So I read disgraced former New York Times reporter Judith Miller’s new book, The Story. It’s awesome! She’s really not kidding about a comeback. It might be the weirdest episode in journalism since “Kenneth, What Is the Frequency?“
I’d say this will be a no-holds-barred review, but I promised myself I wouldn’t compare this book to Mein Kampf for at least 500 words. So it’s not completely without restrictions.
Miller was renowned as a Times national-security reporter prior to 9/11, achieved stardom as the face of the pro-war propaganda effort prior to the Iraq invasion, and then became a household name all over the world once it was discovered she’d made the most impactful mistake the media business had ever seen.
She is most infamous for a piece she co-wrote with Michael Gordon in September of 2002. In “U.S. says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts,” she confidently reported that “Iraq … has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb.” This same story described a 14-month campaign on the part of Saddam Hussein to buy “aluminum tubes,” which the U.S. “believed” were needed to enrich uranium.
After this piece was published, Bush administration officials like Dick Cheney and Condi Rice held up this story as evidence confirming what they were saying about Iraq’s weapons capability. This was the ultimate in snake-eating-its-own-tail propaganda. The Bush administration, open about being in the reality-creating business, created a reality about WMDs by running a bogus tale through the New York Times wash cycle.
Judith Miller was the plod picked for this mission of regurgitating the invented WMD story to the American public. She was the perfect mark: an outspoken zealot on the issue of a possible terrorist attack who was, moreover, well-known in the journalism community for being a hyper-ambitious byline-hogger who would gladly bulldoze her own colleagues for a story.
(Of course such qualities are often considered positives in male journalists. Miller regularly got dinged for being the same kind of self-obsessed attention hog that wins the male muckraker plaudits for being “relentless.”)
Anyway, it can’t have been an accident that this was the person given exclusive embedded access to an army team called the “XTF,” whose supposed mission it was to find the WMDs. In this unit, Miller had her head pumped full of detailed fairy tales about WMDs. And though she never actually got wind of anything like real confirmation, she dutifully regurgitated the whispers, even adding her own rhetorical flourishes.
Here’s how she described her work in the opening pages of The Story:
“I was the only reporter with [Major Ryan Cutchin’s] then-secret brigade, known as the 75th Exploitation Task Force. The XTF, as it was called, would find only traces of the weapons that the CIA and fifteen other American intelligence agencies had concluded Saddam Hussein was hiding, a nightmarish cache that the soldiers searching for them (and I with them) were convinced existed: remnants of some 500 tons of mustard and nerve gas, 25,000 liters of liquid anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin, 29,984 prohibited munitions capable of delivering chemical agents, several dozen Scud missiles, and 18 mobile biological weapons vans—not to mention its ambitious nuclear weapons program, according to US estimates based on United Nations reports of what Iraq had made…”
This is the fifth paragraph of the book, and Miller is already telling us that all of the following people and organizations made the same mistake she did:
- Major Ryan Cutchin, an officer in the secret “XTF” WMD-search group
- The CIA
- Fifteen other intelligence agencies
- The soldiers in the XTF she was embedded with
- The “U.S.”
- The United Nations
You run out of fingers pretty fast trying to count how many people there are here. It’s like dozens of people! And that’s not even counting the U.S and the United Nations! And they all made the same mistake, according to Miller.
Secondly, even now, she says: Who’s to say that it was a mistake? After all, they found “traces” of all of it, apparently including Iraq’s “ambitious nuclear weapons program,” a phrase that even in this weird tense structure was shocking to see Miller write again without qualification or irony. In her place, I wouldn’t go near that term ever again without first surrounding it in air quotes the size of Stonehenge slabs.
The ostensible purpose of The Story, as Miller has been explaining on TV in recent weeks, was to go back and re-ask her sources how “we” (read: they) all could have screwed up so badly. But to read the book, it doesn’t seem like much of a mystery. Here’s how she described Cutchin’s recollections of those old days in the XTF:
“‘Remember those packets we got each morning, with the glossy pictures and a tentative grid?’ Ryan reminisced. ‘Go to this place. You’ll find a McDonald’s there. Look in the fridge. You’ll find French fries, cheeseburger, and Cokes. Then we would get there, and not only was there no fridge and no fries, there hadn’t even been a thought of putting a McDonald’s there.'”
