The Lies Of Our Times

Much before the New York Times ran an 1,100-word editor's note on its own coverage of the "war" on Iraq, there were those who had documented how the NYT's coverage had helped lead the US in its Iraq invasion.

The Lies Of Our Times

In our new book, TheException To the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers and the Media That Love Them, wetitled one chapter "The Lies of Our Times" to examine how The New York Times coverage on Iraqand its alleged stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction helped lead the country to war. Today, The NewYork Times, for the first time, raised questions about its own coverage in an 1,100-word editor's note.Here is an excerpt from our section of the book on the New York Times and Iraq.

Courtesy,  DemocracyNow! Wednesday, May 26th, 2004

"From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."

-- Andrew H. Card, White House Chief of Staff
speaking about the Iraq war P.R. campaign, September 6, 2002

In the midst of the buildup to war, a major scandal was unfolding at The New York Times-the paperthat sets the news agenda for other media. The Times admitted that for several years a 27-year-oldreporter named Jayson Blair had been conning his editors and falsifying stories. He had pretended to be placeshe hadn't been, fabricated quotes, and just plain lied in order to tell a sensational tale. For this, Blairwas fired. But The Times went further: It ran a 7,000-word, five-page expose on the young reporter,laying bare his personal and professional escapades.

The Times said it had reached a low point in its 152-year history. I agreed. But not because of theJayson Blair affair. It was The Times coverage of the Bush-Blair affair.

When George W. Bush and Tony Blair made their fraudulent case to attack Iraq, The Times, along withmost corporate media outlets in the United States, became cheerleaders for the war. And while Jayson Blair wasbeing crucified for his journalistic sins, veteran Times national security correspondent and best-sellingauthor Judith Miller was filling The Times' front pages with unchallenged government propaganda. UnlikeBlair's deceptions, Miller's lies provided the pretext for war. Her lies cost lives.

If only The New York Times had done the same kind of investigation of Miller's reports as it hadwith Jayson Blair.

The White House propaganda blitz was launched on September 7, 2002, at a Camp David press conference.British Prime Minister Tony Blair stood side by side with his co-conspirator, President George W. Bush.Together, they declared that evidence from a report published by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)showed that Iraq was "six months away" from building nuclear weapons.

"I don't know what more evidence we need," crowed Bush.

Actually, any evidence would help-there was no such IAEA report. But at the time, few mainstream Americanjournalists questioned the leaders' outright lies. Instead, the following day, "evidence" popped upin the Sunday New York Times under the twin byline of Michael Gordon and Judith Miller. "More thana decade after Saddam Hussein agreed to give up weapons of mass destruction," they stated with authority,"Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials tomake an atomic bomb, Bush administration officials said today."

In a revealing example of how the story amplified administration spin, the authors included the phrase soonto be repeated by President Bush and all his top officials: "The first sign of a 'smoking gun,'[administration officials] argue, may be a mushroom cloud. "

Harper's publisher John R. MacArthur, author of Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War,knew what to make of this front-page bombshell. "In a disgraceful piece of stenography," he wrote,Gordon and Miller "inflated an administration leak into something resembling imminent Armageddon."

The Bush administration knew just what to do with the story they had fed to Gordon and Miller. The day The Timesstory ran, Vice President Dick Cheney made the rounds on the Sunday talk shows to advance the administration'sbogus claims. On NBC's Meet the Press, Cheney declared that Iraq had purchased aluminum tubes to make enricheduranium. It didn't matter that the IAEA refuted the charge both before and after it was made. But Cheneydidn't want viewers just to take his word for it. "There's a story in The New York Times thismorning," he said smugly. "And I want to attribute The Times."

This was the classic disinformation two-step: the White House leaks a lie to The Times, thenewspaper publishes it as a startling expose, and then the White House conveniently masquerades behind thecredibility of The Times.

"What mattered," wrote MacArthur, "was the unencumbered rollout of a commercial forwar."4

Judith Miller was just getting warmed up. Reporting for America's most influential newspaper, Millercontinued to trumpet administration leaks and other bogus sources as the basis for eye-popping stories thatbacked the administration's false premises for war. "If reporters who live by their sources were obligedto die by their sources," Jack Shafer wrote later in Slate, "Miller would be stinking up her familytomb right now."

After the war, Shafer pointed out, "None of the sensational allegations about chemical, biological, ornuclear weapons given to Miller have panned out, despite the furious crisscrossing of Iraq by U.S. weaponshunters."

Did The New York Times publish corrections? Clarifications? Did heads roll? Not a chance: JudithMiller's "scoops" continued to be proudly run on the front pages.

