April 30 update: Jon Stewart interviewed Judith Miller, covering the aluminum tubes story discussed here.
I was perhaps not detailed enough in my criticism of Judith Miller’s memoir/fantasy book The Story: A Reporter’s Journey.
Jonathan Landay, a Knight-Ridder (now McClatchy) Washington reporter, nailed the story that Miller tragically botched in 2002-3 — pre-war intelligence about whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. He provided by email some details that I didn’t bother to round up.
It was self-abuse enough to read Miller’s book. I didn’t want to dig back and find the stories in question to check any of her claims in the book. And, after a quick read, I wanted to pump out my review, so I didn’t take the time to check exactly what was in the two Knight-Ridder stories she cited dismissively (or the many she ignored entirely).
Landay kindly filled in some gaps in an email exchange thanking me for my post (links added by me; I did finally look up those stories):
Just another thought: the story to which she referred in her book eviscerated — I like that word — her aluminum tubes story. She obliquely criticizes me for using only one named source, David Albright, despite the fact that virtually all of her sources were anonymous, especially on her tubes story.
OK, I just checked and in an article of nearly 3,500 words, Miller cited just two named sources. But one of the names was a pseudonym, “Ahmed al-Shemri,” an Iraqi defector who claimed to work in Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons program. He was quoted at length. Most of the rest of the article is attributed to various “Bush administration officials.” In The Story, Miller claims to have used lots of named sources in her WMD reporting. I’m not going to check all of her stories, but that wasn’t true of this one.
On Page 220 of The Story, in recounting how Times editors took her to task for failing to report the doubts revealed in a Landay article about whether the aluminum tubes could even be used as centrifuges to make nuclear weapons, Miller dismissed the Knight-Ridder story (though she attributed it to McClatchy) as based on unnamed sources:
It had quoted one source by name: David Albright.
More on Albright shortly, but, if you don’t count pseudonyms, her story on the same topic also quoted one source by name: a former Clinton administration official, Gary Samore, who didn’t provide any information about the aluminum tubes, but just speculated about how quickly Iraq might be able to develop nuclear weapons.
Interestingly, though, she names two of the Bush administration sources in her book, Robert Joseph and Susan Koch (presumably they agreed to be identified for the book). Though Miller frequently notes in the book when she quoted people by name, her description of the story on Page 214 of her book doesn’t mention how much it relied on unnamed sources, though one passage does indicate Joseph was not identified in her second article about the tubes.
Miller’s discussion of Albright (on Pages 214-217) is fascinating, especially in light of her noting his presence in Landay’s story and what he told Landay (that’s coming shortly). She had called Albright for the original article on the tubes, which ran on a Sunday. As she explained, he responded after it was published:
David Albright called back Tuesday. He had been overseas when he read our ‘tube’ story. ‘There is a problem,’ he told me. The governmental experts were divided about whether the aluminum tubes were intended to enrich uranium in a nuclear program or, rather, as several experts at the nation’s nuclear labs believed, intended for use in conventional artillery rockets.
The disclosure prompted work on a follow-up to the initial story about aluminum tubes. Miller was unable at first to find a source to corroborate what Albright had told her:
I called back David Albright. My sources were coming up cold, I told him. He suggested that I quote him about the tubes. Not without a second, confirming source, I replied. I begged him to call a few friends at the labs and urge them to talk to me. I assume he did and none of them would.
Miller contacted other sources, including Robert Joseph, President Bush’s senior adviser on proliferation. He confirmed that some analysts disagreed with the CIA assessment (that second confirmation she needed) but stressed that the CIA was adamant:
I was torn between experts I respected who disagreed. I had dealt with Bob Joseph on many stories. As far as I knew, he had never misled me. Though David Albright was a physicist and a former inspector, he had never examined an actual tube. In fact, as he had told me, he hadn’t participated in any of the intelligence community’s debates about it. Michael (Gordon) and I had the CIA on the record, plus the White House’s most senior nonproliferation official, on background, standing solidly by the claim.
Miller, by the way, doesn’t say whether Joseph claimed to have examined an actual tube, the failing she held against Albright.
