'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, October 17, 2005

Judith Miller and the New York Times (Part 2): "Oh, sure, all the time" 

UPDATE: Norman Soloman gets it:

It now seems that Miller functioned with more accountability to U.S. military intelligence officials than to New York Times editors. Most of the way through her article, Miller slipped in this sentence: "During the Iraq war, the Pentagon had given me clearance to see secret information as part of my assignment 'embedded' with a special military unit hunting for unconventional weapons." And, according to the same article, she ultimately told the grand jury that during a July 8, 2003, meeting with the vice president's chief of staff, Lewis Libby, "I might have expressed frustration to Mr. Libby that I was not permitted to discuss with editors some of the more sensitive information about Iraq."


On June 14, 2003, shortly before he was promoted to the job of executive editor at the New York Times, the newspaper published an essay by Bill Keller that explained why the U.S. government should strive to improve the quality of its intelligence. "The truth is that the information-gathering machine designed to guide our leaders in matters of war and peace shows signs of being corrupted," he wrote. "To my mind, this is a worrisome problem, but not because it invalidates the war we won. It is a problem because it weakens us for the wars we still face."

Soloman is leading us to the river's edge, where we cannot evade the alarming question: To what extent were Miller's activities affirmatively sanctioned by NYT management, as opposed to being the consequence of passive acquiescence? It is becoming more and more implausible that Miller was acting so brazenly on behalf of the White House Iraq Group without an unequivocal signal from the highest levels of the company. So long as the media and media pundits implicitly protect the NYT by defining this story as one involving an out of control journalist with a personal agenda, we will never find out what really occurred.

ORIGINAL POST: As people familiar with my posts here know, I’m not one to chase the news cycle. I have this naive belief that we should discuss important social and philosophical aspects of our politics discarded by our fascination with breaking news and the media’s manipulative way of presenting it. And, anyway, there’s no way that I would even try to keep up with Eli over at Left i. I have, however, made an exception in regard to the involvement of Judith Miller and the NYT in the disclosure of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s wife as a covert CIA operative.

Why? For this reason: Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is revealing the media’s collaboration with the Bush White House in promoting the expansionist goals of American foreign policy, most tragically as demonstrated by the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Through Judith Miller, the NYT, as an institution with unprecendented credibility, played an essential role in legitimizing the war on security grounds. Perhaps, this is not so remarkable. As Sam Smith of the Progressive Review observed several years ago:

Carl Bernstein, in a [1977] article in Rolling Stone, estimated that 400 American journalists had been tied to the CIA at one point or another, including such well known media figures as the Alsop brothers, C.L. Sulzberger of the New York Times, and Philip Graham of the Washington Post. Later the New York Times reported that the CIA had owned or subsidized more than 50 newspapers, news services, radio stations, and periodicals, mostly overseas. And, says NameBase Newslines, at least 22 American news organizations employed CIA assets, and "nearly a dozen American publishing houses printed some of the more than 1,000 books that had been produced or subsidized by the CIA. When asked in a 1976 interview whether the CIA had ever told its media agents what to write, William Colby replied, 'Oh, sure, all the time.'" . . . In 1996, the Council on Foreign Relations suggested that the CIA be allowed once more to use journalists and clergy as cover for its operations. As NameBase Newslines points out, "For 70 years, [the CFR has] rarely recommended anything that has not become policy."

Part of the distant past? Think again. Late last year, the Los Angeles Times reported about an incident in which CNN uncritically broadcast false information related to the impending assault upon Falluja provided by the Pentagon, noting:

The Pentagon in 2002 was forced to shutter its controversial Office of Strategic Influence (OSI), which was opened shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, after reports that the office intended to plant false news stories in the international media. But officials say that much of OSI's mission — using information as a tool of war — has been assumed by other offices throughout the U.S. government. Although most of the work remains classified, officials say that some of the ongoing efforts include having U.S. military spokesmen play a greater role in psychological operations in Iraq, as well as planting information with sources used by Arabic TV channels such as Al Jazeera to help influence the portrayal of the United States.

On September 7, 2002, Miller, along with Michael Gordon, published the now infamous article about Saddam Hussein attempting to obtain aluminum tubes and centrifuges for use to enrich uranium as part of a nuclear weapons development program:

More than a decade after Saddam Hussein agreed to give up weapons of mass destruction, Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb, Bush administration officials said today.

