, and to you, for stopping by with your thoughtful questions.