By Erian Bradley
Judith Miller, a reporter for the New York Times, wrote a series of articles in 2001 through 2003 investigating weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Later, those articles were found to have included incorrect information that many claim may have fueled the push to war.
Miller did extensive coverage on what the New York Times called “a presumed presence of chemical and biological weapons and possible nuclear matériel in Iraq.” In her own defense, Miller said that she reported what her sources gave her. She defended her work in her 2015 book, “The Story: a Reporter’s Journey.”
In Miller’s book, she tells many stories of her time in Iraq. She tells us how her experience as a reporter was being around military personnel who had seen war two or three times in their lifetime.
In the first chapter, she quotes Major Ryan Cutchin. She says the two first met when he was Capt. Cutchin, and his brigade had been charged with finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. She writes that in April 2003, Ryan had led a Mobile Exploitation Team (MET) that was told to inspect a dozen 55-gallon drums in an open field because he was told one of the drums contained cyclosarin, a deadly nerve agent. They only found gasoline.
She also talks in her book about how Cutchin’s team and a veteran Defense Department bioweapons expert called the suspect sites they had to inspect “toilet paper” — meaning it was a waste of their time. The team had reached the conclusion that while experts could probably find more chemical and biological munitions, suspect chemicals, and WMD precursors, they probably wouldn’t find piles of modern unconventional weapons that officials said had posed a “grave threat” to America.
She has many other stories in her book that back her up on the “I wrote that there was doubt in finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq” excuse. But those excuses still don’t back her up on not admitting her mistake.
Throughout her articles in the New York Times, Miller quoted officials anonymously numerous times. In her article, “Threats and Responses: Chemical Weapons; Iraq said to try to buy antidote against nerve gas,” those anonymous sources said Iraq had purchased a huge amount of a drug that counter attacks with nerve gas. She also went on to quote an official saying that if Iraq was planning to use nerve agents, they would want to protect their population. The quote also said that U.S intelligence was very concerned about their plans.
In an article in September 2002, Miller wrote about chemical inspections in Iraq and how scientists were finding it hard to search for the threats of harmful chemicals being made for bombs.
“Although United Nations inspectors say they may be prepared to resume their work within three weeks of a green light from the United Nations Security Council, verifying Iraq’s assertions that it has abandoned weapons of mass destruction, or finding evidence that it has not done so, may not be feasible, according to officials and former weapons inspectors.”
Later in her article, Miller quoted Khidhir Hamza, who formerly led part of Iraq’s nuclear bomb program. She wrote that he thought that Iraq was at a “pilot plant” stage where in a couple of years they could be mass producing nuclear bombs. She summed it up by writing that Hazma said “such centrifuges were small, easily hidden, and emit very little radiation that can be detected.”
Jack Shafer, a media critic for Politico, wrote a piece on Miller saying that it’s OK that she got the Iraq coverage wrong, but it’s unacceptable that she won’t admit it still:
“As many critics—including me, again—pointed out, Miller wasn’t the only reporter who allowed herself to be swindled by defectors and other iffy sources on the Iraq story,” Shafer said.
Miller was not the only reporter to ever get the story wrong, and she may have been singled out, Shafer notes. He said that Miller named former colleagues at the New York Times (Patrick Tyler, John Tagliabue, David Johnston, James Risen and Chris Hedges) as others who “got it wrong” in their published “war run-up” stories, too.
Shafer says that the fact that Miller’s stories were published was not entirely her fault. He claims the Times should take fault because they signed off on the stories. He also says other publications published incorrect stories and the blame still was focused on Miller.
He explains why he thinks she was singled out in one paragraph:
“Miller became the focal point, in part, because she sluiced so many ‘problematic articles,’ to pinch a phrase from the Times mini culpa, into the newspaper. Once on the ground in Iraq, she exaggerated the scant progress made by the weapons hunters, most notably claiming that a human ‘silver bullet’ had led investigators to a burial ground of ‘chemical precursors‘ for the Iraqi weapon’s program.”
The “mini culpa” or mea culpa that he’s referring to is the New York Times piece that the editors wrote to correct the errors in some of the stories published.
Before the exposure of the inaccuracies from some of her sources, Miller wasn’t always liked but she was respected at the Times’ Washington Bureau. Franklin Foer, a writer for New York Magazine, wrote a feature piece on Miller called “The source of the trouble.” He quotes some of her past colleagues, including her ex-boyfriend, Steven Rattner.
“She was unlike the other guys there. That’s why they brought her to the paper,” Rattner said.
Foer further quotes other colleagues anonymously, describing their experiences with Miller.
“When I see her coming, my instinct is to go the other way,” one colleague said.
“She’s a shit to the people she works with,” said another.
Foer said that there was an unusual amount of colleagues that tried to separate themselves from Miller. Foer further explained his constant usage of the phrase “sharp elbows” describing Miller’s aggression.
“She has sharp elbows,” Bill Keller, an American journalist and executive editor of the New York Times from 2003-2011 said. “She is possessive of her sources, and passionate about her stories, and a little obsessive. If you interview people who have worked with Sy Hersh, I’ll bet you’ll find some of the same complaints.”
Miller made some serious mistakes in her writing, and critics have made that clear with their negative reviews on her book and analyses of her articles. The articles she wrote created worry and more tension leading to the longest war in American History.