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Judith Miller and Michael Gordon of the New York Times report in a front page story that Iraq is trying to obtain materials to build a nuclear weapon. Citing unnamed senior administration officials, they break the story of the aluminum tubes that were confiscated in Jordan in July 2001 (see July 2001) and write that both “American intelligence experts” and top officials believe the tubes were meant to be used as centrifuge rotors in a nuclear enrichment program. “In the last 14 months, Iraq has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium,” reports the newspaper. “The diameter, thickness and other technical specifications of the aluminum tubes had persuaded American intelligence experts that they were meant for Iraq’s nuclear program….” Officials cited in the article warn that the US must not wait for more evidence before taking action to disarm Iraq because the first sign of a “smoking gun” may be a mushroom cloud. (Gordon and Miller 9/8/2002) (The “smoking gun/mushroom cloud” analogy was conceived by presidential speech writer Michael Gerson a few days earlier; see September 4, 2002 for details.) What Gordon and Miller’s sources did not tell them, and what they neglected to find out on their own, was that the country’s top nuclear experts do not believe the tubes are suitable for rotors (see, e.g., July 2001-March 2003, August 17, 2001, and Late 2001). For example, Houston G. Wood III, a retired Oak Ridge physicist, filed a report with the US government more than a year before (see August 17, 2001) concluding that the tubes were not meant for centrifuges. When he reads the New York Times story, he is shocked. In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation more than a year later, he will recount his initial reaction: “My first thought was, ‘This must be some new tubes,’ you know. And then… and then when I realized that these were the tubes that I had been looking at a year before, I was just… I was… I was just shocked. I couldn’t believe that, you know, here we were, saying that these tubes were, you know, the same tubes that I’d come to the conclusion a year before were not valid for centrifuges, and here they’re saying they are. So, er… that was a real surprise.” (Jackson 10/27/2003) In subsequent stories about the tubes, the Times will note that there is a debate, however these reports will appear in the back pages of the newspaper (see, e.g., September 13, 2002). (New York Times 5/26/2004)
Secretary of State Colin Powell appears on “Fox News Sunday,” and asserts that Iraq has chemical and biological weapons stocks and that Saddam Hussein is intent on building a nuclear weapon. He cites a recent article in the New York Times by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon (see September 8, 2002) as evidence of Hussein’s nuclear ambitions. “There’s no doubt that he has chemical weapon stocks. We destroyed some after the Gulf War with the inspection regime, but there’s no doubt in our mind that he still has chemical weapon stocks and he has the capacity to produce more chemical weapons. With respect to biological weapons, we are confident that he has some stocks of those weapons, and he’s probably continuing to try to develop more. And biological weapons are very dangerous because they can be produced just about in any kind of pharmaceutical facility. With respect to nuclear weapons, we are quite confident that he continues to try to pursue the technology that would allow him to develop a nuclear weapon. Whether he could do it in one, five, six or seven, eight years is something that people can debate about, but what nobody can debate about is the fact that he still has the incentive, he still intends to develop those kinds of weapons. And as we saw in reporting just this morning, he is still trying to acquire, for example, some of the specialized aluminum tubing one needs to develop centrifuges that would give you an enrichment capability. So there’s no question that he has these weapons, but even more importantly, he is striving to do even more, to get even more.” Tony Snow, the program’s host, asks Secretary of State Colin Powell to respond to comments by former UN Chief Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter in a speech he recently made to Iraq’s parliament, in which the former weapons inspector stated: “The rhetoric of fear that is disseminated by my government and others has not to date been backed up by hard facts that substantiate any allegations that Iraq is today in possession of weapons of mass destruction or has links to terror groups responsible for attacking the United States. Void of such facts, all we have is speculation.” Powell responds: “We have facts, not speculation. Scott is certainly entitled to his opinion but I’m afraid that I would not place the security of my nation and the security of our friends in the region on that kind of an assertion by somebody who’s not in the intelligence chain any longer… If Scott is right, then why are they keeping the inspectors out? If Scott is right, why don’t they say, ‘Anytime, any place, anywhere, bring ‘em in, everybody come in—we are clean?’ The reason is they are not clean. And we have to find out what they have and what we’re going to do about it. And that’s why it’s been the policy of this government to insist that Iraq be disarmed in accordance with the terms of the relevant UN resolutions.” (Fox News 9/8/2002; Yacoub 9/8/2002; NewsMax 9/8/2002)
