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[infowar.de] WPO 25.06.03 Embedded Reporter's Role In Army Unit's Actions Questioned By Military
June 25, 2003
Embedded Reporter's Role In Army Unit's Actions Questioned By Military
By Howard Kurtz, Washington Post Staff Writer
New York Times reporter Judith Miller played a highly unusual role in an
Army unit assigned to search for dangerous Iraqi weapons, according to
U.S. military officials, prompting criticism that the unit was turned
into what one official called a "rogue operation."
More than a half-dozen military officers said 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, where they took custody of
Saddam Hussein's son-in-law. She also sat in on the initial debriefing
of the son-in-law, these sources say.
Since interrogating Iraqis was not the mission of the unit, these
officials said, it became a "Judith Miller team," in the words of one
officer close to the situation.
In April, Miller wrote a letter objecting to an Army commander's order
to withdraw the unit, Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, from the field.
She said this would be a "waste" of time and suggested that she would
write about it unfavorably in the Times. After Miller took up the matter
with a two-star general, the pullback order was dropped.
Times Assistant Managing Editor Andrew Rosenthal dismissed the notion
that she exercised influence over the unit as "an idiotic proposition."
"She didn't bring MET Alpha anywhere. . . . It's a baseless accusation,"
he said. "She doesn't direct MET Alpha, she's a civilian. Judith Miller
is a reporter. She's not a member of the U.S. armed forces. She was
covering a unit, like hundreds of other reporters for the New York
Times, Washington Post and others. She went where they went to the
degree that they would allow."
Viewed from one perspective, Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning
correspondent, nationally recognized expert on weapons of mass
destruction and co-author of a best- selling book on bioterrorism, was
acting as an aggressive journalist. She ferreted out sources, used her
long-standing relationship with Chalabi to pursue potential stories and,
in the process, helped the United States take custody of two important
Iraqis. Some military officers say she cared passionately about her
reporting without abandoning her objectivity, and some of her critics
may be overly concerned with regulations and perhaps jealous of the
attention Miller's unit received..
"We think she did really good work there," Rosenthal said. "We think she
broke some important stories."
Miller declined to be interviewed for this article, saying it was unfair
of The Washington Post to have published an internal e-mail of hers last
month. She said only that "my past and future articles speak for
In a May 1 e-mail to Times colleague John Burns, The Post reported,
Miller said: "I've been covering Chalabi for about 10 years, and have
done most of the stories about him for our paper. . . . He has provided
most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper."
Miller's role with MET Alpha was controversial within the Defense
Department and among some staff members at the Times, where one reporter
was assigned to check up on whether other embedded journalists followed
The MET Alpha team was charged with examining potential Iraqi weapon
sites in the war's aftermath. Military officers critical of the unit's
conduct say its members were not trained in the art of human
intelligence -- that is, eliciting information from prisoners and
potential defectors. Specialists in such interrogations say the initial
hours of questioning are crucial, and several Army and Pentagon
officials were upset that MET Alpha officers were debriefing Hussein
son-in-law Jamal Sultan Tikriti.
"This was totally out of their lane, getting involved with human
intelligence," said one military officer who, like several others
interviewed, declined to be named because he is not an authorized
spokesman. But, the officer said of Miller, "this woman came in with a
plan. She was leading them. . . . She ended up almost hijacking the
Said a senior staff officer of the 75th Exploitation Task Force, of
which MET Alpha is a part: "It's impossible to exaggerate the impact she
had on the mission of this unit, and not for the better." Three weapons
specialists were reassigned as the unit changed its approach, according
to officers with the task force.
Several military officers say Miller led MET Alpha members to Chalabi's
compound in a former sporting club, where they wound up taking custody
of Sultan, who was on the Pentagon's "deck of cards" of the 55 most
wanted Iraqis. The April trip to Chalabi's headquarters took place "at
Judy's direction," one officer said.
Chalabi said in a brief interview that he had not arranged the handoff
with Miller in advance and that her presence that day was "a total
coincidence. . . . She happened to be there."
A top aide to Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress, Zaab Sethna, said
he didn't know whether Miller arrived that day "because she's old
friends with Dr. Chalabi or because she wanted to introduce that team
she was working with to the INC." But he said the idea of transferring
Sultan to the MET Alpha squad originated in a conversation with Miller.
"We told Judy because we thought it was a good story," Sethna said. "We
needed some way to get the guy to the Americans." He said his
organization had no previous connection to MET Alpha: "We didn't even
know of their existence until they showed up with Judy."