Here are just some of the corrections The Times should have run after the year-long campaign offront-page false claims by one of its premier reporters, Judith Miller.


Scoop: "U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts," by Judith Miller and Michael R. Gordon,September 8, 2002. The authors quote Ahmed al-Shemri (a pseudonym), who contends that he worked in Iraq'schemical weapons program before defecting in 2000. " 'All of Iraq is one large storage facility,' saidMr. Shemri, who claimed to have worked for many years at the Muthanna State Enterprise, once Iraq's chemicalweapons plant." The authors quote Shemri as stating that Iraq is stockpiling "12,500 gallons ofanthrax, 2,500 gallons of gas gangrene, 1,250 gallons of aflatoxin, and 2,000 gallons of botulinum throughoutthe country."


Oops: As UN weapons inspectors had earlier stated-and U.S. weapons inspectors confirmed in September 2003-none ofthese claims were true. The unnamed source is one of many Iraqi defectors who made sensational false claimsthat were championed by Miller and The Times.

Scoop: "White House Lists Iraq Steps to Build Banned Weapons," by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon,September 13, 2002. The article quotes the White House contention that Iraq was trying to purchase aluminumpipes to assist its nuclear weapons program.

Oops: Rather than run a major story on how the United States had falsely cited the UN to back its claim that Iraqwas expanding its nuclear weapons program, Miller and Gordon repeated and embellished the lie.


Contrast this with the lead paragraph of a story that ran in the British daily The Guardian onSeptember 9: "The International Atomic Energy Agency has no evidence that Iraq is developing nuclearweapons at a former site previously destroyed by UN inspectors, despite claims made over the weekend by TonyBlair, western diplomatic sources told The Guardian yesterday." The story goes on to say that theIAEA "issued a statement insisting it had 'no new information' on Iraq's nuclear program since December1998 when its inspectors left Iraq."

Miller's trumped-up story contributed to the climate of the time and The Times. A month later,numerous congressional representatives cited the nuclear threat as a reason for voting to authorize war.


Scoop: "U.S. Faulted Over Its Efforts to Unite Iraqi Dissidents," by Judith Miller, October 2, 2002.Quoting Ahmed Chalabi and Defense Department adviser Richard Perle, this story stated: "The INC [IraqiNational Congress] has been without question the single most important source of intelligence about SaddamHussein."

Miller airs the INC's chief complaint: "Iraqi dissidents and administration officials complain that[the State Department and CIA] have also tried to cast doubt on information provided by defectors Mr.Chalabi's organization has brought out of Iraq."

Oops: Miller championed the cause of Chalabi, the Iraqi exile leader who had been lobbying Washington for over adecade to support the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime. As The Washington Post revealed, Millerwrote to Times veteran foreign correspondent John Burns, who was working in Baghdad at the time, that Chalabi"has provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD [weapons of mass destruction] to our paper."


Times readers might be interested to learn the details of how Ahmed Chalabi was bought and paid forby the CIA. Chalabi heads the INC, an organization of Iraqi exiles created by the CIA in 1992 with the help ofthe Rendon Group, a powerful public relations firm that has worked extensively for the two Bushadministrations. Between 1992 and 1996, the CIA covertly funneled $12 million to Chalabi's INC. In 1998, theClinton administration gave Chalabi control of another $98 million of U.S. taxpayer money. Chalabi'scredibility has always been questionable: He was convicted in absentia in Jordan of stealing some $500 millionfrom a bank he established, leaving shareholders high and dry. He has been accused by Iraqi exiles ofpocketing at least $4 million of CIA funds.


In the lead-up to war, the CIA dismissed Chalabi as unreliable. But he was the darling of Pentagon hawks,putting an Iraqi face on their warmongering. So the Pentagon established a new entity, the Office of SpecialPlans, to champion the views of discredited INC defectors who helped make its case for war.

As Howard Kurtz later asked in The Washington Post: "Could Chalabi have been using The Timesto build a drumbeat that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction?"

Scoop: "C.I.A. Hunts Iraq Tie to Soviet Smallpox," by Judith Miller, December 3, 2002. The story claimsthat "Iraq obtained a particularly virulent strain of smallpox from a Russian scientist." The storyadds later: "The information came to the American government from an informant whose identity has notbeen disclosed."


Smallpox was cited by President Bush as one of the "weapons of mass destruction" possessed byIraq that justified a dangerous national inoculation program-and an invasion.

