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The Sins of Judith Miller

The New York Times reporter who helped spread the fallacy that Saddam Hussein had WMD has a new beat: discrediting the United Nations.
 
 
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As a media critic, I spend what feels like far too much time trying to persuade people that most reporters are not sloppy, agenda-driven, biased, or lazy. But it seems that whenever I get up on my high horse, back into the news rides Judith Miller.

Miller, a longtime star at The New York Times , has a formidable track record of egregious violations of journalistic standards and best practices, and a habit of sending the public off on what turn out to be wild goose chases. Relying on a small circle of highly interested parties (often anonymous "sources"), she became the leading journalistic purveyor of the fallacy that Saddam Hussein had WMD and that he was tied to Al-Qaeda.

Despite having essentially admitted in a written apology, long ex post facto, that its reporter helped to promote a fallacious rationale for an unnecessary invasion and catastrophically protracted occupation, the Times has not put Miller out to pasture. Instead, it has moved her at her request to another challenge: covering scandal wherever it might rear its head within the United Nations.

This is an ironic assignment, since it was the success of the UN's peaceful approach to controlling WMD in Iraq that underlined the wrongheadedness of the pro-invasion clique that supplied Miller with her faulty "scoops."

Over the past year, she has produced a plethora of stories, chock full of innuendo and allegation but short of independent journalistic verification, suggesting that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan is a bad man and perhaps a corrupt one, and that, by extension, the UN is hardly worth respecting and funding, much less including in geopolitical decision-making.

Most of Miller's sleuthing centers on contracts handed out in connection with the so-called Oil for Food program (which got indispensable staples to the Iraqi people during the embargo). Miller's articles typically take murky evidence and create in readers' minds the sense that there's something deeply wrong in the UN's command structure, when in fact, there may not be. At worst, the malfeasance there pales by comparison to what goes on in Washington day after day.

Since March, Miller has been largely invisible, but last week she returned to the UN dirt beat with a vengeance. On June 15, she came up with goods that at first looked damning. Her article, "Investigators To Review Hint of Annan Role in Iraq Oil Sales," dealt with a memo that seemed to indicate that Secretary General Kofi Annan may have had more contact with a UN contractor for whom his son worked than he had previously admitted. Miller makes it clear that the company in question, Cotecna, has been belatedly forthcoming with information about how it got the UN contracts. But in the penultimate paragraph, she drops this little bomb: "A new internal audit showed that Cotecna had not made the $306,305 in payments that [a UN investigative] panel said might have gone to Kojo Annan [Kofi Annan's son]."

Is she being deliberately opaque or is this just bad writing? What she is actually saying in this throwaway paragraph is that the allegation behind her many previous stories, about a corrupt link between Kojo Annan and the company that got a UN contract, may be unfounded. If the whole thing is a tempest in a teapot, why is that possibility raised only near the end of the article?

Two days after that article appeared, the Times ran another in which Miller shared a byline with the Times' estimable UN bureau chief, Warren Hoge. Their jointly bylined article is headlined "Contractor Now Denies He Talked With Annan on Oil-for-Food Bid." What does that mean? It means that the very source in Miller's earlier piece is now changing his story. It also means that Times editors are sufficiently concerned to include this as an entirely separate article in a paper always short of space for important stories.

This article notes that this is the second time that the source, a one-time business partner of Kojo Annan, has revised his story about what his partner's father might have known about UN contract favoritism. If this source is known to be unreliable, why write an article every time he's quoted saying something harmful to Kofi Annan (and, perhaps not coincidentally, useful to Miller's friends in the neocon community, who are ever eager to discredit the United Nations).

Remarkably, the Miller-Hoge piece actually quotes the Secretary General himself, chastising unspecified "reporters" (read: Miller):

He urged reporters "to resist the temptation to substitute yourself for the Volcker (UN investigative) commission."

Would Miller have put that obvious slap at her into her own article if she weren't forced by her editors?

By Monday, June 20, it became clear that there really was something wrong with Miller's reportage. Of just four corrections in the print edition, one was about her reporting; although, it didn't name her. (The paper would take a big leap forward if it would simply say, "An article on Friday by Judith Miller incorrectly stated....) 

The first correction was of a photo caption that misidentified someone named Toni as Tony. The second correction, presumably dubbed of lesser import than the misapplication of a given name, was Miller's.

Here is Miller's original wording:

This is not the first time that Mr. Wilson has recanted a statement involving the secretary general and his son.

The March report of the Volcker committee records an interview with Mr. Wilson last January in which he recounted a conversation with Kofi Annan in November 1998, when Mr. Annan's son was still a consultant for the company, about a potential conflict of interest in Cotecna's bid.

The Volcker report said that 15 to 20 minutes after the interview, Mr. Wilson called the investigator to change the conversation date to after Kojo Annan had left Cotecna.

Here is the language of the correction: 

An article on Friday about a contractor who said in a 1998 memo that he had met with the United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, shortly before the contractor's company received a contract under the oil-for-food program for Iraq, but who then recanted the report, referred incorrectly to an earlier episode in which the man was reported to have recanted a statement. In March, the panel appointed by the United Nations to investigate the program reported that the man had changed his story of a conversation with Mr. Annan, saying that it was actually in 1996, not 1998. The report did not say the man changed his account to say that the conversation took place after Mr. Annan's son, Kojo, was no longer working for the company.

If this all seems laughably convoluted, that's because of the way the Times corrections department obscures what is really going on. Still, taking together Miller's article and the correction, one can see what she was implying: That the man was deliberately lying to somehow draw attention away from the Annan family. Yet, as the correction says, that is not what he was doing -- he was simply correcting a date.

After so many mistakes, it's becoming apparent to anyone (including perhaps the entire Times newsroom) that Miller is a problem. She's Inspector Clouseau turned loose by the Perle/Cheney gang, bumbling her way through a fragile and dangerous world, leaving reputations shredded, international relations damaged, and facts scattered far and wide. Why top management at an institution that is normally fierce about staff errors continues to tolerate this is a continuing mystery.

Russ Baker is a freelance journalist and essayist. He is currently involved with launching a nonprofit organization dedicated to revitalizing investigative journalism.