In the last 14 months, Iraq has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium. American officials said several efforts to arrange the shipment of the aluminum tubes were blocked or intercepted but declined to say, citing the sensitivity of the intelligence, where they came from or how they were stopped.

The article serendipitously appeared within a two day period of television appearances by Bush, Cheney and Condoleezza Rice, in which they all emphasized the purported nuclear threat presented by Iraq’s Baathist regime. Cheney specifically referenced the article during an appearance on Meet the Press, a classic instance of manufacturing your own corroboration. The story, like others authored by Miller and Gordon about the peril presented by Iraq in 2002 and 20o3, has been discredited by the emergence of specific evidence to the contrary as well as the failure to find WMDs in Iraq.

Of course, it seems unfair to characterize Miller as a neo-conservative intelligence asset operating in the margins between governance and journalism based upon these stories alone. But, over the weekend, a number of interesting pieces of a possible puzzle came to light that make the prospect more plausible. First, Juan Cole made this observation about Miller in a Salon.com article posted on Friday:

Miller was a consistent critic of Saddam's regime, but before 1998 she was capable of making nuanced judgments about the problem it posed for the United States. At some point after that, she apparently began to believe that she, with her prescient expertise about WMD and radical Islam, and her hawkish and neocon sources were right. This was when her fateful decline began. A minor scientist and sometime college teacher such as Khidhir Hamza became "the highest ranking scientist" to defect from Iraq. She relayed complaints from Gucci revolutionaries like Chalabi that they had been left out of the loop by the Clinton administration, and retailed Iraq National Congress tall tales to her unsuspecting audience. By the late 1990s, she had laid the ground for her subsequent path, of becoming stenographer to a motley crew of neoconservative hawks and Iraqi expatriate wheelers and dealers. The aluminum tubes story, in particular, which she co-wrote and which helped pave the way to war, will likely be taught in journalism classes for years as a textbook study of flawed reporting.

Cole ultimately concludes that she was a “useful idiot” instead of a “true believer”, but could there be more? Let’s now turn to the two articles about Judith Miller’s involvement in the Fitzgerald investigation published by the NYT yesterday. One, published by a team of NYT reporters, Don Van Natta, Jr, Adam Liptak and Clifford J. Levy, is entitled, The Miller Case: A Notebook, a Cause, a Jail Cell and a Deal, and the other is Miller’s description of her testimony before the federal grand jury. They are fascinating, especially in light of what we already know about the involvement of the intelligence community with the media, causing one to reasonably wonder whether Miller was serving as an operative on behalf of the Office of the Vice President, through Chief of Staff Lewis Libby, and the White House Iraq Group.

As for the Miller article, one cannot avoid reading it subjectively, and I encourage readers of this blog entry to take advantage of the link here and do so. Miller is careful, certainly much more so than she was in any of the articles that she wrote about WMDs, but she cannot avoid suggesting a starstruck quality when it comes to Libby. In a blunt, compelling column, Greg Mitchell of Editor and Publisher insists that Miller should be fired for crimes against journalism, but his column is equally valuable for its brief vivisection of the Miller/Libby relationship. He emphasizes, quite rightly, the peculiarity of Miller describing Libby as “a good faith source who was usually straight with me.” Even the most ardent Bush partisans would be embarassed to describe the administration this way. He additionally condemns Miller’s willingness to grant Libby’s request that his anonymity be preserved by describing him as a “former Hill staffer” as opposed to “a senior administration official”.

Space limitations and time constraints apparently prevented Mitchell from engaging in a closer textual reading, so let’s try to do a little ourselves. Miller’s recollection of the first meeting is most telling, as she recalled:

(1) [his] frustration and anger about what he called "selective leaking" by the C.I.A. and other agencies to distance themselves from what he recalled as their unequivocal prewar intelligence assessments. The selective leaks trying to shift blame to the White House, he told me, were part of a "perverted war" over the war in Iraq

(2) that [he] was angry about reports suggesting that senior administration officials, including Mr. Cheney, had embraced skimpy intelligence about Iraq's alleged efforts to buy uranium in Africa while ignoring evidence to the contrary. Such reports, he said, according to my notes, were "highly distorted."