Oops: After a three-month search of Iraq, " 'Team Pox' turned up only signs to the contrary: disabledequipment that had been rendered harmless by UN inspectors, Iraqi scientists deemed credible who gave noindication they had worked with smallpox, and a laboratory thought to be back in use that was covered incobwebs," reported the Associated Press in September 2003.

Scoop: "Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert," by Judith Miller, April21, 2003. In this front-page article, Miller quotes an American military officer who passes on the assertionsof "a man who said he was an Iraqi scientist" in U.S. custody. The "scientist" claims thatIraq destroyed its WMD stockpile days before the war began, that the regime had transferred banned weapons toSyria, and that Saddam Hussein was working closely with Al Qaeda.


Who is the messenger for this bombshell? Miller tells us only that she "was permitted to see him froma distance at the sites where he said that material from the arms program was buried. Clad in nondescriptclothes and a baseball cap, he pointed to several spots in the sand where he said chemical precursors andother weapons material were buried."

And then there were the terms of this disclosure: "This reporter was not permitted to interview thescientist or visit his home. Nor was she permitted to write about the discovery of the scientist for threedays, and the copy was then submitted for a check by military officials. Those officials asked that details ofwhat chemicals were uncovered be deleted." No proof. No names. No chemicals. Only a baseball cap-and thecredibility of Miller and The Times-to vouch for a "scientist" who conveniently backs up keyclaims of the Bush administration. Miller, who was embedded with MET Alpha, a military unit searching for WMDs,pumped up her sensational assertions the next day on PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer:


Oops: The silver bullet got more tarnished as it was examined. Three months later, Miller acknowledged that thescientist was merely "a senior Iraqi military intelligence official." His explosive claimsvaporized.

A final note from the Department of Corrections: The Times deeply regrets any wars or loss of lifethat these errors may have contributed to.


Tom Wolfe once wrote about a war-happy Times correspondent in Vietnam (same idea, different war): Theadministration was "playing [the reporter] of The New York Times like an ocarina, as if they wereblowing smoke up his pipe and the finger work was just right and the song was coming forth better than theycould have played it themselves." But who was playing whom? The Washington Post reported thatwhile Miller was embedded with MET Alpha, her role in the unit's operations became so central that it becameknown as the "Judith Miller team. " In one instance, she disagreed with a decision to relocate theunit to another area and threatened to file a critical report in The Times about the action. When shetook her protest to a two-star general, the decision was reversed. One Army officer told the Post,"Judith was always issuing threats of either going to The New York Times or to the secretary ofdefense. There was nothing veiled about that threat."


Later, she played a starring role in a ceremony in which MET Alpha's leader was promoted. Other officerswere surprised to watch as Miller pinned a new rank on the uniform of Chief Warrant Officer Richard Gonzales.He thanked her for her "contributions" to the unit. In April 2003, MET Alpha traveled to thecompound of Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi "at Judy's direction," where theyinterrogated and took custody of an Iraqi man who was on the Pentagon's wanted list-despite the fact that METAlpha's only role was to search for WMDs. As one officer told the Post, "It's impossible to exaggeratethe impact she had on the mission of this unit, and not for the better."


After a year of bogus scoops from Miller, the paper gave itself a bit of cover. Not corrections-just cover.On September 28, 2003, Times reporter Douglas Jehl surprisingly kicked the legs out from under Miller'ssources. In his story headlined AGENCY BELITTLES INFORMATION GIVEN BY IRAQ DEFECTORS, Jehl revealed:

This Times confession was too little, too late. After an unnecessary war, during a brutaloccupation, and several thousand lives later, The Times obliquely acknowledged that it had beenrecycling disinformation. Miller's reports played an invaluable role in the administration's propaganda war.They gave public legitimacy to outright lies, providing what appeared to be independent confirmation of wildspeculation and false accusations. "What Miller has done over time seriously violates several Times'policies under their code of conduct for news and editorial departments," wrote William E. Jackson inEditor & Publisher. "Jayson Blair was only a fluke deviation.... Miller strikes right at the core ofthe regular functioning news machine."


More than that, Miller's false reporting was key to justifying a war. And The Times' unabashedservitude to the administration's war agenda did not end with Iraq.

On September 16, 2003, The Times ran a story headlined SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL TO LEVEL WEAPONS CHARGESAGAINST SYRIA. The stunningly uncritical article was virtually an excerpt of the testimony about to be giventhat day by outspoken hawk John R. Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control. The article included thiscurious caveat: The testimony "was provided to The New York Times by individuals who feel that theaccusations against Syria have received insufficient attention." The article certainly solved thatproblem.