Any normal reporter witnessing this lunacy would have developed doubts about the war effort very quickly. In fact, when the XTF finally allowed the Washington Post‘s Barton Gellman to tag along during this absurdist egg hunt, Gellman wrote up an appropriately absurdist take on the WMD search: “Odyssey of Frustration: In Search for Weapons, Army Team Finds Vacuum Cleaners.”
Gellman’s take was published in May, 2003. Around the same time, in late April of 2003, this is what Miller was still writing: “Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert.” This piece said with a straight face that Hussein/Iraq had WMDs, but they were destroyed days before the invasion.
This preposterous “dog ate my homework” story is even more humorous in retrospect, now that Miller has a self-serious Twitter handle (@jmfreespeech) under which she notes in her mini-bio, “My dog, Hamlet, really does eat my homework.”
Most of The Story is a tale of dog after scheming dog eating Miller’s homework. Sometimes it’s editor Roger Cohen undermining her, or columnist Maureen Dowd side-eying her (at the direction of the paper, she implies), or Post media critic Howard Kurtz defaming her based (she thinks) on Gellman’s intel, or unknown colleagues within the Times viciously leaking her infamous email about Ahmad Chalabi being the source of most of the Times scoops, etc., etc.
It isn’t until May or June of 2003 – chapter 17, in The Story time – that Miller begins wondering if CIA analysts, who had “severely underestimated” Saddam’s weapons cache before the first Gulf War, had maybe “grossly exaggerated” them this time. (This rhetorical technique – always reminding us that some prior act of hyper-vigilance would have been justified, before conceding to some later instance of over-credulity – is used throughout the book.)
Pondering this question, Miller writes:
“Still uncertain whether WMD would be found in Iraq, I had raised the possibility that the hunt would come up empty with senior editors, and publicly, as early as May in a commencement speech I gave at Barnard College during my brief break from Iraq. My alma mater was honoring me with a medal of distinction, and I spoke about Iraq. I had ‘very mixed feelings about this war,’ I told the graduates. Mostly, I had questions, chief among them whether the war was ‘justified…'”
In the blink of an eye, Miller presents herself as just an ordinary Ivy-educated beat reporter following her nose, one who wins the odd medal of distinction and who began earlier than some – in May – to have doubts about the Iraq war. And she describes herself as having been ready to go to her editors with those doubts, when the paper treacherously sold her out with a front-page piece questioning her reporting.
In the context of the book, the decision by the Times to throw Miller under the bus is presented as the result of a series of circumstances outside her control. In particular, the Jayson Blair episode led to the ouster of a pair of senior editors close to her, Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd.
And that “revolt,” which she says “transformed the paper,” in turn led to something like a witch hunt in which the Times savaged Miller in an attempt to save its own credibility. Mistakes were made. Mostly, she just had a lot of rotten luck. Or at least, that’s how it reads.
It’s a sweeping, epic non-apology. Every bad thing Miller has ever been accused of turns out to be wrong or taken out of context, according to her. “I had never peddled WMD to advance the case for war,” she writes in one place. “I was not the only Times reporter who had written stories based on prewar intelligence that turned out to be wrong,” she writes in another, before going on to lovingly list every other ex-colleague who botched an Iraq story.
That whole thing about her wearing a military uniform during her embed? The army had insisted on that. And those stories about her debriefing one of Saddam’s sons-in-law for the army? They came from a disgruntled soldier and, hilariously, “anonymous sources”! Not to be believed!
Then there was that amazing tale Howard Kurtz reported in the Washington Post about Miller going over the head of Colonel Richard McPhee, head of the XTF, and getting him to back off a move from an area where she expected to find a key source on WMDs.
She did this, Kurtz reported, by doing two things: threatening to write a negative story in the Times about McPhee’s unit, and back-dooring McPhee with a call to General David Petraeus, who in turn called McPhee and got him to rescind the retreat.
Kurtz even published a note Miller had written to army flacks that clearly appeared to threaten a negative story if he pulled out. “I intend to write about this decision in the NY Times to send a successful team back home just as progress is being made,” she said.
