Erik Wemple is a Washington Post media critic.
By Judith Miller
Simon & Schuster. 381 pp. $27
The late New York Times columnist Bill Safire plays a heroic role in Judith Miller’s new book, “The Story,” an account of her stormy years covering terrorism at the newspaper. He’s there to support Miller when she needs career advice. He’s there to warn Miller when top Times editors are preparing to repudiate her flawed reporting during the runup to the Iraq war. And he’s there to write a forceful letter to the paper’s leadership proposing favorable terms for Miller’s departure following her involvement in the high-profile federal case against a Bush administration aide, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, for his criminal offenses during an investigation into the leaking of the name of CIA employee Valerie Plame.
“Bill Safire was crucial to this book,” Miller writes in the acknowledgments.
The outsize role of Safire, who died in 2009, stems from his insularity: By the time Miller had cycled through her naive reports on Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction and her enigmatic, 85-day stay in the Alexandria Detention Center for her refusal to testify in the 2005 Plame proceedings, her backers were few.
“Inside the newsroom, she was a divisive figure,” an October 2005 Times story explained about her role in the trial. “A few colleagues refused to work with her.”
This dynamic — Judy Miller against the world — lends her book an aspect that is both depressing and desperate. Over more than 300 pages, Miller flays her critics (particularly those who write for blogs) and lays out a defense of her reporting that relies on bluster, repetition and a highly selective set of facts, some of the same ingredients that the Bush administration dropped into its case for the Iraq war.
“Relying on the conclusions of American and foreign intelligence analysts and other experts I trusted, I, too, got WMD in Iraq wrong. But not because I lacked skepticism or because senior officials spoon-fed me a line,” Miller writes in a typical frenzy of semi-exculpation: Sure, I screwed up, but not for the reasons my critics claim!
Those are the pat words of a veteran reporter. Miller joined the New York Times in 1977 as a beneficiary of what she describes as “affirmative action” by the newspaper. “By Times standards, I was unqualified. But the paper hired me anyway. It needed women,” she writes, pointing to a 1974 sex discrimination suit that would very slowly turn what was a men’s lounge into a more inclusive newsroom. The narrative winds through Miller’s various jobs at the Times, covering the Securities and Exchange Commission, moving to Egypt as a foreign correspondent, working as a Washington-based editor and, ultimately, driving the paper’s WMD coverage.
As an insider’s chronicle of Beltway journalism, “The Story” has a moment or two. Miller recounts the legendary battles between the Times’ Washington bureau and its New York headquarters, and writes compellingly about being a woman in the male-dominated world of national security politics. Of an interview with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Miller writes: “Rabin flashed his trademark crooked smile. I was, as he had been warned, a ‘pushy broad,’ he told me. I took it as a compliment.” A “traditionally ‘male’ ” approach to sex governed Miller’s early days at the Times, she writes: “I enjoyed fairly casual encounters that neither my partners nor I assumed would lead to a long-term commitment.”
Such observations are welcome distractions from the tedious grand design of Miller’s work. That part comes into focus when Miller explains her December 2001 story headlined “An Iraqi Defector Tells of Work on at Least 20 Hidden Weapons Sites.” Iraqi defector Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, reported Miller, had “personally visited at least 20 different sites that he believed to have been associated with Iraq’s chemical or biological weapons programs.”
Uh, no. After the fall of Baghdad, U.S. officials brought Haideri to these sites and “failed to find evidence of their use for weapons programs,” the Times wrote in a much-discussed May 2004 editor’s note regretting its WMD reporting.
More than a decade after the debunking, here’s the part of that story that Miller clambers to highlight: “Given the potentially explosive nature of Haideri’s charges, editor Steve Engelberg and I made sure that the story was heavily qualified. There was ‘no independent way to verify Haideri’s account,’ I wrote.”
The author pulls that same stunt with another piece (co-written with Michael R. Gordon) headlined “U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts,” which indicated that “Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb.” Again, the Times had to bundle this bogus reporting in its editor’s note/apology. And again, Miller looks back at all that glorious qualifying language. “I was okay with it. The story contained numerous caveats.”
Note to Miller: People don’t read the caveats.
That editor’s note? Miller fought it, hard. When her boss, Bill Keller, first presented her a draft, she threatened to go to CNN with her denunciations. She shows similar disregard for other critics, chiding one for having failed to acknowledge her shared 2002 Pulitzer Prize in the “coveted” explanatory category. One thing that can be said for her: In writing credulous stories about the Iraqi threat, Miller had plenty of competition among her peers. (Full disclosure: The Washington Post editorial board admitted that it had been “insufficiently skeptical of intelligence reports” in its pro-war editorials.)
Her animus toward critics shows up in the first line of a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal derived from “The Story”: “I took America to war in Iraq. It was all me,” she writes. The satire fails because Miller worked as a journalist at the New York Times. For decades she basked in the influence and prestige of what’s known as America’s paper of record. She used the paper’s influence and prestige to break the scoops that secured her Pulitzer and other distinctions.
Then she misused that same influence and prestige. So she doesn’t get to ridicule all those who initially took her Times stories seriously, as the United States launched a war that killed 4,500 U.S. service members and left an Iraqi toll many times higher.