The White House Iraq Group (WHIG—see August 2002) launches its Iraq marketing campaign with a blitz of the Sunday morning talk shows. Vice President Dick Cheney appears on NBC (see September 8, 2002 and September 8, 2002), Secretary of State Colin Powell on Fox (see September 8, 2002), Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on CBS (see September 8, 2002), and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on CNN (see September 8, 2002). Rice is the first to use the characterization, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud” (see September 4, 2002), but President Bush and his senior officials repeat the phrase over and over in the following days. Author Craig Unger will note “Cheney’s most Machiavellian flourish” in having all four officials cite “evidence” of Iraq’s nuclear program, suspicious aluminum tubes, and attribute the information to the New York Times. Cheney and the others are referring to a story by the Times’ Judith Miller and Michael Gordon (see September 8, 2002) that Iraq had tried “to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes” that American experts believe could be used in centrifuges to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. The story is attributed to “unnamed administration sources;” Miller and Gordon do not inform their readers that the story comes from Cheney’s office. In essence, Cheney planted disinformation in the New York Times, then cited the Times article to prove his contention. Gordon will later insist that he and Miller had to pry that story out of the administration, but Unger will note that it is hard to equate Gordon’s contention with four of the administration’s highest officials going on television simultaneously to spread the story and cite the Times article. Furthermore, because of the scheduling practices on the four networks, it appears that the four officials’ simultaneous appearances were arranged in advance. As the Times is the flagship newspaper of the US press, over 500 other newspapers and broadcast outlets pick up on the Times story and the officials’ appearances, giving the story tremendous visibility throughout the world. (Unger 2007, pp. 252-254)
David Albright, a physicist who helped investigate Iraq’s nuclear weapons program following the 1991 Persian Gulf War as a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspection team, is disturbed to read Judith Miller’s story in the New York Times claiming that Iraq is trying to purchase aluminum tubes as part of an attempt to build centrifuges for a nuclear weapon (see September 8, 2002). After the aluminum tubes had been intercepted in the summer of 2001, Albright had been asked by an official to find out some information about them (see Late July 2001), and he had discovered that many experts doubted they were suitable for use in centrifuges. He had frequently worked with Miller in the past, and he contacts her and alerts her about the doubts of many officials, particularly those in the Department of Energy, regarding the Bush administration’s claims about the tubes.
Follow-up Article - Miller and Michael Gordon do write a follow-up article in the Times on September 13, 2002. But while the article does eventually note that “there have been debates among intelligence experts about Iraq’s intentions in trying to buy such tubes,” it states that “other, more senior, officials insisted last night that this was a minority view among intelligence experts and that the CIA had wide support, particularly among the government’s top technical experts and nuclear scientists. ‘This is a footnote, not a split,’ a senior administration official said.”
Insufficient - Albright is upset. He will later claim that he asked Miller “to alert people that there’s a debate, that there are competent people who disagreed with what the CIA was saying. I thought for sure she’d quote me or some people in the government who didn’t agree. It just wasn’t there.” He adds that the Times “made a decision to ice out the critics and insult them on top of it.” Albright goes to Joby Warrick of the Washington Post instead in hopes the Post will publish a better story. Warrick’s story comes out on September 19 and reveals the debate within the government about the tubes. It also notes reports that the Bush administration “is trying to quiet dissent among its own analysts over how to interpret the evidence.” But the story appears on page A18 and gets little notice compared to Miller’s front-page stories. (Massing 2/26/2004) Still frustrated, Albright publishes his own report several days later challenging the aluminum tubes story (see September 23, 2002).
