by Jack Shafer | slate.msn.com | 23 April 2003
On Monday, Press Box fastballed a couple of bricks at New York Times reporter Judith Miller for the rococo—and somewhat creepy—sourcing behind her Page One scoop about the search for unconventional weapons ("Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said To Assert," April 21).
The story chronicles the exploits of Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha—a U.S. military team searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—and a scientist who alleges that he worked on Iraqi chemical weapons programs. The scientist, say Miller's military sources, led them to chemical precursors used to manufacture biological and chemical weapons. This scientist claims that Iraq destroyed unconventional weapons and equipment before the war and sent other "unconventional weapons and technology to Syria." He also maintains that in the years before the war, Iraq had shifted its R & D to making illegal weapons that can't be detected easily.
Quite a story. But Miller provides no independent confirmation for any of her blockbuster findings, though she described her news as "the most important discovery to date in the hunt for illegal weapons." Furthermore, the deal she made with her sources prevented her from interviewing the scientist or even visiting his home. Her military handlers asked that she not identify the scientist or name the uncovered chemicals, that she hold her story for three days, and that she let the military check it prior to publication.
Miller's passive wording—"the copy was then submitted for a check by military officials"—obscures whether the military required her to submit it or if she volunteered. But according to New York Observer reporter Sridhar Pappu, the Times' decision to accept military censorship has caused an internal uproar at the paper. Pappu writes, "One source inside the Times called it a 'wacky-assed piece,' adding that there were 'real questions about it and why it was on page 1.' "
The facts in Miller's Monday story appear to have flowed directly from the mouths of her MET Alpha military sources. Her copy reads more like a government press release than a news story—all the more so since MET Alpha tied Miller up one side and down the other with elaborate sourcing rules and limited her ability to independently confirm the facts. The MET Alpha team's one concession: They allowed her to view the scientist, dressed in "nondescript clothes and a baseball cap … point[ing] to several spots in the sand." Gee thanks, guys!
On Tuesday, the day after the big story, Miller discussed it on The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. Miller attempted to advance her own story with new, salacious allegations, but she didn't add any sorely needed independent verification to her account. And her language indicated that she knows—or thinks she knows—more than the Times allowed her to write.
On the NewsHour, the singular "scientist" described in the Times story becomes "scientists" plural, indicating either that a) MET Alpha has more than one scientist/informant or b) she was mistranscribed twice. The transcript reads as follows:
[The Bush administration has] changed the political environment, and they've enabled people like the scientists that MET Alpha has found to come forth. …
But those stockpiles that we've heard about, well, those have either been destroyed by Saddam Hussein, according to the scientists, or they have been shipped to Syria for safekeeping. [Emphasis added]
Miller calls the mystery scientist a "silver bullet" who has "led MET Team Alpha people to some pretty startling conclusions that have kind of challenged the American intelligence community's under ... previous understanding of, you know, what we thought the Iraqis were doing."
The "previous understanding" was that investigators would find "stockpiles" of WMD in Iraq. The new understanding is that Saddam Hussein destroyed all the weapons of mass destruction, right up to the date of the invasion, or shipped them to Syria. All that remains in Iraq today are the chemicals and means to fabricate WMD, surmise the MET Alpha boys. Miller let loose with another disclosure not included in her Times piece. She states:
And the scientist who has been cooperating with MET Alpha has actually said that he participated in ... he kind of watched, you know, a warehouse being burned that contained potentially incriminating biological equipment.
Participated in, or kind of watched? There's a difference. Is Miller holding something back? What did he see? When did he see it? What does it really mean?
Miller expresses, without any substantiation, the "rather clear" finding that the Iraqis intended to keep anyone from finding a WMD "smoking gun" by distributing "dual-use equipment" at armories throughout the nation. Miller says further searching in Iraq would reveal no more than "a little bit of the program. You would find a program very much, these days, in the research and development stages." But if the Iraqis made illegal weapons so supremely undetectible, why wasn't Saddam more hospitable to the inspections process? If MET Alpha hasn't unearthed the hidden program so far, surely the inspectors would never have found it.
Miller doesn't say.
Miller retreats from the candor of her NewsHour discussion with another piece in today's New York Times: "Focus Shifts From Weapons to the People Behind Them" (April 23). If the April 21 story was about "the most important discovery to date in the hunt for illegal weapons," today's story is about reducing the inflated expectations created by that scoop—and never mind that cheerleading NewsHour proclamation that a "silver bullet" has been found.
Miller quotes an unnamed MET Alpha source who says the "paradigm has shifted" in the search for weapons of mass destruction. At first, the United States was trying to locate the vast stores of WMD that were described in Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation before the U.N. Security Council. Finding none in 75 of the 150 suspected sites, it pared back its search to WMD precursors. Now, says the MET Alpha source, the investigators are concentrating on finding scientists who worked on WMD programs. She writes:
Based on what the Iraqi scientist had said about weapons being destroyed or stocks being hidden, military experts said they now believed they might not find large caches of illicit chemicals or biological agents, at least not in Iraq.
Paradigm shift, my ass! Powell's intelligence report insisted there were tons of WMD and now the military—and Miller—are preparing us for their complete absence. That's what I call the most important discovery to date in the hunt for illegal weapons!
We can assume today's dispatch wasn't reviewed by military censors because Miller is silent on that score. But we can also safely assume Miller has been told a lot more than she's writing and is actively self-censoring. What isn't she telling us? That some Iraqi Dr. Evil found a way to convert George Foreman grills into WMD machines that transmogrify Bisquick and toluene into sarin, and the ubiquity of this technology makes the Iraqi WMD program invisible to military investigators?
And a final note on Miller's sourcing: On NewsHour, Miller confides for the first time I've seen that she's embedded with the unit searching for WMD. But, since the embedding rules specifically freed reporters from direct military censorship, inquiring minds want to know: Why did Miller agree to their review?
Investigative journalist Edward Jay Epstein suggests a more elegant way to uncover WMDs or a WMD program than MET Alpha's barnstorming. Award $1 million in gold plus safe haven in the United States or United Kingdom to the first person (and his nuclear family) who leads investigators to a cache of chemical or biological artillery shells, mines, unmanned aerial-vehicle bombs, or other weapons. The offer would set off a gold rush if Iraq issued tens of thousands of WMD to battle units or even stockpiled them. If no one claims the prize, there would be only two possible conclusions: No Iraqi was motivated sufficiently to come forward, or U.S. intelligence may have seriously erred in its assessment.