Summary of the Series: Judy embedded with a group that was poorly-prepared to hunt down WMDs--but was given the central role in the first days of the war nevertheless. While there, she engaged in a pattern--announcing a big find, then quietly withdrawing that find shortly thereafter. She also used her influence (including her direct influence on Gonzales, apparently) to shift the unit's focus away from examining suspected WMD sites to finding Iraqi officials, some supplied by Ahmed Chalabi, who offered convenient excuses for the absence of WMDs. Meanwhile, over the course of her embed, Judy set the foundation--and created excuses--for the Bush Administration's "surprise" realization that they might not find WMDs in Iraq.
When we last left Judy, she was going on crazy adventures in the basement of the Mukhabarat with her buddy Ahmed Chalabi, finding things like Floating Knessets and documents describing scotched uranium deals. But that fun is over.
In this installment, Judy's unit gets disbanded and she returns to New York. Disbanding Judy's unit is easy to understand--the military refocused the WMD search program under the newly-created Iraq Survey Group The reasons for Judy's return are not as clear; in addition to a response to the changes in weapons investigations, it may have been an attempt on the part of NYT editors to reel Judy in. A chastened Judy comes home and tries to explain why she didn't find WMDs while she was in Iraq ... and why it doesn't matter anyway.
MET Alpha Rides Alladin's Carpet Home
Let's start with Judy's unit, the 75th Expedition Task Force generally and the MET Alpha specifically.
In a May 8 article, Judy first tells of the announcement that weapons inspection would be moved to David Kay's Iraq Survey Group. Judy explains a little about how that impacted her unit in her July 20, 2003 wrap-up article.
Only after the administration came under political fire for failing to find the weapons and was accused of distorting intelligence to build a case for the war did the White House put David Kay, a former international weapons inspector and envoy from the C.I.A., in charge of invigorating a task force that had already been restructured once.
Several analysts said that although the task force's weapons-hunting teams were highly motivated and innovative, the Pentagon initially erred in putting a field artillery brigade in charge of the hunt.
Judy goes onto explain that by putting field artillery in charge of a weapons search, the Pentagon ended up with a very cautious approach. In any case, because of this reorganization, the MET units were sent home early.
Then the MET units were sent home two months before a normal rotation, though they had volunteered to stay.
To get a much more nuanced picture of the circumstances surrounding 75th XTF getting sent home, we can turn to WaPo reporter Barton Gellman's reporting from Iraq. Note that Judy may have tried to prevent Gellman from gettting this story. From Franklin Foer's profile we learn Judy once attempted to prevent 75th XTF unit members from talking to Gellman.
Miller guarded her exclusive access with ferocity. When the Washington Post's Barton Gellman overlapped in the unit for a day, Miller instructed its members that they couldn't talk with him. According to Pomeroy, "She told people that she had clearance to be there and Bart didn't." (One other witness confirms this account.)
I have no idea whether this article is the result of the one day overlap between Judy and Gellman. But there's only one Barton Gellman article that names either McPhee or Gonzales that comes up in the WaPo archive for the period while Judy was embedded--Gellman wrote another (PDF) after she was back in the States. Further, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists article on Judy specifies she ended her embed on May 12, one day after Gellman's article appeared, which supports the possibility of a one-day overlap. So perhaps Judy was trying to prevent pessimism like this from appearing in a major--and rival--paper.
Gellman's May 11, 2003 article announces that Miller's unit, 75th Expedition Task Force, would be disbanded within the month. He describes the unit as simply "going through the motions" at this point. And Gellman describes a good deal of frustration among 75th XTF members. Here is Judy's "good friend" Richard Gonzales, expressing his frustration (this comment would have been made May 4, before Gonzales' adventure into the bowels of the Mukhabarat).
"Why are we doing any planned targets?" Army Chief Warrant Officer Richard L. Gonzales, leader of Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, said in disgust to a colleague during last Sunday's nightly report of weapons sites and survey results. "Answer me that. We know they're empty."
Here's a DIA officer trying to wrap his mind around his new understanding of the threat in Iraq.
"We came to bear country, we came loaded for bear and we found out the bear wasn't here," said a Defense Intelligence Agency officer here who asked not to be identified by name. "The indications and warnings were there. The assessments were solid."
"Okay, that paradigm didn't exist," he added. "The question before was, where are Saddam Hussein's chemical and biological weapons? What is the question now? That is what we are trying to sort out."
One thing analysts must reconsider, he said, is: "What was the nature of the threat?"
And here are some people getting bitter about the gap between their expectations and what they've found on the ground.