Miller in The Story says “none of this was accurate.” She then goes on to explain the inaccuracy. Here I must quote her at length, because this “debunking” passage is so incredible and so characteristic of the whole book:
“I took special exception to Kurtz’s assertion that I got Colonel McPhee to rescind an order… Kurtz quoted excerpts of a note I had written to Colonel McPhee informing him that I intended to stay in the Baghdad area even if MET Alpha rejoined the rest of its brigade in Tallil. What Kurtz apparently did not know was that I had discussed this course of action with Gerald Boyd, via satellite phone in New York. Gerald urged me to find a way to stay near Karbala to follow up on the front-page story I wrote in April about the Iraqi scientist whom MET Alpha had found, and who claimed to have seen chemical weapons and precursors destroyed shortly before the war.”
The reader is by now already getting foggy with all of these details. In fact, all she’s done so far is spread some blame by mentioning she’d told her editor what she was doing, and insist that her reasons for wanting to stay near Karbala against McPhee’s wishes were really good. She goes on:
“The Iraqi source was in great potential danger, especially after I had reported that he was not a scientist but a military intelligence officer who was cooperating with the United States. At the time, I knew little more about him. But since he was willingly providing a small group of MET Alpha and US intelligence officers with leads, McPhee’s decision to withdraw the soldiers he trusted seemed to epitomize the problems inherent in the army’s WMD hunt. Gerald had asked me to prepare a story that focused on that decision as a reflection of the task force’s weaknesses.
We would publish it immediately if the colonel pulled back MET Alpha and refused to let me stay on in Baghdad. ‘Try not to get yourself disembeded,’ Gerald told me. ‘But stay with the story!'”
So in Miller’s mind, what was “inaccurate” was that Kurtz didn’t understand the importance of the story she was working on when she did all of the things Kurtz correctly reported she’d done.
Moreover this notion that Boyd “asked” her to write this negative story is preposterous. The editor sitting at home in his house in Connecticut or wherever has no idea what the hell is going on in Iraq.
Here’s how it works: at some odd hour, an editor gets a call from his reporter six thousand miles away. The reporter, who in this case may literally be wearing a uniform and marching with troops, screams some gibberish into the phone about how this Colonel McPhee character is going to completely balls up the whole war effort if he moves the freaking XTF unit (the editor closes his eyes and tries to remember what the XTF is) and we have to do a story on it right now! Do you understand? Are you listening?
The editor, whose job it is to encourage reporters on the scent, shrugs and says, “OK, stay with it,” then goes back to playing with his kids. That’s how these conversations go. So the notion that Gerald Boyd ordered Miller to high-hand McPhee from afar is ludicrous.
Then, finally, there’s Miller’s explanation of the whole call-to-Petraeus thing:
“McPhee had quickly reversed course after consulting on a secure line with MET Alpha’s chief, General Petraeus, and other brigade officers. He instructed MET Alpha to continue working near Baghdad. Nothing I said or did affected that decision. Officers routinely changed orders based on new information, or new facts on the ground.”
So in other words, Miller did write that note, she did threaten to write a negative story if McPhee moved, she did call Petraeus and McPhee did change his mind after talking to Petraeus. But none of Kurtz’s story was accurate!
Miller is not a gifted writer in the normal sense, but she does have one very obvious skill on the page: certainty. (Here it comes: Hitler, another otherwise plodding writer, had the same talent!) Miller on paper is so sure of herself that the reader may find his or her self mesmerized by the lack of qualification. This unwavering quality in her writing is very unique and helped sell a fake war to a whole country.
Years later, she is still blind to the fact that that was the flaw, the abject certainty she brought to her work. Instead of addressing that profound and no doubt deeply unsettling personal problem, she repeated the mistake, apparently spending all of these years in the wilderness coming up with a 400-page explanation for why nothing that happened was her fault. It’s amazing on the one hand, but also depressing, even for her sake.
In the F. Scott Fitzgerald era of “no second acts in American lives,” Miller would never have returned to the public stage. A successful comeback now would mark a new peak in the Reality TV era, a time when all fame is value-neutral and infamy, if marketed correctly, is just another stage of celebrity. Is this really going to happen?