Nowhere does Miller indicate that she challenged Libby on either of these contentious assertions, and this lack of independent thought and inquiry flows through the remainder of her description of her encounters with Libby, which read like the rememberances of an acolyte in the Catholic Church.

So, with Libby, Miller conducted herself as something other than a journalist. And, curiously enough, she did at the NYT as well, except that, whereas she was submissive with Libby, she was domineering with her peers, and even her superiors, which the other article establishes beyond doubt:

In the year after Mr. Engelberg left the paper in 2002, though, Ms. Miller operated with a degree of autonomy rare at The Times. Douglas Frantz, who succeeded Mr. Engelberg as the investigative editor, said that Ms. Miller once called herself "Miss Run Amok." "I said, 'What does that mean?' " said Mr. Frantz, who was recently appointed managing editor at The Los Angeles Times. "And she said, 'I can do whatever I want.' "


On July 30, 2003, Mr. Keller became executive editor after his predecessor, Howell Raines, was dismissed after a fabrication scandal involving a young reporter named Jayson Blair. Within a few weeks, in one of his first personnel moves, Mr. Keller told Ms. Miller that she could no longer cover Iraq and weapons issues. Even so, Mr. Keller said, "she kept kind of drifting on her own back into the national security realm."

Most damning, however, is the extent to which the NYT warped its news coverage to protect her:

Even after reporters learned it from outside sources, The Times did not publish Mr. Libby's name, though other news organizations already had. The Times did not tell its readers that Mr. Libby was Ms. Miller's source until Sept. 30, in an article about Ms. Miller's release from jail.

Some reporters said editors seemed reluctant to publish articles about other aspects of the case as well, like how it was being investigated by Mr. Fitzgerald. In July, Richard W. Stevenson and other reporters in the Washington bureau wrote an article about the role of Mr. Cheney's senior aides, including Mr. Libby, in the leak case. The article, which did not disclose that Mr. Libby was Ms. Miller's source, was not published.

Mr. Stevenson said he was told by his editors that the article did not break enough new ground. "It was taken pretty clearly among us as a signal that we were cutting too close to the bone, that we were getting into an area that could complicate Judy's situation," he said.

In August, Douglas Jehl and David Johnston, two other Washington reporters, sent a memo to the Washington bureau chief, Mr. Taubman, listing ideas for coverage of the case. Mr. Taubman said Mr. Keller did not want them pursued because of the risk of provoking Mr. Fitzgerald or exposing Mr. Libby while Ms. Miller was in jail.

This is unprecedented, and strongly suggests two interrelated possibilities. One, that Miller and the NYT were criminally implicated in the exposure of Valerie Plame and, second, that Miller was a highly cultivated, extremely valuable intelligence asset.

Such a conclusion is additionally supported by the willingness of NYT publisher Arthur Sulzberger, and Executive Editor Bill Keller, to allow Miller to doggedly refuse to testify without displaying any curiosity as to the actual facts:

But Mr. Sulzberger and the paper's executive editor, Bill Keller, knew few details about Ms. Miller's conversations with her confidential source other than his name. They did not review Ms. Miller's notes. Mr. Keller said he learned about the "Valerie Flame" notation only this month. Mr. Sulzberger was told about it by Times reporters on Thursday. Interviews show that the paper's leaders, in taking what they considered to be a principled stand, ultimately left the major decisions in the case up to Ms. Miller, an intrepid reporter whom editors found hard to control. "This car had her hand on the wheel because she was the one at risk," Mr. Sulzberger said.

Sulzberger’s explanation is, of course, preposterous, given that he was ignorantly allowing one journalist to assume a high level of risk for a large media enterprise with extraordinary brand identification, and reminds me of a maxim that I vaguely recall from somewhere like one of Le Carre’s George Smiley novels, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes or possibly, Dr. Who, something to the effect that when a person, or, in this instance, an entire institution, acts out of character and openly contrary to their interests, we must pay “careful attention”. It is certainly warranted here, and we may yet discover that the relationship between the NYT, Judith Miller, Lewis Libby and the Office of the Vice President is even more unseemly than we could ever imagine.

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