Monday, April 7, 2003. MET Alpha seemed to be going nowhere.
As American troops pushed into Baghdad aboard M1 Abrams tanks, Bradley armored personnel carriers, and Humvees bristling with automatic weapons, Judith Miller of The New York Times was hunkered down with the U.S. Army’s Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha at a remote desert camp in Kuwait, hundreds of miles to the south. Part of a special task force attached to the 101st Airborne Division, MET Alpha was one of four units assigned to search the rubble of war for evidence of Saddam’s hotly discussed weapons of mass destruction. Miller, then fifty-five, a self-confident and seasoned Times veteran, was frustrated. She had managed to parlay what friends described as an obsession with chemical, biological, and nuclear weaponry into an impressive journalistic niche—and a plum wartime assignment with the U.S. Army. But things were not working out at all as she expected.
With a practiced eye for dysfunctional detail, Miller began to see that the Pentagon had botched planning for the postwar hunt for Saddam’s unconventional weapons facilities, a critical venture since Saddam’s alleged WMD arsenal was the Bush White House’s justification for the war. The Pentagon-led teams, she reported in mid-April, had been “hampered by a lack of resources and by geography” from the start. Two transportable U.S. laboratories for on-the-spot analysis of chemical or biological agents had been left at a rear area in Kuwait to keep them out of harm’s way. The fleet of helicopters, Humvees, and secure communications promised to the weapons hunters before the war failed to materialize.
With most army vehicles assigned to forward combat and supply units, the weapons hunters could only hope for an occasional helicopter to fly into suspected weapons sites in and around Baghdad, where the Pentagon believed it had pinpointed the most important of Iraq’s 578 suspected weapons labs and facilities. Miller lamented that many of the one hundred or so soldiers, scientists, intelligence specialists, and Pentagon weapons experts that made up the MET units “had done almost no weapons hunting until the fighting had largely concluded.”1
Possible weapons dumps or potential WMD lab facilities they inspected had been cleaned out by looters or insurgents long before the weapons hunters made it to the scene. The Al-Qadisiyah State Establishment, for example, a Baghdad munitions factory that would become headquarters for the army’s weapons-hunting group, a former artillery unit formally known as the 75th Exploitation Task Force, was looted and burned before its commander, Col. Richard L. McPhee, could move in.2
Miller, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter (for her part in a 2001 Times series on Osama bin Laden and Islamic terrorists), had parlayed a half-dozen major stories on Iraqi unconventional weapons since 9/11 into a special embedding arrangement with MET Alpha. Her book on biological warfare, Germs, written with two fellow Times staffers, William Broad and Stephen Engelberg, published just after the 9/11 attacks, burnished her reputation as an expert on what can happen if WMD fall into the hands of terrorists. During the previous eighteen months, she had reported highly influential stories on the front page of The Times revealing that the Iraqis had restarted programs to produce nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons of mass destruction, despite sanctions established over a decade before at the end of the 1991 Gulf War.
Miller’s reporting had given her a stake in the outcome of the hunt. She was not the only U.S. journalist inside Iraq keenly focused on the Bush administration’s quest for evidence of Saddam’s prohibited weapons. But she was the only reporter embedded with MET Alpha, a privilege she protected aggressively. This special access to the unit assured her exclusive coverage for The Times from the moment the team discovered the Iraqi dictator’s weapons of mass destruction, an eventuality that both Miller and the brass in Washington considered only a matter of time. Her arrangement with MET Alpha was the result of a painstakingly negotiated arrangement with the Defense Department, reportedly approved by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld himself.3
The Times correspondent made her presence felt within the unit. She took to wearing military fatigues, a detail noted by the troops that had the effect to some of camouflaging her role as a reporter. When Washington Post correspondent Barton Gellman joined the unit for a day, Miller reportedly ordered MET Alpha soldiers not to cooperate with him. Yet her frustration with MET Alpha’s lack of progress was all too obvious. In mid-April, the unit’s commander ordered his troops to suspend a search mission and pull back to the nearby southern Iraqi town of Tallil. Miller hit the ceiling.