The stymied hunt baffles search team leaders. To a person, those interviewed during a weeklong visit to the task force said they believed in the mission and the Bush administration accusations that prompted it.
Yet "smoking gun" is now a term of dark irony here. Maj. Kenneth Deal, executive officer of one site survey team, called out the words in mock triumph when he found a page of Arabic text at a former Baath Party recreation center last week. It was torn from a translated edition of A.J.P. Taylor's history, "The Struggle for Mastery in Europe." At a "battle update brief" last week, amid confusion over the whereabouts of a British laboratory in transit from Talil Air Base, McPhee deadpanned to his staff: "I haven't a clue where the WMD is, but we can find this lab."
And finally, here's 75th XTF commander Richard McPhee, fed up and ready to get out as soon as possible.
All last week, McPhee drilled his staff on speeding the transition. The Iraq Survey Group should have all the help it needs, he said, to take control of the hunt. He is determined, subordinates said, to set the stage for success after he departs. And he does not want to leave his soldiers behind if their successors can be trained in time.
"I see them as Aladdin's carpet," McPhee told his staff. "Ticket home."
So we know that by May 11, McPhee is doing everything he can to get his group sent home (I don't know how this jives with Miller's claim that the MET units volunteered to stay--perhaps they wanted to stay but McPhee had had enough?).
Miller Comes Home--but Perhaps Not on a Magic Carpet
Miller is wrapping up her work in Iraq at this same time. Here's the schedule of her stories:
- May 7: first excursion to the Mukhabarat
- May 8: first mention of the "mobile weapons labs"
- May 9: second excursion to the Mukhabarat
- May 11:second article on the "mobile weapons labs" declaring them to be labs
- May 12: investigation of a site with Cobalt-60, albeit in much smaller amounts than reported
After May 12, her next article (another mobile weapons lab article) appears on May 21, co-written with William Broad. She writes another article with Broad on June 7, backing off her mobile weapons lab claims. By the time she writes this June 7 article, she is definitely back in New York, because Andrew Rosenthal says she wrote that after her return. A Bulletin of Atomic Scientists article that is sharply critical of Miller gives her embed dates as March 18 to May 12.
It's not entirely clear why Judy comes home when she does. Undoubtedly, it had a lot to do with MET Alpha's disbanding, as well as the general sense that there weren't going to be any big "smoking guns" found in Iraq. There are only so many murky basements you can turn into stories, after all.
Update: besieged by bush reminds me of the most likely reason Judy came home--because her embed period was up.
Miller's return may have also been a response to the political jockeying going on. If the BAS article is correct, Judy leaves the same day Paul Bremer arrives, May 12; certainly her solo reporting from Iraq ends the day Bremer arrives. With Bremer's arrival comes a vastly different approach for governing Iraq. Bremer, remember, put a stop to a plan to put Chalabi and 4 opposition leaders in charge of Iraq.
Perhaps, too, Miller was brought back to New York by NYT managers, concerned about the quality of her reporting. Miller, after all, committed two really big journalistic sins while in Iraq. She mis-characterized a quote and burned a source in an April 5 article. And she expressly ignored the instructions of the Baghdad bureau chief so she could write her May 1 article. Both of these are sins that would get a less prominent journalist fired.
Plus, it was becoming increasingly costly for the NYT to be associated with reporting of questionable provenance. Judy's Iraq embed perfectly coincides with the revelation of the Jayson Blair scandal. Blair resigns on May 1, the same day Judy goes over Burns' head to write her Chalabi portrait. The NYT could ill afford to be proved lax again.
And news of Judy's reporting was leaking out. First, there was the news of Judy's curious embed arrangement, which Judy revealed in her April 21 Yankee Fan story. Slate's Jack Shafer was hammering on this arrangement, as were a number of other critics. Then on May 26, Howard Kurtz reveals details of Miller's spat with John Burns (although presumably Judy was already home by this point). More damningly, he reveals Judy's admission that she was relying heavily on Chalabi as a source:
She apologized for any confusion, but noted that the Army unit she was traveling with -- Mobile Exploration Team Alpha -- "is using Chalabi's intell and document network for its own WMD work. . . . Since I'm there every day, talking to him. . . . I thought I might have been included on a decision by you" to have another reporter write about Chalabi. [emphasis mine]
Miller's reliance on Chalabi for her pre-war reporting had already been criticized extensively. The revelation she continued to rely on him while in Iraq threatened to discredit NYT reporting on the war.
