NYT Apology for WMD

Jack Shafer reports,

Sources inside and close to the New York Times say that the newspaper is preparing an “Editors’ Note” that will reassess its pre-Iraq War coverage, particularly its coverage of weapons of mass destruction. The note is said to address the reporting failures of Times staffers, including Judith Miller, and could be published as early as tomorrow (Wednesday, May 26).


Miller’s work on WMD in the Times deserves special scrutiny because so many of her sensational stories never panned out—from a December 2001 piece about now-discredited Iraqi defector Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, who claimed inside knowledge about a score of Iraq WMD programs and storage facilities, to a December 2002 scoop about a possible Russia-Iraq smallpox collaboration, to a January 2003 eve-of-war piece reiterating the defectors’ stories of Iraqi WMD. Miller’s credulous reporting turned absolutely hyperbolic when she joined the search for WMD on the ground in Iraq, embedding with the U.S. military’s Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha. In an April 21, 2003, piece, Miller claimed that an Iraqi scientist had led the military to a cache of precursor compounds for a banned “toxic agent.” She told The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer the next day that the scientist was more than a “smoking gun” in the WMD search, he was the “silver bullet.” But by July 2003, still no WMD had been found in Iraq. Instead of blaming the defectors and inside sources who had led her astray, Miller put the onus on the poor logistics of the weapons search! [Hyperlinks omitted]

It’s clear that Miller was a bit sloppy in her sourcing, often relying on only one source and sources with a rather obvious agenda. Then again, isn’t almost all reporting on matters closed to the public done in that manner? Almost all political scoops are sourced to one or two (usually nameless) insiders who have an axe to grind. One would think foreign reporting–especially when the country involved is a totalitarian regime and those involving highly technical matters far beyond the expertise of the reporter–is almost always going to be suspect. Reporters report what they know–which, often, isn’t much–at any given time and have to produce stories on deadline. Journalism is the first rough draft of history. There are usually many revisions before the final version hits the books.

Hat tip to Kevin Drum, whose commenters have a somewhat different take on the situation.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. bryan says:

    As far back as March, Sulzberger mentioned Miller’s reporting in a talk to college journalists. His tone was decidedly negative, which led me to believe at the time that she was in for some rough sailing. Sulzberger seemed decidely embarrassed by the fact that the NYT wasn’t “tough enough” in reporting leading up to the war.

    But I have to question the blame on the single reporter. Where were her editors? Who was asking her about her sources, her secondary sources, etc.?

    After all, so far as we know, she wasn’t just making stuff up like Jayson Blair Jack Kelly.

  2. McGehee says:

    It sure sounds like the NYT thinks its reporting was responsible for everyone thinking there were massive stockpiles of WMD in Iraq just waiting to be used on Americans.

    So when will we hear from the moonbats that “The Times Lied, Thousands Died”?

  3. Bithead says:

    And why would this now be released, I wonder?

    Can it be that the Times, Sulzberger in particular, is putting retractions on anything that Made the Administration look like it might have a clue? Knowing the history the Times in general, and of Sulzberger particularly, I wouldn’t put it past them that this ‘apology’ is politically motivated.

  4. Hal says:

    Uh, maybe it’s being reported now because

    According to a U.S. intelligence official, the CIA has hard evidence that Chalabi and his intelligence chief, Aras Karim Habib, passed U.S. secrets to Tehran, and that Habib has been a paid Iranian agent involved in passing bogus reports of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to U.S. hawks and giving good U.S. intelligence to Tehran.

    “It’s pretty clear that Iranians had us for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” said an intelligence source in Washington. “Iranian intelligence has been manipulating the United States for several years through Chalabi.”