London, Asharq Al-Awsat—To those who see world events through the prism of conspiracies, Judith Miller, a soft-spoken New York brunette, is the Queen of Conspiracies. It was she who sold the idea of toppling Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi despot, to the American public by acting as loudspeaker for a club of conspirators that included President George W. Bush, vice president Dick Cheney, the CIA, and a dozen other intelligence agencies hiding behind acronyms. The conspiracy of which she was the queen included a cast of lesser characters, notably the Iraqi banker-cum-politician Ahmad Chalabi, the Kuwaiti parliamentarian Muhammad Jassem Al-Saqar, and the arch-neocon of the Bush administration Richard Perle.
At the time that the idea of getting rid of Saddam was being raised, Miller was a star reporter in the New York Times’s investigative journalism team with more than two decades of experience working many beats including years spent covering the Middle East.
In 2002, as President Bush was assembling forces to move on Baghdad, Miller was arguably one of the American reporters most knowledgeable about the Middle East. She was also well-trusted by the US establishment. Having served years in the New York Times’s Washington Bureau she knew the American ruling elite better than most. In fact, for years she even had a Congressman as a steady boyfriend. (Les Aspin later became President Bill Clinton’s defense secretary.) She also had the “correct background,” with Russian, Jewish and Irish–Catholic genetic roots and years spent in different parts of the vast nation, from New Jersey to Las Vegas, not to mention having attended one of America’s top universities.
So, who within the US establishment wouldn’t want to confide in “Judy” as her friends know her?
In the build-up to war, Ms. Miller was the author or co-author of scores of news items designed to show that Saddam Hussein still pursued a clandestine program for producing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as part of a sinister strategy against the US and its regional allies. After the war it became clear that Saddam had long ceased having WMDs on the scales suggested by the “stories” often splashed on the front-page of the New York Times and other leading American journals.
That discovery, plus the mistakes that the Bush administration committed in post-Saddam Iraq, produced a massive anti-war backlash. A war that had been supported by up to 80 percent of Americans in 2002 garnered the support of no more than 30 percent four years later.
As always in human history the search for a scapegoat was on.
The US media, the American establishment, and society at large needed a scapegoat whose sacrifice would purify them and allow life to resume its normal course. The search for the scapegoat went in many directions, targeting even vice president Cheney, not to mention the “neocon cabal” and then-British prime minister Tony Blair. Soon, however, it became clear that none of these “big beasts” could be conducted to the sacrificial altar. Judith Miller became an easy prey. Had she not written all those sensational stories about Saddam’s WMDs—stories later picked up by the entire media and amplified over and over again?
Miller had also become vulnerable within her own paper. The publisher and the editor realized that the New York Times’s own traditional constituency, the champagne-and-caviar left, were now disenchanted with the war, and, without necessarily missing Saddam, wished to scalp those who had toppled him.
Forgetting a dozen editorials he himself had penned in support of invading Iraq, the paper’s editor Bill Keller started commissioning “stories” about how the public had been misled on Saddam’s WMDs. Thus, even from the New York Times’s view Miller seemed a suitable scapegoat.
However, in one of those ironies that add spice to history, Miler’s “stories” could not be used as material for her crucifixion. All the “stories” were properly sourced and, being a master in the art of journalistic equivocation, Miler had taken extra care to always make it clear that in every case all assertions about Iraq’s WMDs should be taken with at least half a pinch of salt.
The typical American news “story” is built like a piece of art with Lego cubes. It has a general theme—in this case that Iraq is hiding WMDs. It uses at least three sources, one for the theme, one against it, and one neutral. At least one of the sources must be identified by name and position. But having at least one source “speaking on condition of anonymity” adds mystery to the piece. When a contradictory view cannot be clearly referenced, the reporter gets around the hurdle by saying, “this could not be independently confirmed.”
British journalists often claim that while they write “news,” their American cousins write “stories,” a creative activity that is closer to literature than journalism.
The experienced American reporter knows how to tilt the story towards one view or another. Thus, before the war all the “stories,” in the New York Times and other media, explicitly or implicitly showed that Saddam was hiding WMDs. After the war, however, the “stories” were recalibrated to show that the sources had all been either wrong or mendacious.
In the event, however, Miller was tried and sent to jail for a “story” she had not written. This was about the exposing of a CIA agent whose husband had been sent to Niger to find out whether or not Saddam, was buying uranium “yellowcake,” something supposedly needed for making an atomic bomb. Miller did not write about that but was named by another reporter as having said she had heard about it. When the public prosecutor, a man named Fitzegerald and thirsting for fame, demanded that Miller name the person from whom she had heard the “story,” she refused. She insisted that reporters should honor the anonymity of their sources.
Needless to say the whole thing was absurd. The US didn’t need to send anyone to Niger because that country’s uranium mines and related industries are under control of a French state-owned company. A phone call from the US Embassy in Paris could have clarified the matter. Also, a brief Internet research would have shown that no “yellowcake” is produced in Niger (a French-owned unit exists in neighboring Gabon).
Even going to jail did not end Miller’s ordeal. She was still branded “the most dangerous woman in America” and “the prophetess of wars and lies.”
In the event, Iraq became a four-letter word in the slanging match that goes for political debate in the United States. Used as a device to settle scores in domestic politics, Iraq itself was hardly covered. Americans were never told what caused the war, how it was conducted, and what its complex outcomes were.
Miller has related her ordeal, and a good part of her life, in her latest book, The Story: A Reporter’s Journey, in which she exposes the brutality of American public life with its self-righteous obsession with superhuman ethical standards that are never meant to be honored. She shows how one’s best friends always keep a dagger in their sleeve just in case, and how those who beat their chests the hardest about “the public interest” are most concerned about their own careers and positions and profits.
Miller depicts the incestuous relationship between political powers and the media as a dagger for genuine freedom of information. It is not only during a war that reporters are “embedded” with military units. In peacetime, too, many reporters are “embedded” with the segments of government they are charged to cover. One can also admire Miller for her courage in showing how many people in American public life, including public prosecutors, are more concerned about promoting their own careers than performing their duties.
Miller’s book will not silence her many critics. But for those who have no axe to grind this is a highly readable account of a decades-long journalistic career shaped in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and, of course, the United States itself, much of it spent in the field.