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Scapegoat? Judith Miller testifies on reporters’ privilege in 2005. She had just been jailed for contempt of court (photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

In the American democracy, de Tocqueville warned, political questions always become judicial questions. The “legal spirit” permeates American society, and the “daily polemics” of the “vulgar tongue” speak in legal language. Two Senate inquiries have examined the intelligence failures that preceded the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but judicial answers cannot close the court of public opinion — and not just because every American possesses “the habits and tastes of the magistrate”, or because of a partisanship in which vehemence is inversely proportional to ideological variety. The Iraq fiasco has become past and prologue to the uprisings of 2011, the collapse of Syria, and the rise of ISIS and Iran. The Story is Judith Miller’s plea bargain — and a confession that, inadvertently, exposes the hollowing of American public life.

In 2003, Miller, a senior investigative reporter for the New York Times, was embedded in Iraq with US units searching for Saddam Hussein’s WMDs, the weapons in whose existence the Times, like most intelligence agencies and many nuclear inspectors, then believed. For 20 years, Miller had produced WMD scoops from the Middle East and Russia. Her investigative reports began with anonymous tips from government contacts. The investigative part was substantiating their reports. Miller’s “diva” colleagues did not appreciate her “sharp elbows” and “bigfooting” of office turf, but at least her bravery matched her ambition. She witnessed the aftermath of Hezbollah’s 1983 truck-bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, broke the story of Hamas’s fundraising in the United States, and inspected “decaying Soviet biolabs”. The Times’s reviewers praised her book on germ warfare as “the most important book of the year”, and her memoir of the Middle East as “a rich tapestry . . . as intricate as a Persian carpet”. In 2002, Miller was part of the team of Times reporters awarded a Pulitzer for their paper’s coverage of 9/11 and al-Qaeda.

For intelligence on Iraqi WMD, Miller relied on “sources who refused to be named”, and defectors procured by Ahmed Chalabi, the shady Shia exile who led the Iraqi National Congress. The Times endorsed the invasion; its editor, Bill Keller, preened as a “reluctant hawk”. Yet despite the promise on the Times’s masthead, not all of its news was “fit to print”. Miller had a hand in ten of the 23 articles that the Times disowned in 2004. Several of them began with tip-offs from the CIA, whose director, George Tenet, had assured President Bush that the case for war was a “slam dunk”. Miller repeated the CIA’s claim that, having tried to procure smallpox strains from ex-Soviet scientists, Saddam was working on “mobile germ labs”. She also reported the Agency’s “high confidence” that Saddam was importing high-strength aluminium tubes as “components of centrifuges to enrich uranium”.  

The absence of evidence for Iraq’s “Weapons of Miller’s Description”, and the plentiful evidence of American ineptitude after the invasion, damaged America’s global standing, as well as that other priceless asset, the reputation of the Times. Miller was accused of being a “closet neocon”, and a “credulous dupe”. The hard-left academic Juan Cole, who knows whereof he speaks, called her a “useful idiot”. In 2005, having just served three months in jail for refusing to identify a government source in the outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA officer, Miller left the Times, bearing a pay-off and a grudge. She accuses her editors, Howell Raines and Jill Abramson, of scapegoating her.

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