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Judith Miller's WMD Problem

Returning home to Las Vegas, the star <i>New York Times</i> reporter who saw WMD in Iraq romanticizes nuclear childhood and omits conflict of interest.
 
 
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Judith Miller has a WMD problem. She sees them where they don't exist. Where they did exist she tells only half the story.

Her prominent articles for The New York Times in 2002 and 2003 about alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq helped pave the way for a war that has killed or damaged thousands of soldiers and innocent civilians. Yet in a little noticed essay last week in the same newspaper she downplayed the effects of WMDs detonated in the United States that killed or damaged thousands of soldiers and innocent civilians.

This well-crafted Miller tale appeared last Wednesday in a special New York Times supplement on "Museums." Buried on page 15, it no doubt attracted far fewer readers than her front-page stories offering proof of Iraq's nuclear and chemical weapons. It described Miller's recent visit to Las Vegas, for a tour of the Atomic Testing Museum, a $3.5 million facility, affiliated with both the Department of Energy and the Smithsonian Institution, which opened on Feb. 20.

As a youth in Las Vegas, Miller, it turns out, lived through dozens of nuclear eruptions at the Nevada Test Site, about 65 miles away. In the story she recalls those days of "awe, pride and subliminal terror," though she doesn't offer any personal details beyond a wild rumor about a dog melting after the Dirty Harry blast in 1953. She also recalls exchanging cereal box tops for an atomic ring, but this was not unusual: Almost 3,000 miles away in Niagara Falls, N.Y., I sent away for the same prize.

Miller asserts that there "probably never was a dead dog," but fails to mention that the same 1953 test killed thousands of sheep and other animals. This is typical of her story.

In the article, Miller describes some of the pop culture artifacts at the museum, including a cutout display of Miss Atomic Bomb whose nude body is partly covered by a mushroom cloud. The gift shop sells an Albert Einstein "action figure." But she does not review the Vegas theme park feature: the Ground Zero Theater, which simulates a nuclear blast, complete with countdown, explosions, vibrating benches and a whoosh of air into the room to approximate a shock wave.

In passing, Miller discloses that Hank Greenspun, the rabidly pro-nuclear owner of the Las Vegas Morning Sun---he called health concerns surrounding the blasts "frivolous" -- was a friend of her father's. Two of the reasons Greenspun and others in Vegas defended the testing: 1) it brought tourists to town to witness the fireballs in the distance and 2) if the blasts were seen as dangerous it might halt the local business boom in its tracks.

What Miller doesn't reveal is that her father was one of those businessmen with a stake in keeping health hazards hush-hush. Bill Miller, former owner of the Riviera nightclub in Fort Lee, N.J., which hosted shows by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, had moved to Vegas in 1953. He bought a 10 percent interest in the Sahara Hotel and took over as entertainment director. Besides booking the big room, he is credited with inventing the "lounge act" as a highly profitable niche. Later he worked at the Flamingo and the International Hotel, where he booked one of Elvis Presley's famed 1969 shows. A survey of the top 100 people "who shaped Southern Nevada" by the Las Vegas Review-Journal dubbed Miller, who died in 2002, "Mr. Entertainment."

The casual reader of Miller's article, nevertheless, might consider it fairly balanced, since it does (briefly) mention that fallout from the bomb tests likely caused harm to "some" of the 200,000 soldiers forced to witness them at close range. But Miller fails to note that the GIs were often used as "guinea pigs," ordered to march right under the mushroom cloud, without protective clothing, to test the effects.

She admits that citizens who lived downwind from the blasts, principally in Utah, may have suffered, but quickly adds that the true effects "may never be known, given the paucity of epidemiological studies." This is playing coy. A study issued at the request of Congress by the Centers for Disease Control and the National Cancer Institute in 2003, for example, estimated that fallout produced by the atomic tests and carried near and far might have led to approximately 11,000 excess deaths, most caused by thyroid cancer linked to exposure to iodine-131.

Miller recognizes that Americans have different views of the testing era -- one side arguing that it saved the country from certain attack by the Soviet Union, the other pointing out the longterm damage caused by nuclear waste, nuclear proliferation, and the culture of secrecy (which all remain threats today) -- but she suggests that the museum itself does not choose sides. But here's what museum director Bill Johnson has said in widely-published accounts: "This museum's position is that the Nevada Test Site was a battleground of the Cold War and it helped to end it."

The final artifact in his museum: a chunk of the Berlin Wall. It could have just as easily been a video of an angry leader of Iran or North Korea threatening us with the bomb today. Miller's own paper today carries a lengthy report on U.S. plans to modernize an old nuke or build new ones.

As it happens, I know a bit about this subject. Besides living through the scary 1950s myself, I've co-authored a book and written dozens of articles (two for Miller's newspaper) on the general subject, and edited a magazine for several years called Nuclear Times . One thing that jumped out at me in Miller's story was her failure to even mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the loss of more than 200,000 lives there following America's first atomic test, though she was all too willing to raise the image of nuclear annihilation in some of her bogus WMD articles for the Times.

So I decided to take a closer look at the museum, its contents and what, if any, criticism of it has emerged.

Not surprisingly, I learned that the "downwinders" had protested the official opening, calling the museum displays nothing less than "propaganda." And it didn't take long to find one major article that took a quite different tone than Miller's. Written by Edward Rothstein after his own visit to the museum, it was published in Miller's own paper on Feb. 23. It reminded me that during Miller's days on the Iraq WMD beat other Times reporters often contradicted her reporting, if to little avail.

Rothstein observed that "the history of testing, as told here, is largely the history of justification. Problems and issues are noted, including the debates about the effects of fallout that grew more intense as the testing proceeded. But such issues are mentioned and then put aside, to get on with the main story."

Calling this a "crucial flaw," he continued: "The entire museum would be stronger if it made those risks more palpable, and more directly addressed the fear knitted into the awe: the reasons, for example, epidemiological studies have asserted that childhood leukemia rose in areas affected by fallout; or the ways the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) of the early 1950's has been accused of misjudging the effects of radiation and failing to inform the public fully. ... The museum, despite its accomplishments, leaves many unanswered questions about the past."

In fact, Miller fails to emphasize the outright boosterism of the museum, and its failure to call the official assurances to downwinders in the 1950s by their proper name: lies. Now that internal reports have been declassified, we know that the AEC chose to ignore warnings from its own scientists and outside researchers and continued the "nothing-must-stop-the-tests" policy, applauded by Las Vegas casino and hotel owners.

And that 1953 test that probably did not kill a dog but did off 4,390 sheep and lambs? A now-declassified AEC report reveals that "fallout from the burst covered most of the country east of the Rockies."

From all I've read--and my lengthy email exchange with museum director Johnson--the latest Vegas tourist attraction pays homage to, perhaps even glorifies, the testing program, and by extension, the entire nuclear arms race.

In his dedication speech, Linton F. Brooks, chief at the National Nuclear Security Administration--who, incidentally, is pushing for those new, improved, nuclear weapons--said the museum "helps us celebrate victory in America's longest war." He meant the Cold War. Actually, American's longest war is its fight to survive the worldwide nuclear menace, and it continues.

Greg Mitchell is the editor of E&P and the author (with Robert Jay Lifton) of Hiroshima in America: A Half Century of Denial (Putnam, 1995) and other books.