How Chalabi and the White House held the front page
The New York Times has burned its reputation on a pyre of lies about Iraq James Moore
Saturday May 29, 2004
The Guardian UK
When the full history of the Iraq war is written, the most scandalous chapter may be about how American journalists, in particular those at the New York Times, allowed themselves to be so easily manipulated by both Ahmad Chalabi, an Iraqi exile with his own virulently pro-war agenda, and the Bush White House.
Even before the latest suspicions that Chalabi may have been sending US secrets to Iran, a reporter trying to convince an editor that the smooth-talking exile was a credible source had a difficult case to make.
The former head of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) was a convicted criminal. In exile, he was accused of embezzling millions from his Petra Bank in Amman, Jordan. Chalabi left the country in the boot of a car but was convicted in absentia and faces 22 years in prison if he returns. He has always maintained that his prosecution was political.
Shortly after his 1989 escape from Jordan, Chalabi made contact with CIA operatives who funnelled an estimated $100m to the INC, culminating in a failed 1996 takeover of Iraq by Kurdish forces.
Chalabi, who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, cultivated the image of a well-informed leader seeking justice for his people, but he was a well-known player and the darling of Richard Perle and his fellow neocon hawks.
He would not have survived a background check for a job at Slim's Used Cars, and was viewed with deep suspicion by the CIA and the state department; but he was good enough as a source for the New York Times, the Washington Post and other news outlets, all of whom burned their reputations on Chalabi's pyre of lies.
Judith Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and authority on the Middle East for the NYT, appears to have been the most reliant on Chalabi. In an email exchange with the NYT's Baghdad bureau chief John Burns, Miller said Chalabi "had provided most of the front page exclusives for our paper". She later said that this was an exaggeration, but in an earlier interview with me, Miller did not discount the value of Chalabi's insight. "Of course, I talked with Chalabi," she said. "But he was just one of many sources I used."
Miller refused to say who those other sources were but, at Chalabi's behest, she interviewed various defectors from Saddam Hussein's regime, who claimed without substantiation that there was still a clandestine WMD programme operating inside Iraq. US investigators now believe that Chalabi sent these same Iraqi expatriates to at least eight Western spy agencies as part of a scheme to convince them to overthrow Saddam.
If spies wanted a trophy to show what happens when their craft is perfectly executed, it would be a story written by Judith Miller on the front page of the New York Times on a Sunday morning in September 2002. She wrote that an intercepted shipment of aluminum tubes, to be used for centrifuges, was evidence that Saddam was building a uranium gas separator to develop nuclear material.
The story had an enormous impact, one amplified when national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state Colin Powell and vice-president Dick Cheney all did appearances on the Sunday-morning talk shows, citing the first-rate journalism of the liberal NYT. No single story did more to advance the neoconservative cause.
But Miller's story was wrong. The aluminum tubes were covered with an anodised coating, which rendered them useless for a centrifuge, according to a number of scientists who spoke publicly after Miller's story. The tubes, in fact, were almost certainly intended for use as rocket bodies. The probable source for Miller's story, in addition to US intelligence, was Adnan Ihsan Saeed, an Iraqi defector Miller was introduced to by Chalabi. Miller had quoted him in a December 2001 report, when Saeed had told her he had worked on nuclear operations in Iraq and that there were at least 20 banned-weapons facilities undergoing repairs. Of course, no such facilities have been found, forcing the conclusion that Saeed was either lying or horribly uninformed.
"I had no reason to believe what I reported was inaccurate," Miller told me. "I believed the intelligence I had. We tried really hard to get more information and we vetted information very, very carefully." A few months after the aluminum tubes story, a former CIA analyst explained to me how simple it had been to manipulate the correspondent and her newspaper.
"The White House had a perfect deal with Miller," he said. "Chalabi is providing the Bush people with the information they need to support their political objectives, and he is supplying the same material to Judy Miller. Chalabi tips her on something and then she goes to the White House, which has already heard the same thing from Chalabi, and she gets it corroborated. She also got the Pentagon to confirm things for her, which made sense, since they were working so closely with Chalabi. Too bad Judy didn't spend a little more time talking to those of us who had information that contradicted almost everything Chalabi said."
Long after the fact, Miller conceded in her interview with me that she was wrong about the tubes, but not that she had made a mistake. "We worked our asses off to get that story," she said. "No one leaked anything to us. I reported what I knew at the time. I wish I were God and had all the information I had needed. But I'm not God ... All I can rely on is what people tell me." Sadly, America's sons and daughters were sent off to war wearing the boots of a widely disseminated lie.
Much too late, America's paper of record discovered its conscience, and last Wednesday published an extraordinary mea culpa in which the editors, while not singling out Miller, wrote: "We have found ... coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been ... In some cases, the information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged ... or failed to."
The NYT's editors conceded what intelligence sources had long before told me and numerous other reporters: that Chalabi had set up a situation with Iraqi exiles where all the influential institutions were shouting into the same garbage can, hearing the same echo. The editors admitted as much: "Administration officials now acknowledge that they sometimes fell for misinformation from these exile sources."
Another Miller story - Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said To Assert - was based on a source Miller never met or even interviewed. She watched a man in a baseball cap from a distance, who pointed at the desert floor, and used that as a basis for filing a piece that confirmed the US had discovered "precursors to weapons of mass destruction," Miller explained to me months later. "I know who he is," she insisted. "There's no way I would have gone forward with such a story without knowing who my source was. Maybe it turns out that he was lying or ill-informed." Yes, Ms Miller, that is how it turned out.
If Miller's boss had done some reporting of his own, he might have discovered evidence of Miller's political predisposition. The Middle East Forum, an organisation that openly advocated that the US overthrow Saddam, listed Miller as an expert speaker on its website and held a launch party for her book. She was represented by Benador Associates, a speakers' bureau that specialises in conservative thinkers with Middle East expertise. I asked Miller if she supported Bush politically. "My views are well known," she replied. "I understood that these people ... who hated us so much ... that if they ever got their hands on WMD, they would use them. Do I have a belief that the WMD exist, and a fear? Yeah, I have real fear for my country."
Nobody wanted a war against Iraq more than Ahmad Chalabi, and the biggest paper in the US gave it to him almost as willingly as the White House did. · James C Moore is the author of Bush's War for Re-election: Iraq, the White House, and the People, and co-author of Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W Bush Presidential; a version of this article appears on Salon.com
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