Judith Miller: Ironist

Last night Jon Stewart took on the current campaign against government leaks by looking at a statement that Judith Miller, former New York Times reporter and current Fox News contributor, made over the weekend.

To wit: “These leaks, especially the kind of leaks that are being investigated now by not one but two special prosecutors, they are truly injurious to the national security‚Ķ they make it harder to make foreign policy.”

Miller, of course, is famous for leaks. Her reports leading up to and immediately after the start of the Iraq War were filled with leaks from anonymous government sources about Iraq’s ongoing Weapons of Mass Destruction programs, and the existence of WMD in Iraq itself. Needless to say, these weren’t quite leaks, they were government plants that got front page play despite being entirely incorrect.

In a 2004 Editors Note, the Times outlined its erroneous reporting in the run-up to the war and while they don’t mention Miller by name, the majority of the articles they point to are hers.

Fast forward and Miller again used leaks when she outed Valerie Plame as a CIA agent when Plame’s husband became an increasingly vocal critic of the Bush administration.

In an astonishing 2005 look in the mirror, the New York Times ran a 6,000 plus word article examining Miller’s role in the Plame case, as well as her reporting on WMD in Iraq.

While not directly calling Miller a Bush administration shill, they noted that others did: “Critics said The Times was protecting not a whistle-blower but an administration campaign intended to squelch dissent.”

Ms. Miller had written a string of articles before the war - often based on the accounts of Bush administration officials and Iraqi defectors - strongly suggesting that Saddam Hussein was developing these weapons of mass destruction.

When no evidence of them was found, her reporting, along with that of some other journalists, came under fire. She was accused of writing articles that helped the Bush administration make its case for war.

"I told her there was unease, discomfort, unhappiness over some of the coverage," said Roger Cohen, who was the foreign editor at the time. "There was concern that she’d been convinced in an unwarranted way, a way that was not holding up, of the possible existence of W.M.D."

Writing a few days later, the Times’ Maureen Dowd had this to say:

Judy’s stories about W.M.D. fit too perfectly with the White House’s case for war. She was close to Ahmad Chalabi, the con man who was conning the neocons to knock out Saddam so he could get his hands on Iraq, and I worried that she was playing a leading role in the dangerous echo chamber that Senator Bob Graham, now retired, dubbed “incestuous amplification.” Using Iraqi defectors and exiles, Mr. Chalabi planted bogus stories with Judy and other credulous journalists‚Ķ

…Judy admitted in the story that she “got it totally wrong” about W.M.D. “If your sources are wrong,” she said, “you are wrong.” But investigative reporting is not stenography.

This stenography bit is important. Yesterday we noted Bill Keller’s take on the current hyperventilating over leaks. While looking back at the Times’ Iraq WMD reporting, he writes:

But this is a good time to look a little harder at the journalists who got it right. How did they come up with the evidence to refute the version embraced by the president, by most officials in both parties and by a lot of the mainstream media?

They got it from government officials with access to classified information, who risked their jobs to confide the truth to journalists. Critics call these “leaks,” although such stories hardly ever spill out unbidden; they are painstakingly assembled by teasing out bits of information, triangulating, correcting, testing, confirming.

So yes, leaks can be “truly injurious” if you do them the Judith Miller way. Done right, as Keller explains, and they’re a “public service”.

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