Colin Powell’s speech to the UN Security Council (see February 5, 2003) has a far more powerful effect on the American populace than it does among others. (Unger 2007, pp. 286-288)
Did Not Convince Skeptical Governments - The presentation does little to change minds on the Security Council. France, Russia, and China remain opposed to the idea of a new resolution that would pave the way for the US to invade Iraq. These countries say that Powell’s speech demonstrates that inspections are working and must be allowed to continue. “Immediately after Powell spoke, the foreign ministers of France, Russia and China—all of which hold veto power—rejected the need for imminent military action and instead said the solution was more inspections,” reports the Washington Post. But governments who have been supportive of the United States’ stance remain firmly behind Washington. (DeYoung and Pincus 2/6/2003; Richburg 2/7/2003)
European Press Skeptical - The European press’s response to Powell’s evidence is also mixed. The Times of London, a relatively conservative daily newspaper, describes Powell’s presentation as a “few smudgy satellite photographs, a teaspoon of talcum powder, some Lego-style drawings of sinister trucks and trains, a picture of an American U2 spy plane, several mugshots of Arabic men, and a script that required a suspension of mistrust by the world’s doves.” (Reid 2/6/2003)
American Media Strongly Positive - The US media’s reaction to Powell’s presentation is immediate and overwhelmingly positive. Over 100 press outlets compare his speech to Adlai Stevenson’s 1962 denunciation of the USSR during the Cuban Missile Crisis (see January 30-February 4, 2003). One poll shows that 90 percent of Americans now believe Iraq has an active WMD program that poses a dire threat to the nation. Another shows 67 percent of Americans believe that the US is justified in going to war with Iraq because of that nation’s illicit WMD. The San Francisco Chronicle calls the speech “impressive in its breadth and eloquence.” The Denver Post compares Powell to “Marshal Dillon facing down a gunslinger in Dodge City,” and adds that he showed the world “not just one ‘smoking gun’ but a battery of them.” Perhaps the most telling reaction is among the media’s liberals. The Washington Post’s Mary McGrory says Powell won her over. Richard Cohen, a moderate Post colleague, writes that Powell’s evidence is “absolutely bone-chilling in its detail… [and] had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hadn’t accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool, or possibly a Frenchman, could conclude otherwise.” And the New York Times writes three separate stories praising Powell as “powerful,” “sober,” “factual,” and “nearly encyclopedic.” Columnist William Safire says Powell’s presentation has “half a dozen smoking guns” and makes an “irrefutable and undeniable” case. Safire’s colleague at the Times, Michael Gordon, concludes, “It will be difficult for skeptics to argue that Washington’s case against Iraq is based on groundless suspicions and not intelligence information.” (Unger 2007, pp. 286-288) In the days after the speech, the Washington Post opinion pages are filled with praises for Powell and the presentation. (Massing 2/26/2004) One Post editorial proclaims that after the presentation, it is “hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.” (Washington Post 2/6/2004)
Powell 'Trusted' - Former ambassador Joseph Wilson will write in 2004: “[I]t was Powell’s credibility that finally put public opinion over the top. Over and over again, I was told, ‘Colin Powell wouldn’t lie to us.‘… Powell’s support for invading Iraq with a pseudo-coalition was essential, and he deserves at least as much of the responsibility for the subsequent situation that we find ourselves in as anybody else in the administration, because, more than anybody else, it was his credibility and standing among the American people that tipped the scales.” (Wilson 2004, pp. 317-318) In 2007, CBS anchor Dan Rather gives a simple reason why Powell’s presentation is so strongly accepted by so many. “Colin Powell was trusted. Is trusted, I’d put it—in a sense. He, unlike many of the people who made the decisions to go to war, Colin Powell has seen war. He knows what a green jungle hell Vietnam was. He knows what the battlefield looks like. And when Colin Powell says to you, ‘I, Colin Powell, am putting my personal stamp on this information. It’s my name, my face, and I’m putting it out there,’ that did make a difference.… I was impressed. And who wouldn’t be?” (Moyers 4/25/2007)
Slate reporter Jack Shafer lambasts New York Times reporter Judith Miller’s record of error as the Times’s primary chronicler of the claims for Iraqi WMD. Miller has just written an article backing away from her previous claims (see July 20, 2003), but blaming the failure to find WMD on everything from “chaos [and] disorganization” to “flawed intelligence[,] interagency feuds,” and the wrong choice of people to head the US searches. Shafer responds: “Judith Miller finds everybody associated with the failed search theoretically culpable except Judith Miller. This rings peculiar because Miller, more than any other reporter, showcased the WMD speculations and intelligence findings by the Bush administration and the Iraqi defector/dissidents. Our WMD expectations, such as they were, grew largely out of Miller’s stories.” He notes that Miller’s reports were largely based on assertions from sources affiliated with Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC), and writes, “If reporters who live by their sources were obliged to die by their sources… Miller would be stinking up her family tomb right now.” Shafer goes on to note that Miller’s words were always carefully selected to ensure that the sources, not Miller herself, painted a picture of Iraq teeming with WMD. “[I]f Miller got taken by her coveted sources, so did the reading public, and the Times owes its readers a review of Miller’s many credulous pieces,” Shafer writes. Since the Times has yet to provide such a review, Shafer says, he has done some of the initial work for it.
'The Renovator, Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri' - Shafer begins with an Iraqi civil engineer, Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, who, thanks to the INC (see December 17, 2001), provided Miller with the information required for stories describing the secret renovation of facilities to store and develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons (see December 20, 2001). Shafer notes that al-Haideri, who now lives in the US, has boasted of his willingness to return to Iraq once Saddam Hussein is out of power; he suggests that the Times send him back to Iraq “where he can lead them on a tour of the 20 sites and 20 installations” that he claims housed WMD.
