The editorial page of the New York Times recently led with a justifiably outraged condemnation of George W. Bush’s choice for United Nations ambassador–John Bolton, a famously outspoken anti-UN and antimultilateral ideologue. How ironic, then, that the Times‘s news editors had previously dispatched to the UN a reporter tight with the same Boltonite unilateralist clique–a reporter who has written about alleged wrongdoing at the UN in such an exaggerated way as to cast the organization and its leadership as almost beyond redemption.
When she began her work at the UN, Judith Miller was still under a cloud for her starring role in the Iraq Invasion Follies, in which she hyped Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction and Al Qaeda ties–claims that greatly buttressed the White House case for war but that ultimately proved unfounded [see Baker, “‘Scoops’ and Truth at the Times,” June 23, 2003]. The Times, which has since published a series of mea culpas, placed Miller in a quasi quarantine, according to insiders at the paper. Yet she re-emerged, amazingly, still writing about Iraq–now from an oblique angle: the UN’s alleged mismanagement of the Iraqi Oil for Food program.
In January 2004 the Iraqi daily Al-Mada listed 270 people suspected of profiting while enabling Saddam’s government to evade oil sales restrictions. By April an independent UN inquiry was under way, headed by former Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker. In May Miller was put on the story. Several Times sources say they believe Miller requested the assignment. Miller did not respond to interview requests, and Times executive editor Bill Keller declined to comment.
To be sure, the UN is an institution needing reform, and the Oil for Food program, troubled. Volcker found that the Oil for Food chief, Benon Sevan, acted in a way that “presented a grave and continuing conflict of interest” and was “ethically improper”–and can’t explain cash he received. The report did not, however, suggest that Sevan’s actions indicated widespread or higher-level graft. But an examination of Miller’s work shows that she used contrivances of tone and framing and selective citation of biased sources to create a headline-generating super-scandal–one that Volcker’s newest (March 29) report confirms to be thus far without serious foundation.
Since October 22 she has produced no fewer than twenty-one articles on the matter, nine of them centered on criticism by Capitol Hill figures with no love for the UN. She reported the scandal, GOP senators and House members investigated and she reported the investigations themselves as evidence that corruption was far more widespread than the facts indicated. And through many of her articles echoed the mantra of Republican senator and key source Norm Coleman’s Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Kofi Annan Must Go.”
In January, when Volcker released internal UN audits, Miller’s framing was subtly but significantly different from that of other journalists. The LA Times lead characterized the audits as showing “lax oversight,” while Miller attempted to tie the shortcomings directly to Annan, reporting that the audits “criticize an office, led by a former top aide to…Annan.” Only in Miller’s thirteenth paragraph do we read that “Mr. Volcker said that the internal audits ‘don’t prove anything,’ but do show how the United Nations was urged to tighten up its supervision of the program. ‘There’s no flaming red flags in the stuff,’ he said.”
When Volcker’s February interim report similarly failed to sweepingly condemn the institution, Miller’s tone turned disdainful. Casting the document as “eagerly and skeptically awaited by United Nations critics” and “months overdue,” she pointedly reported that “conservatives and other critics have accused [Volcker] of being insufficiently impartial and independent.” Miller left it to others–including the Financial Times‘s Claudio Gatti–to suggest that violations of the Oil for Food rules had been tacitly tolerated by US authorities. Miller’s articles also conspicuously dismiss the program’s role in keeping Iraq WMD-free, a point that would remind readers of her transgressions in the pre-war period.
Miller’s bias has been most apparent in her spotlighting of consulting work Kofi Annan’s son did for a Swiss-based company, Cotecna Inspection Services, which won a UN contract for monitoring Oil for Food deliveries into Iraq. Granted, nepotism makes for poor governance and great newspaper copy–and Kojo Annan’s behavior raises serious questions, but Miller’s Times articles have relentlessly sought to tie UN problems directly to the elder Annan, long a target of America’s unilateralist right.
In one piece, Miller practically dragged Ambassador John Danforth, well-known for his moderate views and comparative affection for the UN, to the witness table. “Pressed by reporters on Monday…Danforth…specifically declined to say he had confidence in Mr. Annan’s leadership,” wrote Miller on December 1 In comparison, the Washington Post‘s UN correspondent, Colum Lynch, also quoted Danforth but left out the “declines to support” formulation, even though Lynch was presumably one of the “reporters” who, Miller claimed, were pressing Danforth.
Similar slant was evident in advance coverage of the latest Volcker report, chiding Kofi Annan for inadequate vigilance over his son’s dealings with Cotecna. The Associated Press leads with “investigators…will not accuse [Annan] of corruption,” and the Wall Street Journal notes, “The panel has concluded that there is no evidence Mr. Annan rigged…procurement…exerted undue influence…or ever sought or received improper financial benefits.” [emphasis added.] But Miller’s piece (bylined with UN bureau chief Warren Hoge) says that the report “will come as a setback for the beleaguered secretary general,” and waits till paragraph seven to offer a more reluctant vindication of Annan: “the commission has not uncovered any evidence [of corruption].”
Another co-bylined Miller piece, in the March 29 Times, focuses on Volcker revelations that Annan’s former chief of staff had assistants toss Oil for Food files. Only lower in the article, under the subhead “Oil Report to Say Aide to Annan Culled Files,” do we read that the files were his personal copies of originals stored elsewhere, and that he insists it was a routine culling to clear out space. The Times story the next day on the report itself, written by Hoge alone, somewhat grudgingly acknowledged the panel’s conclusion that Annan “had not influenced the awarding of” the contract to his son’s former company. Miller, too, was in that issue–with another itty-bitty alleged malfeasance. “United Nations diplomats” (not American, by any chance?) released an internal UN report about a UN office with a thirteen-person staff and a budget of $2 million criticizing such practices as sexual innuendo and using staff for personal errands–hardly unique in corners of vast enterprises. The report, dated February 16, was conveniently provided to journalists as the new Volcker report appeared.
Given the consequences of Miller’s shilling for Bush Administration unilateralists during the run-up to the UN-opposed Iraq invasion, it seems remarkable that her editors would grant her a similar role in covering the complex Oil for Food scandal–especially given the Times‘s unique role in setting the global news agenda and establishing perceptions. As one diplomat from a Western country put it to me, “I think there is a more balanced and nuanced picture of the Oil for Food program to be presented.” In a brief conversation, Hoge told me that Miller had been brought into this story specifically to do investigative reporting. But her work bears little resemblance to classic journalistic gumshoeing.
So what’s her real contribution? I asked another Times colleague who has worked with Miller. He replied, “They feel that, through her work, people in positions of power speak on the pages of the New York Times. Whether it is true or not is another issue.”