Monday, October 03, 2005

Judith Miller no Joan of Arc

PV Vivekanand

SO NOW Judith Miller of the New York Times is made out to be a heroine of the media. She is so highly principled a journalist committed to upholding the ethics of the profession that she had opted to spend 85 days in prison rather than reveal her sources. So much is her integrity that she waited until she received "a direct and uncoerced waiver" from her source before going before a grand jury and giving the name of Lewis Scott Libby, a close aide to Vice-President Dick Cheney, as the person who revealed to her that Valerie Palme was a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) secret operative.
Well, one could rattle off the names of many who would spend more than 85 days in order to project themselves as models for international journalistic ethics and gain fame, but it subject to debate how many of them would survive a close scrutiny of their journalist record for ethics and unbiased, objective reporting. Of particular importance here is that Miller was in disgrace when she sprang up and went to jail in the name of professional ethics and integrity, now she has emerged to reap the fruit of spending time in jail.
It seems to be a combination of several factors that prompted her to choose to go to jail. It is difficult to cite them in terms of importance and priority since only she would know how she rated them.
From the day Miller opted d to spend time in jail, many commentators declared that her objective was to redeem herself from the disgrace and ostracism she suffered when the New York Times had to apologise for four of her articles that the paper ran in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Her reports spoke about Saddam Hussein's stockpile of weapons of mass destruction and painted a picture as if Iraq was threatening the entire Middle Eastern neighbourhood and the US itself with WMDs.
It was easy for the American people — recovering from the trauma of the Sept.11 attacks and repeated warnings of further assaults against them —  to swallow those accounts as accurate.
Those reports also went a considerable way in convincing many sceptics in the US Congress into voting to authorise the Bush administration to wage war on Iraq.
And the NYT had no option but to offer the apology when it was established after the invasion of Iraq and ouster of Saddam that Iraq had no WMDs and the ousted president had destroyed whatever he had at least a decade before the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
It was a serious and unprecedented humiliation for the NYT, and perhaps that was one of the reasons it also tried to redeem itself by taking an open position against a second term for George W Bush in 2004.
How could a "journalistic icon" like Judith Miller make such a mistake? Wasn't she a veteran with decades of experience and followed the code of ethics of the profession to the letter and spirit that it was taken for granted that she would have independently verified the accuracy of the report before firing it off to the NYT foreign desk?
Well, that is where a comment written by Arianna Huffington, editor of the website The Huffington Post and appearing in the Los Angeles Times, has the most relevance.
According to Huffington, "a thorough and comprehensive look at Miller's career reveals repeated examples of egregious reporting, a startling lack of objectivity, too-close-for-comfort relationships with dubious sources … and a penchant for far-from-thorough and far-from-comprehensive coverage."
Startling, isn't it? That is not the way most Americans would have seen Miller, particularly that the NYT itself described her while she was prison as "an intrepid, principled and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has provided our readers with thorough and comprehensive reporting throughout her career."
That was definitely not the way the NYT would have described Miller when it had to eat crow and apologise to the readers for her WMD reports.
In its apology, the paper said a common feature of the "problematic articles" was their dependence at least in part on Iraqi exiles and defectors bent on "regime change".
It said it had found "a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been".
The paper said part of the blame was on editors for failing to challenge reporters.
Well, it had by then been known that Miller's main source was Ahmed Chalabi, who had a vested interest in coercing the US to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein. Miller herself admitted that Chalabi was the source for "most of the front-page exclusives on WMD" in the New York Times.
Compare that affirmation with the assessment of David Kay, who led the post-war hunt for WMDs in Iraq. Kay said Chalabi's was brilliance was to provide information to different Western intelligence agencies, which then vied with each other to trumpet the insights of their intelligence, unaware that they were all from the same source.
But for Miller to have depended on Chalabi without verifying the accuracy of his dubious accounts of Iraq's non-existent WMDs was totally out of character for a NYT reporter.