'The Pseudonymous Ahmed al-Shemri' - In September 2002, Miller and her colleague Michael Gordon wrote that Iraq was continuing to develop, produce, and store chemical agents in secret mobile and fixed weapons laboratories, many underground, in defiance of UN weapons sanctions (see September 8, 2002). The allegations, made as part of a much broader story, were based on the allegations of Ahmed al-Shemri, the admitted pseudonym of an Iraqi who claimed to have been “involved” in chemical weapons production in Iraq before his defection in 2001. “All of Iraq is one large storage facility,” al-Shemri told Miller. He also told her of the existence of large, secret labs in Mosul, those labs’ production of 5 tons of liquid VX nerve agent, and their ability to produce far more if requested. And, he told her that Iraq had created a new solid form of VX that makes decontamination difficult. Russian and North Korean scientists were assisting the Iraqis, al-Shemri asserted, and told of stockpiles of “12,500 gallons of anthrax, 2,500 gallons of gas gangrene, 1,250 gallons of aflotoxin, and 2,000 gallons of botulinum throughout the country.” Shafer suggests that al-Shemri “drop his pseudonym to make his background more transparent and lead the Times to the Mosul lab.”
Making the Case for the White House - On September 13, 2002, Miller and Gordon printed a story titled “White House Lists Iraq Steps to Build Banned Weapons” (see September 13, 2002). The story related the White House’s claims of Iraq’s attempt to purchase aluminum tubes to be used in building nuclear missiles, its development of mobile biological laboratories, its attempt to buy poison gas precursors, and the secret development of chlorine gas at Fallujah and three other locations. Also, the article noted, Iraq was constructing missiles in violation of the 1991 cease-fire agreement, was conducting prohibited missile research, and was rebuilding a destroyed facility once used to build long-range missile engines. Shafer suggests that the Times send a delegation of reporters and experts to the sites noted in the article, saying, “Maybe the Times can find evidence that supports or discredits the administration’s claim.”
'Khidir Hamza, Nuclear Mastermind' - Miller has written extensively of the claims of former Iraqi nuclear bomb expert Khidir Hamza (see July 30, 2002), who defected in 1994. Perhaps her most influential story was printed on September 18, 2002 (see September 18, 2002), where she reported Hamza’s claims that Iraq was within two to three years of mass-producing centrifuges necessary to enrich uranium. Shafer suggests that Hamza “take the Times on an Iraqi atomic tour.”
Proclaiming the Defectors' Accuracy - In October 2002, Miller wrote that al-Haideri and Hamza complained that US intelligence was not taking them seriously. She quoted Chalabi and Pentagon adviser Richard Perle’s enthusiastic support for the two defectors’ claims, along with their vociferous attacks on the CIA, and wrote: “The INC has been without question the single most important source of intelligence about Saddam Hussein.… What the agency has learned in recent months has come largely through the INC’s efforts despite indifference of the CIA.” Shafer writes: “Either the INC was wrong or the CIA was wrong. If the INC was wrong, the Times should feed Perle’s words back to him with a fork and spoon.” Miller wrote another story quoting an administration defender of the defectors in January 2003, this time Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Shafer says “[t]he Times should review the credibility of all the Iraqis who defected to Miller. Who are the defectors? What did they tell the United States? How much of it was true? How much was blarney?”
Atropine Auto-Injectors - In November 2002, Miller wrote that, according to White House officials, Iraq had ordered “large quantities” of atropine auto-injectors (see November 12, 2002). Atropine is an antidote to sarin and VX, two lethal nerve agents. Shafer says “[t]he Times should track the atropine order to the source, if possible, to see if the request was in preparation for a chemical weapons attack.”
Russian Smallpox Allegations - In December 2002, Miller wrote that a Russian scientist may have provided a virulent strain of smallpox to Iraqi scientists (see December 3, 2002). Shafer notes that it is clear Miller does not know who the source for the allegation was, and the Times should now reinvestigate the story.
