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'Scoops' and Truth at the Times | The Nation

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'Scoops' and Truth at the Times

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Probably the most instructive exercise in assessing Miller's reporting is to compare her with the Post's Barton Gellman. You would think the two were in different countries, if not on different planets. After Miller's "baseball cap" piece appeared, Gellman wrote an article that politely dismissed her scoop: "Without further details of the find, experts said, its significance cannot be assessed." Here are typical Miller headlines from May:

Research assistance by Petra Bartosiewicz.

Read James Carey's June 16 Nation editorial for more on problems at the New York Times.

About the Author

Russ Baker
Russ Baker is the founder of the Real News Project. He may be reached at contact@realnews.org.

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May 21: "U.S. Analysts Link Iraq Labs to Germ Arms"

May 12: "Radioactive Material Found at a Test Site Near Baghdad"

May 11: "Trailer Is a Mobile Lab Capable of Turning Out Bioweapons, a Team Says"

May 9: "G.I.'s Search, Not Alone, In the Cellar of Secrets"

May 8: "U.S. Aides Say Iraqi Truck Could Be a Germ-War Lab"

Now Gellman:

May 18: "Odyssey of Frustration; In Search for Weapons, Army Team Finds Vacuum Cleaners"

May 11: "Frustrated, U.S. Arms Team to Leave Iraq; Task Force Unable to Find Any Weapons"

May 10: "Seven Nuclear Sites Looted; Iraqi Scientific Files, Some Containers Missing"

May 4: "Iraqi Nuclear Site Is Found Looted; U.S. Team Unable to Determine Whether Deadly Materials Are Missing"

To be sure, Gellman's record isn't without blemishes, but he seems to have realized early on that tying his fortunes to the military's not-always-reliable sources wasn't wise. The thrust of Gellman's reporting in recent months, and his central theme, has been that no one has confirmed that Iraq actually manufactured or retained biological or chemical weapons after the last ones accounted for by UN inspectors in 1998. Miller, by contrast, either downplays this point or doesn't highlight it sufficiently.

Miller's reporting on WMD follows a pattern established with her articles on the anthrax attacks of October 2001 [see Michael Massing, "Where Germs Rule," December 17, 2001]. The Bush Administration quickly labeled the attacks "terrorism," without being more explicit, but Miller weighed in with a co-bylined front-pager, labeled "news analysis," that implied Al Qaeda might be responsible. She wrote that according to one scientist, the discovery of expertly processed anthrax "casts serious doubt" on the theory that the attacks were the work of a lone amateur. "'I do think in one form or another, a state was involved,' one former American scientist said.... Nor is it clear whether Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden's network, was involved in any way. American intelligence officials say Mr. bin Laden has tried to acquire nuclear, chemical and biological weapons." [Emphasis added.]

After the Post reported that it seemed to be the work of a "lone amateur" after all, Miller simply dropped the matter. On the same day that the Post was excising the foreign connection, Miller was back with more Osama in a co-bylined story headlined "Al Qaeda Sites Point to Tests of Chemicals," with the subhead "U.S. Suspects Bin Laden of Producing Mass Poison; U.S. Intelligence Pointed Out Two Afghan Locations Where Chemical Warfare May Be in the Making." The article itself contained numerous disclaimers about the suspected connection: "Collecting intelligence about facilities of this sort is an inexact science at best; intelligence officials and policy makers have learned from past mistakes to be wary when using such information."

In September 2002, a year after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, Miller had yet another Osama scoop provided by the authorities. Headlined "Lab Suggests Qaeda Planned to Build Arms, Officials Say," the article begins: "Pentagon officials disclosed new details today about equipment found in a laboratory near Kandahar, Afghanistan, that they contend Al Qaeda intended to use to make biological and chemical weapons."

Is this a real story? The headline and lead are powerful. But here's the second paragraph: "The officials said the equipment--a centrifuge for separating liquids and an oven in which slurried agents could be dried--supported the assessment that Al Qaeda might have acquired what it needed to make 'a very limited production of biological and chemical agents,' one official said."

Each time Miller produces an article that could induce panic, she almost always mentions, some paragraphs down, that Al Qaeda's capability to deploy or develop these types of weapons has been judged by the Bush Administration to be crude at best. But the effect remains the same. Miller gets a story with a whopper of a headline, the story gets picked up and it connects with the American zeitgeist in support of extreme measures by the Administration domestically (Patriot Act) and internationally (invade Iraq), with few reading down to where Miller deflates the balloon and thereby preserves her credibility, in the same way that politicians leak and spin while preserving their deniability.

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