Judith Miller on WMDs: I was “accurately conveying wrong information”

     Dick Polman interviews Judith Miller at the Free Library of Philadelphia. (Photo courtesy of Elise Vider)

    Dick Polman interviews Judith Miller at the Free Library of Philadelphia. (Photo courtesy of Elise Vider)

    I have a smidgen of sympathy for Judith Miller, who for the past decade has been arguably the most reviled journalist in America.

    I know she got big stuff wrong during the run-up to the ’03 invasion of Iraq – she buttressed the Bush team’s war plans by reporting in The New York Times that Saddam Hussein possessed, and/or was plotting to possess, weapons of mass destruction – and I know she has been publicly scorned ever since. Her own newspaper dumped her. One of her former colleagues, Maureen Dowd, labeled her a “woman of mass destruction.”

    Nevertheless, Miller spent decades reporting and risking her life in war zones, and many of the armchair critics who say she has “blood on her hands” couldn’t hold her pen if it was duct-taped to their fingers. These days she’s trying to launch a comeback of sorts, hawking a memoir called The Story, and she deserves props for putting herself out there and risking new rounds of ridicule – like on Friday night, when Bill Maher scolded her for failing “to call bulls—t on the military-industrial complex.”

    So I was feeling a tad kind-hearted when I interviewed her last week on stage at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Still, I had a job to do. Those prewar stories, particularly the front-pager about how Saddam was (supposedly) buying aluminum tubes for the purpose of building nukes, were black marks on the news business. Anyone who believes the canard about “the liberal media” should read those stories – and, at first, Miller defended them in every respect. When the war was new, in 2003, she told American Journalism Review, “This (criticism) will blow over because my reporting was accurate.”

    But her defense is different now – more nuanced, shall we say. She told me that, as the national security reporter back in ’02 and ’03, she was “accurately conveying wrong information.”

    In other words, she said that she was wrong because her sources were wrong. The lesson, she said, is that “when you think you know the whole story, you probably don’t. You know part of it, a first draft…When you go back and back and back, you see the nuances, the facts that contradict what you reported.”

    OK. I get it that journalism is not an exact science, especially when you’re covering terrorism issues and your sources are working in the shadows with shadowy inexact evidence. Miller told me, “I was trying to tell Americans what kind of information the president, the government, was getting about WMDs. That was my job…Some of (my work) was right, some of it was wrong.”

    The problem, at least in retrospect, was that Miller gave insufficient attention to the dissenting sources who had doubts about WMDs. Which suggests that she relied too heavily on the insiders who were wired Bush neocon war team. (The Times felt that way, after the fact. The paper maneuvered her out the door 10 years ago, leaving her feeling professionally “homeless.” But she says it happened in part because “I was a really pushy woman.”)

    Anyway. While talking to me, here’s how she described that so-called aluminum-tubes-for-nukes scoop, in September ’02: “We wrote that story and it got a lot of play, including from the administration. Then I began to hear that there was a problem – that there was some debate within the (intelligence) community about these tubes….Some rumors that there was some debate about some aspects of the intelligence…. So five days later I went back and did another story saying there’s a big debate about these tubes inside the intelligence community.”

    Which still prompts the question: Why didn’t she learn before writing the scoop, that there was a debate within the community about whether those tubes were for nukes in the first place? (She said that the editors had given her and reporting partner Michael Gordon only two weeks to come up with a big splash.) And I reminded her that the follow-up story, about dissenters’ doubts, was just a short piece buried deep in the paper, and that the doubters didn’t get quoted until around the sixth paragraph. She replied: “I think that story was underplayed. But (the doubt material) was still over 40 percent of the article.”

    My point was, the pro-WMD sources were not the only sources out there. I quoted some of the prewar stories that had been reported by the Knight Ridder chain’s Washington bureau. This headline, which ran the same week as her aluminum tube story: “Lack of Hard Evidence of Iraqi Weapons Worries Top U.S. Officials.” This headline, a week later: “Iraq Has Been Unable to Get Materials Needed for Nuclear Bombs.” Two weeks after that: “CIA Report Reveals Analysts’ Split Over Extent of Iraqi Nuclear Threat.” (Full disclosure: Back then, the Knight Ridder chain owned the Philadelphia Inquirer, where I worked. But I never worked in the Washington bureau, and had no involvement in those stories.)

    In response, Miller said she was generally unaware of what Knight Ridder was reporting: “Nobody pointed those out at the time. They didn’t have a paper in Washington or New York.” (True that. Which is why those skeptical stories were ignored.) But she generally dismisses them anyway: “What were the examples where they thought the (WMD) evidence was thin? There was just this repetition again and again in their stories, concerns about thinness.” Then, moments later, a twisty semi-concession: “They were right about the bottom line – but not because they had hard facts about what was being called into question.”

    We went around the block a few more times on this stuff, with me suggesting that perhaps she had not been sufficiently skeptical during the run-up to war. She disagreed, saying, “There was no lack of skepticism.” But she also said this: “I knew Saddam Hussein, he’d thrown me in jail (years earlier). I knew how horrible he was….I made the same intellectual leap that the analysts made – knowing Saddam, knowing what he’d done in the past, (I had) high confidence that he was hiding and keeping (WMDs).” That jibed with a line in her book: “I simply could not imagine that Saddam would give up such devastating weapons or the ability to make them again.”

    She made an intellectual leap, she simply could not imagine….

    Well. The next time an administration gins up a war with specious evidence, I just hope that the journalists on the scene refrain from leaping too far and assuming too much.

    “Sometimes I’m right,” Miller told me, “and sometimes I’m wrong.” I hope next time that we can all get it right.

    ——-

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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