“I see no reason for me to waste time (or MET Alpha, for that matter) in Tallil,” she wrote her army handlers from Baghdad. “Request permission to stay on here with colleagues at the Palestine Hotel til MET Alpha returns or order to return is rescinded. I intend to write about this decision in the NY Times to send a successful team back home just as progress on WMD is being made.” Several officers interpreted Miller’s note as a threat. They were not surprised. “Judith was always issuing threats of either going to The New York Times or to the secretary of defense,” said one. “There was nothing veiled about the threat.”4
To the astonishment of MET Alpha members, the pullback order was abruptly withdrawn. Miller had taken her complaint directly to Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the highly respected commander of the 101st Airborne Division who would take a lead role in the training of Iraqi troops later in the occupation. The incident was one of several over the next several months that gave Miller a reputation for throwing her weight around to get what she wanted. “It’s impossible to exaggerate the impact she had on the mission of this unit, and not for the better,” said one MET Alpha senior officer. Another, skeptical of Miller’s vaunted pull with the brass back in Washington, confirmed a deep uneasiness about her in the unit. “The sense I got was that she wasn’t their problem anymore now that she was in Iraq,” said Eugene Pomeroy, then public affairs officer for MET Alpha. “Maybe they were hoping she’d step on a mine. I know I was.”5
In one sense, Miller’s highhanded outburst at Tallil was understandable. It came only days after MET Alpha finally seemed to have achieved its first major breakthrough. Miller was fed up with the military’s bureaucratic cautiousness and delays, and ready to get on with the hunt.
The break came a few days before the Tallil episode, when a small group from MET Alpha was ordered to inspect barrels filled with chemicals buried near the village of Al Muhawish, just south of Baghdad. Members of the unit had heard from an officer with the 101st Airborne that a note in Arabic had come into his possession weeks before from an Iraqi who passed it to a U.S. ambulance driver during the fighting. Using a pseudonym, the Iraqi message-writer asked for a meeting with a “qualified” U.S. scientist and said he had seen Iraqi officials destroy hidden stores of chemical weapons and equipment before the war. He also wrote that Iraqi researchers had tested the chemical agents on animals. The note wound up at brigade headquarters, where it languished in the files. When MET Alpha’s commander, Chief Warrant Officer Richard L. Gonzales, heard the story, he ran it down.6
Serendipitously, the note contained the Iraqi informant’s address—in a town near Al Muhawish. A small MET Alpha force, with Miller in tow, found the Iraqi man at home. Identifying himself as a scientist, he told the soldiers that Iraqi officials had set fire to a chemical weapons research and development facility in the days before the war started. Members of the MET Alpha team who had debriefed the “scientist” then relayed his story to Miller, who was not allowed to interview the Iraqi herself or to pinpoint the location of the weapons facility. They told her, she wrote, that the “Iraqis buried chemical precursors and other sensitive material to conceal and preserve them for future use.” The soldiers also said they had found buried material that “proved to be precursors for a toxic agent that is banned by chemical weapons treaties.”
By the terms of her embedding agreement, Miller was not allowed to identify the prohibited chemicals that were uncovered. She was only permitted to observe the scientist from a distance—and wrote her story knowing full well it would be scrubbed by army censors of any detail that even suggested his identity or whereabouts. “Clad in nondescript clothes and a baseball cap,” she reported in a classic passage of bland observation and artful suggestiveness, “he pointed to several spots in the sand where he said chemical precursors and other weapons material were buried.”