The resulting story leads with a CIA report purporting to detail Iraq’s efforts to develop WMDs. The sixth paragraph mentions “debates among intelligence experts about Iraq’s intentions in trying to buy such tubes,” but is dismissive of the debate. Miller quoted a “senior administration official” (Joseph, she discloses in the book) as saying, ”This is a footnote, not a split.”
But she didn’t quote Albright. She had a former nuclear weapons inspector on the record describing the division in the intelligence community over the purpose of the tubes, but instead used an unnamed administration source downplaying the division.
If that seems as outrageous to you as it does to me, check out her (sort of) explanation:
David Albright’s objections to the administration’s tube claims did not appear in the final version. 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. Why had we suggested that the most experienced experts had sided with the CIA? And why hadn’t I quoted him?
Let me clue you in on a fact about reporters: We forget many things, but we do not forget when editors cut something from a story that we cared about. She probably left him out of her original draft. But let’s pretend that a New York Times editor cut that named source out of that story (I’m having trouble imagining that). If that happened, Miller didn’t care. Or she would remember.
When Miller encountered a potentially valuable source who was challenging the Bush administration line that she consistently reported, she blew him off and pissed him off, but can’t remember why. And yet she insisted repeatedly in the book that she was not “spoon-fed” by the Bush administration.
Back to Landay’s email, which shows that he placed more value on what Albright had to say:
But she didn’t make any reference to what I was quoting Albright on:
‘David Albright, a physicist and former U.N. weapons inspector, disputed the CIA’s assertion that a majority of analysts believe the tubes were intended to help make nuclear weapons.
‘Albright, the director of the Institute for Science and International Security, a non-partisan think tank, said he has been told that scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and other U.S. nuclear weapons facilities disagreed with that assessment but have been ordered not to say anything.
‘He quoted one scientist as saying that “the administration can say what it wants and we are expected to remain silent.”‘
Ponder that for a moment (consider this elaboration, not repetition): Miller used an unnamed Bush administration source and blew off a knowledgeable critic who:
- Was willing to speak for the record.
- Specifically disagreed with the administration line about the tubes.
- Went on the record about efforts to silence critics.
One chapter of Miller’s book is titled “Scapegoat.” In the Epilogue, she elaborated:
That made me Azazel, the biblical goat upon which the community heaped its many sins.
However much other Times journalists might have sinned, this much is clear: Miller has not fully confessed her own journalistic sins.
Back to Landay:
Moreover, she totally ignored this in the same story:
‘But the administration’s assertions about the aluminum tubes provoked considerable debate among nuclear weapons experts. One who reviewed a government analysis of the tubes said he did not believe they were intended for use in Iraq’s clandestine nuclear weapons program.
‘”From what I’ve seen, this is not conclusive evidence,” said the expert, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. He said that the tubes were not suitable for manufacturing into high-speed enrichment centrifuges because their diameters were too small and the aluminum they were made from was too hard.’
Finally, perhaps most egregiously, she ignored the fact that it was another of my stories debunking her report on the defector [Adnan Ihsan al Haideri] that helped force the NYT to print the editor’s note that her confrontation with Keller was all about:
‘On Dec. 20, 2001, another front-page article began, “An Iraqi defector who described himself as a civil engineer said he personally worked on renovations of secret facilities for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in underground wells, private villas and under the Saddam Hussein Hospital in Baghdad as recently as a year ago.” Knight Ridder Newspapers reported last week that American officials took that defector — his name is Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri — to Iraq earlier this year to point out the sites where he claimed to have worked, and that the officials failed to find evidence of their use for weapons programs. It is still possible that chemical or biological weapons will be unearthed in Iraq, but in this case it looks as if we, along with the administration, were taken in. And until now we have not reported that to our readers.’
As the NYT itself said last week, hers is a ‘sad and flawed book.’
Even sadder and more flawed than I realized when I ripped it yesterday. Thanks to Landay for shedding more light on today’s journalistic travesty that fails to defend, justify or even explain a journalistic travesty from more than a decade ago.
Seeking response: I can’t find an email address for Miller, but I will tweet at her, inviting response (and will post if she responds). I also will invite responses from Albright and Joseph.