And while they appear long after Miller has returned, further indictments of Miller's reporting appear. Kurtz's second story on Miller--detailing the way she served as an intermediary between MET Alpha and Chalabi--appears June 25. Then the New York Post comes out with an article on June 29:
TIMES BRASS PUTS LEASH ON MILLER
Most interestingly (and most relevent for questions about Judy's involvement in the Plame Affair), the Post details that Judy has been assigned to a team covering WMDs.
Miller and a Times spokesman insist all is well. But she is now part of a "team" doing reporting on the weapons of mass destruction - a move which at least one source said was triggered by the editors' concerns about her reporting methods.
Science reporter William Broad and one other reporter have been teamed with Miller, a source said.
Judy's first article with Broad is May 21, which would suggest that, if the partnership was an attempt to discipline Judy, the attempt coincided with her departure from Iraq.
The Post did ask the NYT whether Judy was in trouble. They got a non-denial denial in response. Andrew Rosenthal, the editor that goes to such lengths to defend Judy in Kurtz' columns? He doesn't have much to say now.
When we asked her editor Andrew Rosenthal if she had been disciplined or repremanded [sic] in any way over her techniques, he passed the question over to public relations spokesman who issued this response:
"Per your query, we are not aware of anything that would legitimately raise the question of disciplinary action. We trust that if such a thing had happened it would have been reported to her editors at The Times and not to the New York Post."
Judy, of course, denies it too.
"My status is fine," she insisted. "I'm very comfortable with all of my reporting and very proud of it and the Times is very proud of it as well," she said.
Whatever Judy's status, she writes only three articles with Broad: the May 21 mobile weapon lab story, a July 2 story on Stephen Hatfill, the anthrax suspect (David Johnston was by-lined on this, too), and a June 7 mea culpa on the mobile weapons lab.
Before I look at the mea culpa article, I should lay out a few more dates. Howell Raines was canned in response (largely) to the Jayson Blair scandal on June 4, 2003. Former editor Joseph Lelyveld was named as the interim replacement June 5. Lelyveld served until Keller was named on July 14.
In other words, Judy's mea culpa appears just a few days after Raines is fired and Lelyveld is hired. And she writes just one more article during Lelyveld's interm reign, a span of over a month. Shortly after Keller ascended to Executive Editor, July 20, Judy resumed writing single-bylined articles again. And, of course, this happens to coincide with the period when the Plame leak is brewing.
So let's look at those two articles.
Judy's mea culpa
I'm perhaps being generous when I describe this as a mea culpa. Rather, it's really just a reasonably balanced article, presenting both sides of a debate that pitted the CIA and much of the adminsitration, which had recently released a White Paper confirming the trailers were mobile weapons labs, against some unidentified analysts who pointed out the inconsistencies with such a claim.
On one side:
''I have no great confidence that it's a fermenter,'' a senior analyst with long experience in unconventional arms said of a tank for multiplying seed germs into lethal swarms. The government's public report, he added, ''was a rushed job and looks political.'' This analyst had not seen the trailers himself, but reviewed evidence from them.
'It's not built and designed as a standard fermenter,'' he [not necessarily the same analyst] said of the central tank. ''Certainly, if you modify it enough you could use it. But that's true of any tin can.''
On the other side:
A senior official said ''we've considered these objections'' and dismissed them as having no bearing on the overall conclusions of the white paper.
But what I thought was most remarkable (and I remember being surprised when I read it the day it was published) are the harsh words that begin the article. Anyone who had followed Iraq reporting would clearly understand these words indicted Judy as much as the intelligence analysts who rushed to conclude the trailers were mobile weapons labs.
American and British intelligence analysts with direct access to the evidence are disputing claims that the mysterious trailers found in Iraq were for making deadly germs. In interviews over the last week, they said the mobile units were more likely intended for other purposes and charged that the evaluation process had been damaged by a rush to judgment.
''Everyone has wanted to find the 'smoking gun' so much that they may have wanted to have reached this conclusion,'' said one intelligence expert who has seen the trailers and, like some others, spoke on condition that he not be identified. He added, ''I am very upset with the process.''
I guess this guy is as sick of the "smoking gun" as Kenneth Deal was when he labeled AJP Taylor's work a "smoking gun."
One more detail. I said this was a balanced article. Well, it may have been designed that way. When defending Judy in Kurtz' second article, Andrew Rosenthal points to this article as an example of Miller's balance.
After returning from Iraq, Rosenthal noted, Miller and a colleague filed a report skeptical about claims that two trailers found in Iraq served as mobile germ labs. Her reporting was "very balanced," he said, even though she and other embedded reporters in Iraq had a limited perspective while traveling with the troops.
I wonder how William Broad feels about Judy getting credit for this balance?