Miller wrote that military officials believed the scientist’s account was “the most important discovery to date in the hunt for illegal weapons” and “provided an explanation for why United States forces had not yet turned up banned weapons in Iraq.” Petraeus chimed in that MET Alpha’s potential breakthrough was “enormous.” He went on: “What they’ve discovered could prove to be of incalculable value. Though much work must still be done to validate the information MET Alpha has uncovered, if it proves out it will clearly be one of the major discoveries of this operation, and it may be a major discovery.”7
The Times ran Miller’s story on the front page, despite the painful limitations imposed on her reporting. Its revelations galvanized Washington. “I think they found something more than a ‘smoking gun,’” Miller told Ray Suarez of PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer that night by satellite feed. “What they found is a silver bullet in the form of a person . . . who really worked on the programs, who knows them firsthand, and who has led MET Team Alpha people to some pretty startling conclusions . . . ,” Miller said. “Those stockpiles that we’ve heard about, well, those have either been destroyed by Saddam Hussein, according to the scientists, or they have been shipped to Syria for safekeeping.”8
The MET Alpha people, she told Suarez, “believe that Saddam Hussein wanted to destroy the evidence of his unconventional weapons programs, and that’s what he has done—not only since 1995, but also in the weeks and months that led up to the war itself.” Miller’s on-air commentary went considerably beyond her reporting. Two days later President Bush, apparently swayed by the view that Saddam had destroyed or spirited away his weapons just before the war, admitted publicly for the first time that U.S. forces in Iraq might not find stockpiles of WMD. Said Colonel McPhee, the commander of the weapons-hunting task force: “It was a turning point.”9
By the end of April, the MET teams had inspected more than half of the 150 Iraqi weapons sites considered the most likely hiding places for Saddam’s hidden weapons. But they found no stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons or agents, or even much “dual use” equipment for civilian or military applications. Largely on the strength of their experience debriefing the anonymous Iraqi scientist in the baseball hat—whose credibility later came into question when he was identified as a former Iraqi intelligence official—the emphasis of MET commanders shifted from examining suspected weapons sites, which was proving consistently unproductive, to collecting documents and trying to locate key Iraqis who had knowledge about specific weapons programs.
Part of the problem was that the MET outfits’ intelligence on the weapons sites was often hopeless. “The teams would be given a packet, with pictures and a tentative grid,” an officer told Miller, using oblique language to avoid revealing classified information. “They would be told: ‘Go to this place. You will find a McDonald’s there. Look in the fridge. You will find French fries, cheeseburger, and Cokes.’ And they would go there, and not only was there no fridge and no McDonald’s, there was never even a thought of ever putting a McDonald’s there. Day after day it was like that.”10
The unit’s new focus on human intelligence, Miller knew, was closer to the original spirit of the Defense Department’s planning for the postwar WMD search in Iraq. “Former Iraqi scientists, military officers and contractors have provided American intelligence agencies with a portrait of Saddam Hussein’s secret programs to develop and conceal chemical, biological and nuclear weapons that is starkly at odds with the findings so far of the United Nations weapons inspectors,” she had written in January 2003, two months before the war began.
Two days before reporting the tactical shift by the weapons hunters, Miller accompanied a MET Alpha team on April 20 to meet with Ahmed Chalabi, the anti-Saddam Iraqi exile financier and dissident leader of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a longtime favorite of Pentagon conservatives, at his headquarters in Baghdad “to explore the possibility of exchanging information.” Miller knew Chalabi well. She had exchanged information with him about Saddam’s Iraq for years. She was also well aware that senior Bush administration officials at the White House and the Pentagon strongly favored fresh intelligence from human sources, especially the Iraqi defectors Chalabi managed to turn up who provided new information about Saddam’s alledgedly resurgent weapons programs.
Chalabi had been a fixture in U.S-Iraqi relations since soon after the Gulf War ended in 1991. Reporters who used Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress to gain access to Iraqi defectors knew about his ties to the conservative wing of the U.S. defense establishment and his on-again, off-again history with the CIA. After a decade of expensive and duplicitous experience, agency operatives and journalists alike deeply distrusted the brilliant but erratic Iraqi opposition leader. “I thought he was unreliable and corrupt,” said former veteran Times correspondent Chris Hedges. “But just because someone is a sleazebag doesn’t mean he might not know something or that everything he says is wrong.”11
Since 1992 Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress had received in excess of $100 million from the U.S. government, at first funneled through the CIA, then through the State Department, and after the summer of 2002, through the Pentagon. Of that sum, an estimated $33 million came from the Bush administration between 2001 and May 2004, when Chalabi’s funding from Washington was finally cut off after U.S. forces raided his offices in Baghdad. Exactly what those princely sums bought has caused bouts of head-scratching by successive administrations on the banks of the Potomac.
