I hate to harp on Judy Miller. Or perhaps I should say I hate to have so many opportunities to harp on her. But it's kind of my shtick, so when I see articles reporting on a team debunking the Mobile Weapons Lab myth, I feel obliged. Joby Warrick reports:
On May 29, 2003, 50 days after the fall of Baghdad, President Bush proclaimed a fresh victory for his administration in Iraq: Two small trailers captured by U.S. and Kurdish troops had turned out to be long-sought mobile "biological laboratories." He declared, "We have found the weapons of mass destruction."
The claim, repeated by top administration officials for months afterward, was hailed at the time as a vindication of the decision to go to war. But even as Bush spoke, U.S. intelligence officials possessed powerful evidence that it was not true.
A secret fact-finding mission to Iraq -- not made public until now -- had already concluded that the trailers had nothing to do with biological weapons. Leaders of the Pentagon-sponsored mission transmitted their unanimous findings to Washington in a field report on May 27, 2003, two days before the president's statement.
The three-page field report and a 122-page final report three weeks later were stamped "secret" and shelved. Meanwhile, for nearly a year, administration and intelligence officials continued to publicly assert that the trailers were weapons factories.
Why does this oblige me to harp on Judy again? Well, because she seems to have been involved in an effort to first pre-empt this study ... and then counteract it.
To understand what I mean, let's review timing. One of the last things Judy did before leaving Iraq (just before she published a breathless article about finding a known cache of uranium) was to publish a May 11 article announcing the find of the "Mobile Weapons Labs."
A team of experts searching for evidence of biological and chemical weapons in Iraq has concluded that a trailer found near Mosul in northern Iraq in April is a mobile biological weapons laboratory, the three team members said today.
Describing their four-day examination of the lab for the first time and on the condition of anonymity, the members of the Chemical Biological Intelligence Support Team-Charlie, or Team Charlie, said they had based their conclusion on a thorough examination of the gray-green trailer, with the help of British experts and a few American soldiers.
The members acknowledged that some experts were still uncertain whether the trailer was intended to produce biological agents. But they said they were persuaded that it was a mobile lab for biological production.
Then, writing from the US ten days later, Judy leaked the contents of a White Paper confirming the find:
United States intelligence agencies have concluded that two mysterious trailers found in Iraq were mobile units to produce germs for weapons, but they have found neither biological agents nor evidence that the equipment was used to make such arms, according to senior administration officials.
The officials said intelligence analysts in Washington and Baghdad reached their conclusion about the trailers after analyzing, and rejecting, alternative theories of how they could have been used. Their consensus was in a paper presented to the White House late Monday.
The six-page white paper, entitled Iraqi Mobile Biological Warfare Production Plants, contains a description of the three trailer units found so far in Iraq and dismisses at least three alternative explanations for their use, an official said yesterday.
Curiously, Judy mentions international experts who will be invited to examine the mobile units--at about the same time as the team Warrick reported on would have been leaving to conduct their investigation (they assembled in Kuwait on May 25).
Yesterday in Baghdad a military official said that American forces would invite international experts to examine the mobile units, The Associated Press reported.
And then, as Warrick details, the team conducts its investigation and submits a report debunking the mobile weapon lab claims just six days later. A day after the debunking team submitted its report on May 27, the CIA published the White Paper Judy had leaked a week earlier. From Warrick:
The technical team's findings had no apparent impact on the intelligence agencies' public statements on the trailers. A day after the team's report was transmitted to Washington -- May 28, 2003 -- the CIA publicly released its first formal assessment of the trailers, reflecting the views of its Washington analysts. That white paper, which also bore the DIA seal, contended that U.S. officials were "confident" that the trailers were used for "mobile biological weapons production."
Just like the Plame/CIA Joe Wilson Report/NIE leaks, someone leaked a then-classified document to Judy, then published it a week or so later, presumably because Judy's leaking didn't do the trick.
But it didn't stop there. As the recent Vanity Fair puff piece explains, Judy returned to Baghdad in early June, just after Bush had reported on the Mobile Weapons Labs, to find out "why there were doubts" about the Mobile Weapons Labs.
"I told Judy that she could not go back," Roger Cohen, the foreign editor of the Times, told me recently. "There were concerns about her sources and her sourcing. . . . We talked about it in my office for an hour." Miller was able to prevail, however, and she returned briefly to Iraq, she later said, "to try to report on why the W.M.D. had not been found." She concentrated on one crucial aspect: why there were doubts about the mobile labs. "I wanted to find out how the intelligence services had gotten this so wrong," she said. "There was a tremendous divide over it."
The article she reported (with William Broad) after returning to Baghdad a second time seems to be a response to this debunking team.
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.''
As part of her services to counter the debunkers, Judy portrays the White Paper as "nuanced" and "carefully qualified."
Experts described the debate as intense despite the American intelligence agencies' release last week of the nuanced, carefully qualified white paper concluding that the mobile units were most likely part of Iraq's biowarfare program. It was posted May 28 on the Internet at www.cia.gov.
''We are in full agreement on it,'' an official said of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency at a briefing on the white paper.
The six-page report, ''Iraqi Mobile Biological Warfare Agent Production Plants,'' called discovery of the trailers ''the strongest evidence to date that Iraq was hiding a biological warfare program.''
She even publishes an SAO's denial of pressure that no one publicly was yet alleging:
A senior administration official said the White House had not put pressure on the intelligence community in any way on the content of its white paper, or on the timing of its release.
Uh huh. What do you say now,
Scooter Libby Mr. SAO, now that we all know the White Paper was designed to pre-empt the findings of the experts?
In the end, Judy gives voice to an SAO rejecting the findings of the expert team.
A senior official said ''we've considered these objections'' and dismissed them as having no bearing on the overall conclusions of the white paper. He added that Iraq, which declared several classes of mobile vehicles to the United Nations, never said anything about hydrogen factories.
Very interesting. And there's one more interesting bit. The expert team came home just after they submitted their report on May 27. But Judy apparently returned to Baghdad to figure out what went wrong, rather than heading to DC (though either Judy or Broad interviewed the experts for their article). What was Judy doing in Baghdad, if the experts who could answer her question were already back in DC and the UK?
No matter. When she returned to Baghdad, no one wanted to talk to her.
After months of enjoying "embedded" status (and then some), Miller unexpectedly returned to Baghdad via Kuwait in the middle of the night in early June, military officials and journalists told me, but was denied permission to rejoin the weapons-hunting teams and was put on the next plane out.
According to a public affairs officer (PAO) on the scene, she sought an embed arrangement different from the "terms of accreditation to report" which she had originally signed. Most of her contacts had been replaced by new people from David Kay's Iraqi Survey Group (ISG). Col. Richard McPhee, commander of the 75th Exploitation Task Force in Iraq, whose teams had been looking for evidence of WMDs in the spring, refused an interview with her.
Perhaps Richard McPhee had tired of helping Judy stage WMD finds?
So in the end, they apparently succeeded in largely burying the counter-evidence to the dodgy claims. But they weren't successful in carrying out whatever project Judy had been sent to accomplish, either.