As Huffington observes, "The inescapable fact is that Miller — intentionally or unintentionally — worked hand in glove in helping the White House propaganda machine sell the war in Iraq. And that includes Libby and his boss, Dick Cheney."
Author and commentator Justin Raimundo, who describes Libby as the man at the centre of the neoconservative seat of power in Washington, is more harsh.
"If any one source of government-generated disinformation could be pointed to as vitally important in the campaign to lie us into war with Iraq, then surely Miller – the New York Times reporter whose articles did so much to inflate the claims of Iraqi 'weapons of mass destruction' – deserves some sort of award," says Raimundo. "Thanks to her tireless efforts, there was hardly a tall tale told by Ahmed Chalabi's US-government-funded 'intelligence-gathering' operation that did not make it into the New York Times, often on the front page.
"From the aluminum tubes that had nothing to do with nukes or other 'weapons of mass destruction,' to the secret biolabs in the basements of Saddam's palaces, to the string of nuke factories allegedly working overtime from one end of Iraq to the other, it all turned out to be a tissue of lies."
Raimundo continues on "When the US finally went into Iraq, and the search for those mythical WMD began, General Judy was in the forefront of the posse, personally accompanying the military team sent to conduct search operations – virtually 'hijacking' the mission, according to one officer on the scene – and even wearing a military uniform.
"Her imperious manner while in Iraq with META (the Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha) aroused considerable resentment, particularly on account of her brazen attempts to intimidate military personnel by threatening to go to Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or his deputy Douglas Feith if things did not go her way. And there is evidence that her relationship with the Pentagon was not all bluff and bluster."
Also punctured this week is Miller's claim that without an "uncoerced waiver" from her source, she would never had revealed the identity of the source who revealed that Palme was a CIA agent.
The Palme episode had to do with what has emerged as neoconservatives' way of getting back at her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who revealed that the Bush administration was depending on lies to justify the war against Iraq.
It was known that Libby was Miller's source when the Washington Post quoted Joseph Tate, Libby's lawyer, as saying that he had informed Miller's lawyer Floyd Abrams a year ago that Libby's waiver "was voluntary and that Miller was free to testify."
However, Miller and Abrams continue to insist that the earlier waiver was indeed coerced regardless of Libby's own affirmation that it was not coerced.
The Washington Post reported on Sunday that Miller had tried to a year ago to make a deal with the prosecutor investigating the leak of Palme's identity but the prosecutor would not agree then to limit her testimony to Libby.
Obviously, Miller's "connections and sources" go higher than Libby — not that there is not much room for too many up there — and that was she insisted in limiting the scope of her testimony to Libby.
Fitzgerald's investigation also involves President George W. Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove.
What exact role did Miller play in the Palme case, how and why?
Well, one thing is clear: Given that she was directly behind the "convincing" reports that Saddam had WMDs, Wilson's charge hit directly at her credibility or the lack of it. By implication, it meant she had an axe to grind against Wilson. But, she never wrote about Palme or Wilson, and there is no clear indication what she did with the information given to her or whether she was instrumental in others getting the information.
However, the Palme scandal hit Miller when she was already in disgrace following the NYT apology.
As Huffington notes, "Before her transformation into a journalistic Joan of Arc, Miller was in a tailspin, her work discredited, removed from the WMD beat and forced to deal with colleagues who refused to share a byline with her.
"She desperately needed to change the subject and cleanse herself of the stench left by her misleading coverage leading up to the war — coverage that makes the Jayson Blair scandal, by comparison, seem ludicrously insignificant (Jayson Blair was a New York Times reporter who resigned in May 2003 after plagiarising a story about a woman whose son died in Iraq, never talked to two other soldiers' parents he quoted in separate articles)."
Many in this part of the world seem not to have looked closely at Miller's record before glorifying her as the heroine of media freedoms and ethics.
The best story that emerges from her various episodes is that she sought to redeem herself back into grace by going to jail in the name of journalistic ethics. Indeed, she seems to have been at least partly successful, but a quick look at the way she conducted herself throughout the Palme affair would only create more sceptics.