By September 11, 2001, Chalabi had so ingratiated himself with the Bush administration’s new defense establishment—including Vice President Cheney, Richard Perle, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, among others—that he was invited to address a meeting of Perle’s Defense Policy Board, a civilian advisory panel set up by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Chalabi counseled the Americans to forget about Afghanistan and go straight for Iraq. The Bush administration wisely chose not to heed his advice, but the specter of regime change in Iraq was never far in the background—and it had less to do with terrorism than Chalabi’s personal ambitions. There had been a half-dozen Judith Miller stories in The Times since 9/11 with Chalabi’s fingerprints all over them.
Chalabi, who hoped to return to Baghdad as a top official in the new U.S.-installed government, all but admitted to Jane Mayer of The New Yorker magazine in a 2004 interview that his anti-Saddam WMD campaign was the brainchild of the Bush administration. “Look, our focus was on Saddam’s crimes, moral crimes, genocide,” he told Mayer. “We were not focused on WMD. The U.S. asked us. We didn’t bring these people up; they asked us! They requested help from us.”12 Chalabi did not name the official or officials who made the request, or exactly when it was made. Nor did he reveal whether the INC was asked to mount a campaign on Saddam’s weapons aimed at the press and the intelligence community. But that is what Chalabi set about doing, long before he agreed to meet with Miller and MET Alpha officers in war-ravaged Baghdad.
The April 20 meeting between Chalabi and MET Alpha team members, with Miller present, was a red flag for the U.S. press in Iraq—including other staffers at The Times. The officers that Miller accompanied to Chalabi’s headquarters in a former Baghdad sports club insisted that Miller initiated the visit. The information-gathering mission was complicated by the fact that Chalabi’s organization was holding a son-in-law of Saddam’s in protective custody and needed to find a safe way to hand him over to the Americans. Chalabi had no contacts with the weapons-hunting outfit until MET Alpha visited his Baghdad compound. The trip, said one officer bluntly, was undertaken “at Judy’s direction.” Another declared, “This woman had a plan. She was leading them . . . She ended up almost hijacking the mission.”13
A top aide to Chalabi who was present at the meeting did not attempt to hide Miller’s special relationship with Chalabi. The aide, Zaab Sethna, later said he didn’t know whether Miller was there “because she’s old friends with Dr. Chalabi or because she wanted to introduce that team she was working with to the INC.” Whether the whereabouts of Saddam’s WMD stockpiles was discussed at the meeting is unknown. But it was in a conversation with Miller, Sethna said, that Chalabi and his aides proposed the idea of turning over the son-in-law, Jamal Sultan al-Tikriti, whose face was on one of the cards in the Pentagon’s famous “deck” identifying the fifty-five most wanted Iraqis from Saddam’s regime, directly to MET Alpha. “We told Judy we thought it was a good story,” Sethna said. “We needed some way to get the guy to the Americans.”14
Miller wrote a brief story in The Times on April twenty-first reporting Sultan’s handover without mentioning Chalabi’s role, and the next day briefly mentioned the visit to Chalabi’s headquarters without mentioning the transfer in her story about the weapons unit’s new emphasis on human intelligence. An army spokesman supported MET Alpha’s—and Miller’s—role in the Chalabi meeting. “Commanders make decisions based on developing situations,” said Col. Joe Curtin, noting that leads developed by reporters are fair game for military officers making decisions in the field. Such leads are an “open source, and we’re going to use it.” Curtin added, pointedly, that prisoner handoffs are usually “left to military intelligence people,” not weapons-hunting units.15
Miller managed to postpone the inevitable fallout from the Chalabi visit by setting off another press firestorm on May 1, when she wrote a story without clearing it first with her superiors that detailed Chalabi’s concerns about former Baathist party members participating in the U.S.-backed postwar Coalition Provisional Authority. Miller already had a reputation for disregarding editors in the Times chain of command when it suited her purposes. This time she neglected to inform then Times Baghdad bureau chief John Burns about the Chalabi piece—and Burns was furious. He fired off an angry e-mail to Miller that quickly found its way into a story by the Washington Post’s media critic, Howard Kurtz.
