How The Iraq War Still Haunts New York Times

The Return of Ahmed Chalabi, Judith Miller's Source

If you weren't aware of the widespread problems with the New York Times reporting during the run-up to the Iraq War more than a decade ago, this lede from today's page-one Times story about political developments inside that besieged country might not seem unusual:

He took millions of dollars from the C.I.A., founded and was accused of defrauding the second-biggest bank in Jordan and sold the Bush administration a bill of goods on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

At first championed by the Bush administration's neoconservatives as a potential leader of Iraq, Ahmad Chalabi ended up persona non grata, effectively barred from the wartime American Embassy here. Now, in an improbable twist of fate, Mr. Chalabi is being talked about as a serious candidate for prime minister. He has also been back to the embassy.

If you are aware, the gaping holes in the above description are profound.

Here's what the Times left out of its Chalabi story today and here's what the newspaper continues to grapple with eleven years after President Bush ordered the costly invasion of Iraq: Chalabi was reportedly the main source of bogus information that former Times reporter Judith Miller used in her thoroughly discredited work about Iraq's supposedly brimming stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. It was Chalabi who wove Saddam Hussein fiction and it was Miller, then a widely respected Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, who gave it the Times stamp approval as the paper did its part to lead the nation to war. (Miller is now a Fox News contributor.)

That history is one that the paper continues to wrestle with, especially as the effects of the war return to international focus and the country struggles with internal violence that threatens its very stability.

Today's omission in the Chalabi story seems to fit a long-running pattern at the Times. Franklin Foer noticed the look-the-other-way approach back in 2004 [emphasis added]:

For the past year, the Times has done much to correct that coverage, publishing a series of stories calling Chalabi's credibility into question. But never once in the course of its coverage--or in any public comments from its editors--did the Times acknowledge Chalabi's central role in some of its biggest scoops, scoops that not only garnered attention but that the administration specifically cited to buttress its case for war. 

That year, facing intense external criticism, the Times did publish something of a mea culpa about its war coverage. In that case, the newspaper acknowledged its flawed reliance on Chalabi as an  “occasional source” for its stories as well as a " a favorite of hard-liners within the Bush administration and a paid broker of information from Iraqi exiles." But the Times never mentioned Miller by name as the chief propagator of the neoconservative campaign to convince the American public, as well as the international community, that Hussein processed a deadly arsenal that threatened world peace.

 “Some critics of our coverage during that time have focused blame on individual reporters. Our examination, however, indicates that the problem was more complicated,” the Times informed readers, suggesting editors shouldered as much blame as its reporters. Yet, Miller informed a colleague that Chalabi had “provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper.”

The way the pre-war game worked was that Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, an exile opposition group, served as a public relations clearing house for Iraqi defectors under Hussein. Chalabi then connected the defectors with journalists like Miller so they could tell their wild tales, based on what they claimed was first-hand knowledge, about Iraq's mounting WMD threat. Of all the mainstream journalists on the defector beat however, Miller was the most impressed and least skeptical of Chalabi's sources; sources who were spreading pro-war talking points on behalf of the pro-war American administration.

Here's how a former CIA analyst described the closed loop between Miller, Chalabi and the Bush White House, in a James Moore piece in Salon:

“Chalabi is providing the Bush people with the information they need to support their political objectives with Iraq, and he is supplying the same material to Judy Miller. Chalabi tips her on something and then she goes to the White House, which has already heard the same thing from Chalabi, and she gets it corroborated by some insider she always describes as a 'senior administration official.' She also got the Pentagon to confirm things for her, which made sense, since they were working so closely with Chalabi.”

Just last week the newspaper's public editor, Margaret Sullivan, acknowledged “The lead-up to the war in Iraq in 2003 was not The Times's finest hour.” As the return of Chalabi highlights, it's a legacy the paper continues to struggle with.