Washington Blame Game

Was the journalist Judith Miller's bad intelligence to blame for the 2003 invasion of Iraq?

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.

This appears to be the case, but the Times’s collective sins of incompetence and credulity were also Miller’s sins. Instead of retaining the Duke of Wellington as counsel, Miller wishes always to apologise and explain. Her defence is a sustained plea of diminished responsibility. Her parents’ divorce made her susceptible to seduction by influential older men, especially those bearing career-enhancing gifts. She was never trained as an investigative journalist: the Times hired her in order to dodge an affirmative action lawsuit, and let her learn on the job. Steven Engelberg, the superior who had restrained her overstatements, took another position, forcing her to write her own articles. She never spoke with “Curveball”, the source of the mobile germ lab story. She would have investigated the aluminium tubes, had her father not distracted her by dying. The Iraqis “behaved like they had weapons”, and the “intelligence assessments” believed them. She was only following the story.

Yet Miller does not follow her own story. Her accurate articles are footnoted, with links so that we can admire them online. But her Iraqi WMD stories receive neither footnotes nor links. Having handicapped the reader, she exculpates herself by lawyerly quibbling over details that cannot be checked; so much for the legal spirit. Not that Miller is good on details. Her claim to have been “present at the creation” of the anti-American jihad in Beirut insults the hostages taken at the American embassy in Tehran.

Miller’s defence proves the prosecution’s case. The injustice lies not in the conviction, but in the sentence: Miller was no worse than her colleagues, and her editors shot an unpopular messenger. Miller tells that story — she buries her hatchets in the back, not the ground — but she misses its meaning. The real “story” here is not Miller, but the machinery of her rise and fall: an easy, corrupt collusion between anonymous politicians, eager journalists, and desperate editors.

The empty grandeur of the Times’s staff resembles that of estate agents who, familiar with desirable properties, assume the airs of owners. Miller was part of that vanity. She mourns the glory days of the open expense account and the closed shop: before the “pernicious” bloggers took over, the Ritz Carlton in Washington, DC embroidered her initials on its pillows. Proudly, she relates how, over dinner, she and her husband, the publisher Jason Epstein, convinced President Bush’s adviser Philip Zelikow that W.W. Norton would be the ideal imprint to publish The 9/11 Report. She seems not to understand that this scene might, like her Iraq reportage, exemplify the decay of public life.

“I don’t blame myself,” Noah Cross says in Chinatown. “You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of ANYTHING.” The Iraq disaster has incapacitated America. Four years after President Obama promised that “the tide of war is receding”, he is up to his ankles in Iraq, and in over his head with Iran. The “pivot to Asia” sank in the sand, and the blood-dimmed tide is rising. Intelligence, faulty or otherwise, is still in short supply. The story must finish before it can be written, and who now expects a happy ending?

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