“You’ve got to get out of there.”
Former White House counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke, advising his friend Judith Miller, was not talking about the Alexandria City Jail in Northern Virginia. That was where she spent 85 days for contempt of court, bunking with criminals and subsisting on mystery meat as Inmate 45570083, for refusing to reveal to a federal prosecutor her conversations with a confidential source.
Instead, Clarke was talking about The New York Times.
The Story: A Reporter’s Journey, Miller’s memoir of her three decades at the newspaper of record, is most convincing as a chronicle of the Times’s occasionally venomous office politics by one of its toughest practitioners. As Miller’s long-suffering husband, New York Review of Books co-founder Jason Epstein, put it, the Times was “that snake pit.”
The book is less convincing as Miller’s apologia for her deeply flawed reporting, much of it played on the Times’s front page, concerning Saddam Hussein’s supposed nuclear development program and stockpiling of other weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to President George W. Bush’s military adventure in Iraq.
As the war proved increasingly costly and catastrophically quixotic (“dumb,” as Senate candidate Barack Obama called it), she later admitted her WMD stories were “totally wrong,” albeit unavoidably so—mistakes committed in good faith by a truth-seeking journalist working hard to do her best.
Much of The Story, including a chapter titled “Scapegoat,” is Miller’s self-pitying account of how she was demonized by critics and enemies, inside and outside the Times, as an influential cheerleader for an unjustified and ultimately ruinous war conducted under false pretenses.
Executive Editor Bill Keller and Managing Editor Jill Abramson (who succeeded Keller as top editor after Miller left the paper) unfairly blamed her for the mistakes of others, she contends. Foreign editor Roger Cohen tried to thwart her at every turn. Other Times colleagues trashed her behind her back.
When her once-dazzling career came crashing down, Maureen Dowd—a colleague, Miller writes, that she nurtured and encouraged during a brief stint as deputy Washington editor—wrote a nasty column about her, accusing her of, among other sins, misleading editors about her involvement in the Valerie Plame affair and her interactions with Scooter Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff who, it turned out, was the confidential source Miller went to jail to protect. The column’s headline: “Woman of Mass Destruction.”
No doubt, some of Miller’s detractors were motivated by sexism, jealousy, personal animus, and the primal reflex for bureaucratic survival and ass-covering—but surely not by valid concerns about the inadequacy of her journalistic methods, she argues.
To her credit, Miller often put herself in harm’s way to cover bloody conflicts around the world; had a talent for befriending well-positioned and powerful sources, especially Jordan’s King Hussein; was prescient in her early reporting about Al Qaeda (though, as she regretfully writes, she declined an opportunity to interview Osama bin Laden out of an understandable fear for her safety); and shared in the Times’s seven Pulitzer Prizes in the aftermath of 9/11.
But the closest she comes to taking responsibility for her defects is this passage in the “Scapegoat” chapter:
I was not a perfect reporter. I had broken quite a few rules in my thirty years of journalism and committed my share of journalistic sins. As a foreign correspondent, I had occasionally drunk too many martinis in too many hotel rooms on the road after eighteen-hour-long reporting days. I had yelled at colleagues who I thought had failed to carry their weight on a story or endangered our sources. I was perpetually late filing expense accounts. I had sharp elbows. I resisted being cut out of stories. I failed to appreciate the importance of building a network of friends inside the Times.
But after this winsome effort at self-criticism and painful confession, copping to her inexcusable betrayal of the Times accounting department, Miller quickly adds: “But I had never lacked skepticism. Nor had I twisted or ignored facts to achieve a political outcome. Yet that was the crime of which I was accused.”
After reading Miller’s account of how she and Times colleague Michael Gordon produced the erroneous front-page story that still enrages her critics, “U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts,” one can be forgiven for believing that her phrase “to achieve a political outcome” is exquisitely parsed, even a tad disingenuous.
There are other possible explanations for why an ambitious star reporter might hype a sensational storyline and dismiss contradictory evidence that tends to undermine the thesis; placating an unreasonable editor demanding to make a splash, and getting on the front page of the planet’s most powerful news outlet, are certainly two of them.
