Judith Miller: A Lesson in Media Manipulation

by Will Porter

In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, Americans were desperate for answers. Still in shock from the recent tragedy, many citizens willingly swallowed a narrative regarding the Arab state of Iraq which ultimately led to the American invasion of that country in 2003. Significant parts of that narrative have since been challenged and discredited, however, leaving many Americans confused about the true cause and nature of the conflict.

One contributor to that flawed narrative was Judith Miller, then a reporter for the prestigious New York Times. Widely repeated by media pundits and government officials alike, Miller’s reporting in the lead-up to the Iraq War implicated the Middle Eastern nation in illicit development of weapons of mass destruction—much of which would later be proven false.

The INC & WMDs

The story begins several years earlier, in 1998, when Miller first made contact with an Iraqi ex-pat named Ahmed Chalabi. Her initial interaction with Chalabi was related to the Clinton Administration’s Desert Fox operation, a four day joint American-British bombing campaign of various targets in Iraq. This contact with Chalabi would evolve over time.

A few years later—post-9/11—while the United States was building its case for war, Miller sourced another Iraqi ex-pat, Adnan Ihsan Saeed al Haideri, who claimed to have worked on renovation projects at secret facilities related to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons in Iraq. Al Haideri was a member of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an Iraqi ex-pat organization and political party headed by none other than the aforementioned Ahmed Chalabi.

Founded in the wake of the Persian-Gulf War, the INC was set up to coordinate the activities of various anti-Saddam organizations. It received millions in funding, first covertly from the Central Intelligence Agency, and later overtly after the passage of the Iraq Liberation Act. Starting in 1998–99, the INC would receive $8 million a year in funding from the United States government for the purpose of facilitating regime change in Iraq. The group was essentially an outlet for anti-Saddam propaganda; its members highly biased against the Iraqi strongman.

Al Haideri wouldn’t be the last INC source used in Miller’s Times reporting, but he got her off to a good start in lying the American people into a long, costly war whose bloody repercussions are still unfolding today. 

As reported by journalist Jonathan Landay in May of 2004, when the Iraq Survey Group (a WMD inspections team) brought al Haideri to Iraq to find evidence of illicit weapons activity, U.S. officials said he “could not identify a single site associated with illegal weapons.” On top of that, Landay also noted that al Haideri’s claims had been previously dismissed as unreliable by the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) after he failed a polygraph test. 

Regarding al Haideri’s accusations, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell told NBC’s Meet the Press, “It turned out that the sourcing was inaccurate and wrong and in some cases, deliberately misleading. And for that I am disappointed and I regret it.”

While Miller did note that she was unable to independently verify al Haideri’s claims, the fact that she so easily repeated his accusations—as well as her continued use of INC sources—suggests she was less than diligent in fulfilling her obligations as a journalist.

Later, while Miller was embedded with the 75th Exploitation Task Force, another WMD-hunting outfit, she reported a number of additional, and equally baseless, accusations regarding Iraq and illicit weapons work. At least two of these were sourced from INC defectors. One instance involved Nissar Hindawi, who had worked in Iraq’s biological weapons program in the 1980s, and who’d since come under the “protection” of the INC. 

In another report Miller discussed a “top-secret intelligence memo” found in Iraq after a group of American soldiers teamed up with members of the INC to find evidence pertaining to WMD. 

This aspect of the story is longer and more complicated than space will allow, but that “secret memo” was said to corroborate Bush Administration claims that Iraq had attempted to procure Yellowcake uranium from the African country of Niger. It would later be discovered that the documents which allegedly “proved” this connection were crude forgeries. It might, then, be speculated that the “secret memo” conveniently found by members of the INC in Iraq were of equally dubious origin—another attempt to manipulate American media and the American people.

Adding further credibility to the suggestion that Miller was working with the INC to deliberately spin up misinformation is a Washington Post article from June of 2003. WaPo staff writer Howard Kurtz reported that “[m]ore than a half-dozen military officers said that Miller acted as a middleman between the Army unit with which she was embedded and Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi.”

A middleman? Why would a New York Times reporter need to facilitate contacts between the most powerful, resourceful military in the world and a Iraqi defector organization—which, mind you, was founded with CIA money, and had direct ties to prominent neoconservatives working for the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans? This story goes far deeper than one bad reporter; Miller’s case only scratches the surface.

Kurtz went on to quote another military officer, who told him “this woman came in with a plan. She was leading [the inspectors]. . . . She ended up almost hijacking the mission.” 

“Aluminum Tubes”

On September 8, 2002, Miller and fellow Times writer, Michael Gordon, published a piece entitled “U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts,” wherein the authors reported that Iraq had “sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium.”

On the very day this article broke, several high-ranking American officials went on a media blitz publicizing Miller’s claims regarding the aluminum tubes: Vice President Dick Cheney was featured on Meet the Press; Secretary of State Colin Powell went on Fox News Sunday; National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice spoke with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer; Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared on CBS’ Face the Nation; and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers was interviewed on ABC’s This Week. Every official repeated the “aluminum tubes” allegation as a justification for war with Iraq.

It would later be revealed that Lewis “Scooter” Libby, then the Vice President’s chief of staff, had illicitly leaked the “aluminum tubes” information to Miller. She reported the allegation, then Administration officials cited her as a source, as if the information hadn’t come from them in the first place! Not only was that accusation proven false, but Miller and Libby would years later become entangled in another leak scandal which culminated in Miller’s resignation from the Times in 2005, as well as a brief stint behind bars.

An October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, though highly redacted, reports serious skepticism from technical experts at the Department of Energy regarding the veracity of the “aluminum tubes” claim. They said that, instead of uranium enrichment, the tubes were “far more likely” intended for conventional weapons. 

Considering Miller’s subsequent role in another leak scandal—involving the very same Lewis Libby—as well as the way American officials immediately exploited Miller’s reporting, fed to her as it was by the VP’s chief of staff, it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that the “tubes” debacle was yet another instance of media manipulation, a planted story, committed or facilitated by Judith Miller.

Conclusions

The negative effects of Judith Miller’s shoddy journalism weren’t confined to the New York Times. Due to the atmosphere of the country in the wake of 9/11, as well as the status and prestige enjoyed by the Times, Miller’s claims would reverberate through all mediums: print, television, and radio. Countless pundits, hosts, and writers ran with Miller’s reporting; her accusations would ultimately help to kick off the ill-fated, and ongoing, War on Terror.

The precedents set by the invasion of Iraq in 2003 have paved the way for a seemingly endless series of American wars and military interventions around the world. Since at least 2003, the American taxpayer has footed the bill for wars (or some form of military involvement, such as drone strikes) in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Somalia, Mali, Yemen, and Libya—these are the ones we know of. This crusade has robbed and squandered trillions of dollars from American workers, created a pile of corpses and an ocean of blood which continue to grow, and set an already-volatile region ablaze with extremism and armed conflict.

The case of Judith Miller is a stark, macabre reminder of the power of journalism—the power of media. While responsibility for the invasion of Iraq cannot, of course, be placed squarely on Miller’s shoulders, she is an exemplar of corrupt journalism. Her manipulations went far beyond “spin,” Judith Miller acted as a war propagandist

Fortunately, Miller is now widely seen to have lost credibility. Yet many like Miller, who regurgitate justifications for unjust wars, continue to enjoy distinction at some of America’s most reputable publications. With the growth of the Internet and alternative sources of information, however, we can only hope that the Millers of our world slowly fade into obscurity.

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