Asked why Chalabi didn't simply call his official Pentagon liaison to
turn over an important Iraqi, Sethna said they wanted to make sure that
Sultan was transported quickly and safely and that he was "very
surprised" when MET Alpha agreed to take the prisoner.
In reporting the handover of Sultan and an associate, Khalid Abdullah,
Miller wrote that the two men "were questioned by an American
intelligence official and then handed over to Chief Warrant Officer
Richard L. Gonzales, the leader of a Pentagon Mobile Exploitation Team
that has been hunting for unconventional weapons in Iraq." She wrote
that Gonzales "happened to be meeting tonight with Mr. Chalabi to
discuss nonproliferation issues."
In another case, Miller wrote of her exclusive interview with Nassir
Hindawi, a former top official in Iraq's biological warfare program. The
interview took place while Hindawi was "in the protective custody of
Iraqi opposition leader Ahmad Chalabi," Miller wrote.
On April 21, when the MET Alpha team was ordered to withdraw to the
southern Iraqi town of Talil, Miller objected in a handwritten note to
two public affairs officers. It said:
"I see no reason for me to waste time (or MET Alpha, for that matter) in
Talil. . . . 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."
One military officer, who says that Miller sometimes "intimidated" Army
soldiers by invoking Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or Undersecretary
Douglas Feith, was sharply critical of the note. "Essentially, she
threatened them," the officer said, describing the threat as that "she
would publish a negative story."
An Army officer, who regarded Miller's presence as "detrimental," said:
"Judith was always issuing threats of either going to the New York Times
or to the secretary of defense. There was nothing veiled about that
threat," this person said, and MET Alpha "was allowed to bend the
Times editor Rosenthal strongly disagreed, saying Miller's note sounded
routine and that characterizing it as a threat is "a total distortion of
Miller later challenged the pullback order with Maj. Gen. David
Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne. While Petraeus did not have
direct authority over Col. Richard McPhee, the commander of the 75th
task force, McPhee rescinded his withdrawal order after Petraeus advised
him to do so. McPhee declined two requests for comment.
"Our desire was to pull these guys back in," said an officer who served
under McPhee, adding that it was "quite a surprise" that the order was
As for MET Alpha's seeming independence, this officer said: "The way
McPhee phrased it for [staff] consumption was, 'I know they have gone
independent, I know they have gone rogue, but by God at least they're
doing something.' But if they're doing something, where's the meat? It
didn't pan out."
That wasn't for lack of trying. In early May, Miller reported on MET
Alpha's search for an ancient Jewish text that wound up unearthing Iraqi
intelligence documents and maps related to Israel. In this case, too,
Sethna said, the information was passed from Chalabi's group to Miller.
"We thought this was a great story for the New York Times," Sethna said.
"She discussed it with her team. . . . That came from us."
Asked if MET Alpha had gone astray, Col. Joe Curtin, an Army spokesman,
said that "commanders make decisions based on developing situations" and
that the unit had the approval of its headquarters. He said that any
lead provided by a reporter is deemed "open source, and we're going to
But Curtin said of one MET Alpha foray: "Interrogating prisoners is
usually left to military intelligence people who are trained in that art
and do it right, under the laws of land warfare."
Miller formed a friendship with MET Alpha's leader, Chief Warrant
Officer Gonzales, and several officers said they were surprised when she
participated in a Baghdad ceremony in which Gonzales was promoted. She
pinned the rank to his uniform, an eyewitness said, and Gonzales thanked
Miller for her contributions. Gonzales did not respond to a request for
Like other embedded reporters, Miller agreed to allow military officials
to review her stories as a condition of traveling with the unit, and in
at least one case wrote that information had been deleted on security
Miller's coverage of MET Alpha has drawn some critical press scrutiny
for optimistic-sounding stories about the weapons hunt, generating
headlines including "U.S. Analysts Link Iraq Labs to Germ Arms," "U.S.
Experts Find Radioactive Material in Iraq" and "U.S.-Led Forces Occupy
Baghdad Complex Filled With Chemical Agents." These potential
discoveries did not bear fruit.
After returning from Iraq, Rosenthal noted, Miller and a colleague filed
a report skeptical about claims that two trailers found in Iraq served
as mobile germ labs. Her reporting was "very balanced," he said, even
though she and other embedded reporters in Iraq had a limited
perspective while traveling with the troops.
"Singling out one reporter for this kind of examination is a little
bizarre," Rosenthal said.
HSFK Hessische Stiftung für Friedens- und Konfliktforschung
PRIF Peace Research Institute Frankfurt
Leimenrode 29 60322 Frankfurt a/M Germany
Tel +49 (0)69 9591 0422 Fax +49 (0)69 5584 81
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