Former New York Times reporter and Fox News contributor Judith Miller has been on the book-talk circuit for weeks, defending “The Story: A Reporter’s Journey,” which recounts her reporting on the run-up to the Iraq war. Not all of Miller’s interviewers have cornered her on the impact that her stories — often written with other New York Times reporters — had on the George W. Bush administration’s terribly flawed case for an invasion of Saddam Hussein’s fiefdom. In a chat with Bill Maher, for example, Miller said, “I couldn’t have been more skeptical.”
In a massive sit-down with Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” last night, Miller didn’t dare repeat that line. But she said some other stuff that approached this spirit of revisionism. At one point in the tete-a-tete, Miller said this: “What I am afraid of is people who change a narrative to create facts that aren’t true.” No, she wasn’t referring to the Bush administration’s case that Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction (WMD); she was referring to people who have allegedly misconstrued her record.
The crowd chuckled at the dual-usage of her remark, however.
Time aided this exchange: Stewart and Miller talked for two extensive sessions, which enabled the host to dig into one emblematic piece of Judith Miller’s journalism. On Sept. 8, 2002, she and Michael Gordon teamed up on a story headlined “U.S. SAYS HUSSEIN INTENSIFIES QUEST FOR A-BOMB PARTS.” This was the famous story on the aluminum tubes that Iraq was supposedly acquiring for its nuclear weapons program. “The diameter, thickness and other technical specifications of the aluminum tubes had persuaded American intelligence experts that they were meant for Iraq’s nuclear program, officials said, and that the latest attempt to ship the material had taken place in recent months,” noted the reporters.
Wrong, as it turned out. Those tubes were likely destined for a conventional missile program — and not long after the Sept. 8 piece, Miller and the Times were forced to walk back the reporting and note that there was some disagreement about the tubes’ intended use. But even that piece wasn’t strong enough and was buried deep within the Times’s news pages.
Pushed by Stewart on all this, Miller said she was trying to get sources to talk about their tube doubts; that she pushed for the walk-back piece; and so on. “My newspaper didn’t want to run a story that challenged the aluminum tubes angle,” said Miller.
Whatever the particulars, Stewart noted that there was a disparity in terms of thresholds. “The standard of proof in all this seems much higher on the side of this is not an issue, and they’re not a a threat and much lower on the side of you’re being fed” scary intelligence, said the host.
Miller: “But that’s what the intelligence community believed.”
Stewart: “That’s what they were feeding you.”
At another point, Stewart said, “You don’t believe that you were manipulated?”
Miller replied, “All journalists are manipulated and all politicians lie.”
The reporting that she did on Iraq, said Miller, was “really, really hard.” Not that such difficulty steered Stewart away from his conclusion: “I believe you helped the administration take us to, like, the most devastating mistake in foreign policy that we’ve made in like 100 years, but you seem lovely,” said Stewart, who verily spat at Miller’s defense of Bush and Dick Cheney on the grounds that they were trying to protect the country.
“That is a meaningless statement,” ripped Stewart. “What president hasn’t tried to protect the country?”
At the end, Stewart looked depressed, which is a common feeling upon interfacing with Miller’s exculpatory spiel: “These discussions always make me incredibly sad because I feel like they point to institutional failure at the highest levels and no one will take responsibility for it, and they pass the buck to every individual other than themselves. It’s sad,” he said. There was no question whatsoever that he meant to roll Miller into that group.
There was one point that Stewart failed to prosecute. In talking about “The Story,” Miller claimed that “I went back to [my sources] in this book and I said, ‘What happened, how did you get it wrong? How did I get it wrong?’ And that’s what I’ve tried to do in the book.” The Erik Wemple Blog has read the book, and that’s not the vibe we get. “The Story” is a piece of biographical polemic geared toward the exoneration of its author.