Finally, Judy Explains Everything
Finally, on Sunday July 20, in her first solo bylined article in over two months (May 12 to July 20), Judy publishes the piece that her then-editor Jill Abramson says she had been assigned on throughout this period. Oddly for an article that has taken two months to write, Judy reports nothing new. The article is a sweeping catalog of excuses why the METs didn't find WMDs. So why, according to Judy, didn't her unit find WMDs?
Well, according to Miller, it was partly due to the crummy intelligence.
The intelligence on sites was often stunningly wrong, one senior officer agreed.
And it was partly due to the rivalry between different factions in the search.
There was strife between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, and arguments between the MET weapons-hunting units and their commander; and some said that Special Operations forces alienated potential Iraqi sources through midnight raids and other harsh tactics. [emphasis mine]
This is pretty remarkable. Judy's buddy Chalabi was one of the people sowing dissent between the DIA and CIA as we say in Judy's de-Baathification article. And the arguments between MET units (presumably MET Alpha) and their commander (presumably McPhee)? Well, some have named Judy as the source of those arguments. Judy continues listing the reasons for the failure to find weapons. Partly it was the military's fault, because the Pentagon just didn't make the weapons search a priority.
Underlying those problems, experts and soldiers said, was the Pentagon's reluctance to make the mission an urgent priority as the risky occupation of Iraq unfolded.
Then there were the problems with the unit itself. The unit didn't have enough people.
The number of MET teams hunting for unconventional weapons was reduced to two from four before the war was even over, lowering the number of active weapons hunters to fewer than 50 from 100, far fewer than the 200 United Nations inspectors.
The unit didn't have sufficient time to prepare.
Col. Richard R. McPhee, 47, a West Point graduate and veteran of the Persian Gulf war in 1991, said he learned only in late December that his brigade had been selected to lead the search, leaving him only a month to prepare.
But then, maybe they would never have adequately prepared, since there were few experts on the team.
But the task force had virtually no inspectors and few analysts who knew Iraq or its weapons programs well, said Richard Spertzel, a former weapons inspector who had helped assemble a list of more than 20 former American inspectors who were ready to help.
Like I said, a catalog of reasons why WMDs hadn't been found. None of those reasons, of course, that there were no WMDs.
Which is when Judy reverts back to the excuse she set up in April--that the WMDs had been destroyed. In an amusing paragraph, Judy explains how Gonzales decided recruiting Iraqis would be more effective than searching suspected weapons sites.
Chief Warrant Officer Richard L. Gonzales, the head of MET Alpha, said in a recent interview that he became convinced of the need to concentrate on human sources, rather than site visits, after his unit secured the cooperation of two senior Iraqi participants in Iraq's unconventional weapons programs.
This is amusing, of course, because Judy appears to have been the one to convince him to go this route in the first place. And these two Iraqis were either supplied by Chalabi (Hindawi) or later probably employed by him (Yankee Fan). Here Judy rehearses the claims the Iraqis had made for her April articles on them (and which I covered in Part Two). Hindawi confessed the Iraqis had been lying to UN weapons inspectors. And Yankee Fan (who Judy now identifies as a military intelligence official) testified that all the WMDs had been destroyed just before the invasion.
Never one to shy from greatness, Judy goes on to suggest that Yankee Fan was the source of Bush's new uncertainty whether the weapons searchers would find any WMDs.
On April 24, less than a week after the Iraqi met with American officials in Baghdad and White House officials were given a report about his claims, President Bush said publicly for the first time that the military might not find Iraqi unconventional weapons stockpiles because they they might have been destroyed.
A White House spokesman declined comment on whether Mr. Bush's statement was a result of the Iraqi source's assertions, but officials in Iraq and Washington confirmed that White House officials had hotly debated the Iraqi's assertions, which they said had startled them.
Great. Then we can all just interview Yankee Fan, right, so we're all comfortable with what happened to the WMDs. Right? Wrong.
'The Iraqi remains a cooperating source whose life would be endangered were his identity known in Iraq,'' a senior administration official said.
With this article, published two months after her return (and published, perhaps not coincidentally, just as the whole Plame thing was breaking), Judy closes the book on her embed in Iraq. The reasons she cites for the failure to find WMDs are largely fair; except for the things Judy instigated herself, they're complaints Barton Wellman airs in his own extensive coverage of the WMD hunt. But whereas Gellman (and his interviewees, including some in Judy's own unit) seem to face the reality that there simply aren't any WMDs. Judy provides her convenient explanation, in the form of two Chalabi-associated sources, who explain away the whole absence of WMDs.
Last installment: my own speculation about what Judy was doing in Iraq