Miller's Mobile Exploitation Team Scoop - Shafer writes that Miller’s “biggest scoop” was an April 20, 2003 article titled “Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert” (see April 20, 2003 and April-May 2003). Miller reported on an Iraqi scientist in the custody of a US Mobile Exploitation Team (MET) in search of WMD. The scientist said that Iraq destroyed large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons just before the invasion, and he led the MET to buried precursor materials from which illegal weapons can be made. Moreover, the scientist alleged that Iraq sent its remaining stockpiles of WMD to Syria in the mid-1990s, where they remain hidden to this day. Iraq provided some of those weapons to al-Qaeda, and has focused heavily on researching new and more powerful weapons. Miller wasn’t allowed to name the precursor element the scientist had named, but wrote that it could be used to create a toxic agent banned under chemical weapons treaties. She was not allowed to speak to the scientist himself, nor could she reveal his name. And, she noted, she agreed to allow the military to review her story, and held off publishing it for three days. In return, the military allowed her to look at the scientist from a distance, as he pointed at spots in the desert where he said the precursor elements were buried. One day after the article appeared, Miller went on PBS, where she called her reporting the “silver bullet” in the WMD search. The next day, she published another article announcing a “paradigm shift” by investigators as a result of what they’d learned from the Iraqi scientist. But neither Miller nor any of the METs actually found anything concrete as a result of the scientist’s allegations. She later admitted that the “scientist” was actually a military intelligence officer, but continued to stand by his original allegations. Shafer suggests that Miller persuade the military to allow her to identify the so-called “precursor” substance, and explain the deceptive portrayal of a military intelligence officer as a scientist familiar with Iraqi WMD programs.
Impact and Consequences - Shafer says that the most important question about Miller is, “Has she grown too close to her sources to be trusted to get it right or to recant her findings when it’s proved that she got it wrong?” He continues: “Because the Times sets the news agenda for the press and the nation, Miller’s reporting had a great impact on the national debate over the wisdom of the Iraq invasion. If she was reliably wrong about Iraq’s WMD, she might have played a major role in encouraging the United States to attack a nation that posed it little threat. At the very least, Miller’s editors should review her dodgy reporting from the last 18 months, explain her astonishing credulity and lack of accountability, and parse the false from the fact in her WMD reporting. In fact, the Times’ incoming executive editor, Bill Keller, could do no better than to launch such an investigation.” (Slate 7/25/2003)
CNN’s Wolf Blitzer interviews one of its military analysts, retired Army General James “Spider” Marks. Blitzer asks Marks if Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ever rejected “recommendations from military commanders for more troops.” Marks replies: “Sure. Oh, absolutely. I mean, that’s been documented if you read General [Tommy] Franks’s book [American Soldier], and the current book, Cobra II [by Michael Gordon and another military analyst, Bernard Trainor], indicates very, very clearly, and in fact, that is in fact what happened. We requested the 1st Cavalry Division. That was denied. At a very critical point in the war, I might say. The metric that was established then was success against the Republican Guard and Saddam [Hussein]‘s forces when clearly the desired end state was what’s going to happen after the forces have been dealt with, and what do you do when you’ve got this military presence in Iraq. Clearly, the presence of more combat forces on the ground would have been needed.” (CNN 4/16/2006) Later, during a Pentagon briefing of a gathering of military analysts, Rumsfeld will claim that he never denied any such troop increases, but that commanders such as Marks refused to accept additional troops (see Late December, 2006).
A briefing by the US Central Command (CENTCOM) says that Iraq is sliding towards a complete breakdown of order. The briefing features a chart used by the military as, in the words of New York Times reporter Michael Gordon, “a barometer of civil conflict.” Gordon describes the slide as providing “a rare glimpse into how the military command that oversees the war is trying to track its trajectory, particularly in terms of sectarian fighting.” The briefing was prepared by CENTCOM’s intelligence directorate, overseen by Brigadier General John Custer. The slide contains a color-coded bar chart titled “Index of Civil Conflict,” which tracks the sharp rise in sectarian violence since the bombing of a Shi’ite shrine in February (see February 22, 2006), and documents a subsequent rise in violence despite US efforts to contain conflicts in and around Baghdad. Gordon describes the chart as tracking, among other factors, “the ineffectual Iraqi police and the dwindling influence of moderate religious and political figures,” and not so much more traditional factors like “the enemy’s fighting strength and the control of territory.” The chart shows Iraq moving quickly away from “peace,” the ideal condition on the far left of the chart, to a point labeled “chaos” on the right side. Gordon notes, “As depicted in the command’s chart, the needle has been moving steadily toward the far right of the chart.” A CENTCOM official says, “Ever since the February attack on the Shiite mosque in Samarra, it has been closer to the chaos side than the peace side.” (Gordon 11/1/2006)
In a Sunday afternoon meeting, Admiral William Fallon tells Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that the Iraqi parliament needs to pass the controversial oil law by July. “Is it reasonable to expect it to be completed in July?” he asks. “We have to show some progress in July for the upcoming report.” US ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker is also present at the meeting, along with New York Times reporter Michael Gordon, who is accompanying Fallon on his Iraq trip. (Gordon 6/12/2007)
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