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Judith Miller is a Times problem
Media General News Service


October 27, 2005

WASHINGTON - The Judith Miller case has become another cause for self-examination by the American press. In particular, the relationship of reporters, editors and news sources is being scrutinized in a new way because of the government's alleged misuse of a reporter to achieve a short-term foreign policy goal.

It's always good to look at ourselves - particularly at the ancient problem of confidential news sources.

It is too easy, however, to transform this relatively narrow problem with a New York Times reporter in the Iraq war into a broad indictment of journalism.

The drumbeats of "media guilty" have begun already. Miller was not alone, the critics complain, because everybody was writing what she wrote. Look back in your old, yellowing newspapers and you will find story after story, column after column, editorial after editorial saying that Saddam Hussein had or was seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction, according to "reliable sources" or "the best available evidence."

Robert Kagan, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said it wasn't just Miller but the "consensus" of a "large number of journalists."

Wait a minute. If there was any consensus about Iraq, it was the government - both the executive and legislative branch.

Virtually the entire machinery of governmental expertise - that of the administration and of Congress - was pointed in the same direction before the war: toward an Iraqi decision to acquire weapons of mass destruction. There was little dissent on this point.

Iraq's quest for unconventional weapons was more than a national consensus. It was a presumption. According to the commission that examined what went wrong at the CIA, it was a "zeitgeist" at the agency. Anyone who stepped forward with doubts risked being labeled naove and a fool.

That was precisely what was wrong at CIA. Healthy debate and a questioning attitude had been stifled there.

A couple of reporters have claimed CIA sources told them privately that they had doubts that Saddam Hussein had unconventional weapons. But few, if any, stood up to their bosses.

This zeitgeist spread to the rest of government and transformed itself into thunderclaps of broadcast and major newspaper machinery warning of Iraq's potential nuclear, chemical or biological danger.

International inspectors, barred from Iraq much of the time, were unable to challenge much of this material. There was considerable dissent in Washington, to be sure, on related matters. The big one was whether Iraq should be invaded or continue to be isolated economically. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who was on the path to be the Democratic nominee, was in all but name a war hawk and so were many other prominent leaders of both parties.

Few people in or out of government publicly argued Saddam Hussein's regime was free of weapons of mass destruction. In hindsight, it is clear now that he wanted the world and probably some of his own closest military advisers to believe otherwise.

He fooled everyone. Top U.S. weapons inspector David Kay, the first to conclude there were no weapons after the invasion, is one of the few to admit publicly that he had been wrong earlier. He ought to be knighted for it.

Former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson's trip to Africa in 2002 at the request of the CIA was one of the first signs that the central case for the war was falling apart. He wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times and later a best-selling book discrediting President Bush's State of the Union claim that Iraq had sought to buy uranium yellowcake for an atomic bomb.

The disclosure that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a covert CIA agent is now being investigated by a federal grand jury as a potential effort to discredit his report and smear the Wilsons. Reporter Miller served a jail term before revealing that the information came from Vice President Dick Cheney's closest aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

Since then, the Times has raised questions about whether Miller may have been working too closely with Libby to promote the administration's point of view.

This is a terrible mess for the administration. The Times now apparently feels it is a mess for itself. But it is no one else's mess.


John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service.
E-mail jhall(at)

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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