“I am deeply chagrined at your reporting and filing on Chalabi after I had told you on Monday night that we were planning a major piece on him—and without so much as telling me what you were doing,” wrote Burns. “We have a bureau here; I am in charge of that bureau until I leave; I make assignments after considerable thought and discussion, and it was plain to all of us to whom the Chalabi story belonged. If you do this, what is to stop you doing it on any other story of your choosing? And what of the distress it causes the correspondent who is usurped? It is not professional, and not collegial.”16
Miller’s impatience and proprietary stake in the WMD story was evident in her e-mailed response. “I’ve been covering Chalabi for about 10 years,” she shot back, “and have done most of the stories about him for our paper, including the long takeout we recently did on him. He has provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper.” Miller weakly apologized for creating any confusion. But she justified her actions by telling Burns that since MET Alpha was “using Chalabi’s intelligence” and “since I’m there every day talking to him” she had a right to be consulted on stories about Chalabi.
The Times protested the publication of the internal e-mails and defended Miller’s actions. “Of course we talk to Chalabi,” Andrew Rosenthal, the Times’ foreign editor, told The Post. “If you were in Iraq and weren’t talking to Chalabi, I’d wonder if you were doing your job.” Nonetheless, Kurtz had a question about Judith Miller and the Times’ past WMD coverage that hung uncomfortably in the air. “Could Chalabi have been using The Times to build a drumbeat that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction?” he asked.17
Finally, two months after the fact, Kurtz took aim at Miller and The Times by raising questions about her role in the Chalabi visit. After talking to a half-dozen officers, he reported in the June 25 Washington Post that “Miller acted as a middleman between the Army unit with which she was embedded and Iraqi National Congress Leader Ahmed Chalabi, on one occasion accompanying Army officers to Chalabi’s headquarters . . .” One MET Alpha officer called the unit the “Judith Miller team.” Her note protesting the unit’s orders to withdraw at Tallil was mentioned high in the story.
Kurtz conceded only that “viewed from one perspective,” Miller’s actions during the visit to Chalabi were consistent with “acting as an aggressive journalist.” Miller’s refusal to comment for the story did not strengthen her case. Kurtz quoted the Times’ Rosenthal again, who dismissed the idea Miller had somehow exerted undue influence over the outfit as “a baseless accusation. She doesn’t direct MET Alpha, she’s a civilian.” Rosenthal added that Times editors thought “she did really good work there. We think she broke some important stories.”18
After the excitement generated by the revelations of the Iraqi “scientist” in the baseball cap, who later turned out to be a former Iraqi intelligence officer, Miller’s frustration and her proclivity for injecting herself into the story mounted as MET Alpha’s mission steadily deteriorated. There was a flurry of activity in mid-May over two trailers the weapons hunters had found that they thought might be mobile labs for producing biological weapons material, a find that would have borne out earlier reports from a defector—code-named Curveball—that Saddam’s scientists possessed movable “germ” labs.
Miller cowrote a story with science writer William Broad in early June that strongly suggested that speculation by U.S. intelligence agencies about the purpose of the supposed Iraqi mobile units might amount to “a rush to judgment.” A U.S. official went so far as to suggest that the desire of the weapons hunters to find weapons might have resulted in seeing WMD where none existed. “Everyone has wanted to find the ‘smoking gun’ so much that they may have wanted to have reached this conclusion. I am very upset with the process,” said one expert.19 By the end of June, the Times’ Washington-based intelligence specialist, Douglas Jehl, reported that the State Department’s intelligence arm, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), openly disputed the CIA’s conclusions about the mobile bioweapons labs. Dissenting scientists believed they were used for making hydrogen gas for weather balloons or for manufacturing pesticides.20
By then the hunt by the 75th Exploitation Task Force was practically out of business. Most of the MET units had disbanded or been reassigned. MET Alpha lost its chemical and biological experts. It was tasked with searching for evidence of covert Iraqi operations abroad and looking for stolen Jewish antiquities. Its last mission was to probe suspicious equipment stored in Basra, the strategic southern city on the Shatt-al-Arab waterway between Iraq and Iran, that weapons experts believed might be part of a nuclear weapons program. Instead the unit found crates of Russian-marked oil production equipment and industrial-size vegetable steamers.