According to Miller, she and Gordon were swamped with other pressing deadlines in late August 2002 when Times Executive Editor Howell Raines—who would be fired less than a year later amid the Jayson Blair scandal —ordered up “a comprehensive account of why the Bush administration believed that Saddam was hiding WMD.”
Abramson, then Washington bureau chief, told them their story had to run in two weeks. “But we all knew there was not enough time to do the reporting that such an extensive report required,” Miller writes. “I made countless phone calls to sources and came up dry.”
By Thursday, Sept. 5, four days before publication, “we were both gloomy” that they had little or nothing to write. “Then Michael hit pay dirt: a trusted source let slip a reference to an order of aluminum tubes that the Iraqis planned to use to enrich uranium for nuclear bombs.”
The next morning, with the blessing of Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, the reporters met with White House nuclear proliferation expert Robert Joseph and his deputy, Susan Koch, who briefed them on “Iraq’s purchases within the past fourteen months of tens of thousands of high-strength aluminum tubes that CIA officials believed were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium.”
Miller’s “frantic hunt for more details about the tubes” came to naught, and the 3,500-word story ran that Sunday, just in time for Vice President Cheney’s appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, Rice’s on CNN’s Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, Secretary of State Colin Powell’s on Fox News Sunday, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s on CBS’s Face the Nation, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers’s on ABC’s This Week.
Interestingly, Miller fails to mention the Sunday morning star turns of Powell, Rumsfeld and Myers in what clearly was a brilliantly coordinated PR maneuver to exploit the Times story—which was dependent entirely on Bush administration sources—to legitimize what turned out to be specious claims about the tubes, which, at worst, were components for conventional artillery rockets; Rice even cribbbed a line from Miller’s and Gordon’s mistaken story, saying “we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”
In her book, Miller doesn’t countenance the distinct possibility that she and Gordon got played. Despite the story’s “assertive headline,” as she calls it, she writes that “I was okay with it. The story contained numerous caveats.” A fair reading of the story today would suggest that said “caveats” were sparse, pro-forma and did nothing to raise doubts about the basic premise.
Miller continues: “I was still comfortable with our effort until I watched the Sunday talk shows. Vice President Cheney and National Security Adviser Rice both trumpeted the tube story, attributing it to the Times rather than their own intelligence agencies.”
Hello? For someone who presents herself as a Washington-savvy insider—after all, House Armed Services Committee Chairman (and future defense secretary) Les Aspin was, for a time, her live-in boyfriend—Miller’s surprise at being used by the White House recalls Captain Renault’s claim of being “shocked! shocked!” that gambling was going on at Rick’s Café.
Miller does herself no favors with her narrative of an attempt to write a follow-up story accounting for dissenting voices and expert analysis of the aluminum tubes; when David Albright, a former weapons inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency, offered to be quoted skeptically and on the record about the Bush White House claims, Miller haughtily replied: “Not without a second, confirming source.” She writes that her efforts to find such a source were fruitless.
Far from giving space to the aluminum tube skeptics, the resulting Times story deemed them all but irrelevant, and focused instead on a Bush administration press release “outlining what it says are efforts by Saddam Hussein to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and the missiles to deliver them.”
“David Albright’s objections to the administration’s tube claims did not appear in the final version,” Miller recounts. “Perhaps his name was cut for space—or by me or the Washington bureau or foreign desk editors. I no longer remember or have the original draft. He was furious.”
Miller was released from Alexandria jail in late September 2005 after receiving Scooter Libby’s explicit permission to discuss their confidential conversations with independent counsel Patrick Fitzgerald—who was prosecuting the unauthorized outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA employee as apparent payback when Plame’s husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, publicly disputed Bush administration claims about Saddam’s alleged attempts to buy uranium.
Miller’s grand jury and trial testimony in Libby’s 2007 perjury charge—he’d insisted to federal agents he’d had nothing to do with the Plame leak, and Miller claimed he told her all about it—were crucial in his indictment and conviction. But toward the end of The Story, Miller suggests that she had misread her notebooks, that her memory had played tricks with her, and Libby was probably innocent.
Maybe the headline on Maureen Dowd’s long-ago column wasn’t far off the mark.