Judy Miller’s Book | Charles Duelfer

Judy Miller’s Book

“The Story” provides a fascinating perspective on a terrible period.  For those who want to look at the Iraq mess from various angles, this will add a valuable perspective (she quotes me in it, so I may not be unbiased).

There have been harsh comments about Judy Miller’s reporting, but the intelligence community did no better–as has been acknowledged publicly. The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of October 2002 has now been largely declassified.  This was the baseline document for Congress and the Administration regarding the decision to go to war.  It was awful.  Now it serves as an example of how not to create intelligence assessments. And, the intelligence community has taken many steps to improve its collection, analytic process and intelligence products in the aftermath.  But don’t think there won’t be future intelligence “failures.”  It’s inevitable.

Journalists face many of the same problems as intelligence officers–vetting sources, not getting locked in on a single hypothesis, checking your assumptions, reviewing all the sources of bias that seep into analysis, etc, etc, etc.  For both journalists and intelligence officers Iraq was a tough problem.

There was little data.  Defectors were wobbly and hard to check. (Curveball was only the most famous fabricator).  And the mindset was, given Saddam’s history, why wouldn’t he have WMD?  Chemical weapons saved him (by offsetting Iranian “human wave attacks”) in the Iran-Iraq war in the 80’s.  Later, in the 1991 Kuwait war, Saddam believed his WMD stocks saved him again by deterring George Bush the elder, from going to Baghdad.  Add to those two facts, the years of Saddam’s playing cat and mouse with UN inspectors (91-96 or so), and it is understandable that intelligence analysts were not postulating that Saddam had finally given everything up.

In the absence of evidence, but with the requirement, nevertheless, to make a judgment for policymakers, giving Saddam Hussein the benefit of the doubt was improbable.

Of course the assessments were mostly wrong, especially on Nuclear where they were way off the mark–embarrassingly so.  The other assessments (CW, BW, and ballistic missiles) lacked caveats and qualifications that misled readers to assume there was real data underlying the judgments.  As Ms. Miller’s account relates, journalists did not do much better.

It’s worth recalling that the UN weapons inspectors also found it impossible to give Saddam a clean bill of health.  Obviously the consequences of their judgments were not the same as the US intelligence community.  However, their work formed the basis for many key assessments.  And the weapons inspectors were certainly unconvinced that Saddam had come clean.  In fact, they delineated the areas where Saddam had not provided verifiable accounts of his WMD activities.  And the substantial gaps in his story were more readily explained by “hidden WMD” than he innocently “forgot how much he had or where it went.”

From Ms. Miller’s description, it also seems the ugly bureaucratic fights in the government bureaucracy (e.g. between State and Defense) had their counterparts inside the NY Times. The friction between management and staff is quite similar.  So too were the slippery responses by management when things go wrong.

The circumstances leading to the war were not simple.  Quite the contrary.  For those who already have their minds made up (“Bush lied and People died”) and do not want any contrary evidence, perhaps this is not for you.  However, if you are inclined to build on your background this book adds a lot.  I would expect journalism students would find it on future syllabi.

As for Jon Stewart, he certainly expounds a point of view.  And he knows his audience.  He gives them what they want to hear.  Maybe he should become the head of the CIA in his next job.  He’d be better than some and worse than others.  But, I suspect he will run for congress (Senate) next.  Those jobs’ are more in line with his talent.  And maybe the hearings would be even more comical.

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