The term “smoking gun,” noted Barton Gellman in a May 11 story in The Washington Post, came to be used derisively by weapons hunters. When Colonel McPhee was asked about the whereabouts of a coalition mobile bio lab that had departed the airbase at Tallil, he joked: “I haven’t got a clue where the WMD is, but we can find this lab . . .” The teams inspected more than 75 percent of the targeted potential weapons sites in Iraq. They interviewed thirteen scientists, out of about two hundred people on the Pentagon’s “black list” of high-value targets and thousands of mid-level Iraqis on the so-called gray list. They had come up with virtually nothing.21
The weapons hunters, Miller wrote in a long, wrap-up story on the front page of the Sunday Times in mid-July, had been beset from the beginning by “chaos, disorganization, interagency feuds, disputes within and among various military units, and shortages of everything.” They found no weapons or evidence of active WMD production. But Miller herself wasn’t about to throw in the towel. “To this day, whether Saddam Hussein possessed such weapons when the war began remains unknown. It is the biggest mystery of the war . . .” she wrote. In the end, the MET teams had inspected more than 350 sites “without getting a single soldier killed,” McPhee told her proudly. But the real puzzle to Miller seemed to be the Pentagon’s lack of urgency about the weapons-hunting mission. In a July story about the confusion surrounding the weapons hunt, she quoted Fred C. Iklé, a Reagan defense official, who confirmed that he didn’t “sense that this was much of a priority.”22
How could that be? In fact, there may have been good reason for the brass’s flagging interest in the work of the MET teams. A month earlier, Gellman had reported in The Post that Task Force 20, the elite army special operations team that would make headlines by capturing Saddam the following December, had entered Iraq before the invasion in a covert effort to locate, “seize, destroy, render safe, capture, or recover” Saddam’s hidden chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons—and came up empty. “Its role in the search for illicit arms,” wrote Gellman, citing military and intelligence sources, “turned out to be far more important than that of the search teams operating out in the open.”23
Task Force 20, unlike the MET teams, was equipped with advanced DNA detection technology, collapsible biological and chemical labs that could fit on the back of a Humvee, and twenty-four-hour access to MH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters, MH-47 Special Operations Aircraft, and AH/MH-6 Little Bird gunships. They specialized in high-risk prisoner rescues. They could move out at an hour’s notice, capture or kill high-ranking Iraqis, and engage in firefights or sabotage when necessary. Armed with lists of weapons sites, they were able to reach target locations and inspect them before they were stripped by looters. But, like the MET teams, they were unable to turn up any evidence Saddam had squirreled away WMD. Military and intelligence sources told Gellman they were unable to find any unconventional munitions, long-range missiles or missile parts, stores of chemical or biological agents, or enrichment technology for nuclear weapons.24
The failure of both Task Force 20 and the 75th Exploitation Task Force teams to unearth any weapons of mass destruction also put tremendous pressure on President Bush and the White House, with the presidential election less than a year off. Miller knew by this time that Bush administration officials had worked out a plan, under way since early May, to replace the army teams with a larger, more agile task force organized and assembled by the CIA. The Iraq Survey Group, under the leadership of U.S. arms inspector David Kay, would put some 1,500 weapons experts and intelligence specialists in the field and was expected to become operational by August. Its task: to come up with definitive conclusions about what happened to Saddam’s WMD arsenal, or whether it even existed.
Copyright © 2008 by Russ Hoyle. All rights reserved.