"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
When the full history of the Iraq war is written, one of its most scandalous chapters will be about how American journalists, in particular those at the New York Times, so easily allowed themselves to be manipulated by both dubious sources and untrustworthy White House officials into running stories that misled the nation about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. The Times finally acknowledged its grave errors in an extraordinary and lengthy editors note published Wednesday. The editors wrote:
“We have found … instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been … In some cases, the information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge … We consider the story of Iraq’s weapons, and of the pattern of misinformation, to be unfinished business. And we fully intend to continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight.”
The editors conceded what intelligence sources had told me and numerous other reporters: that Pentagon favorite Ahmed Chalabi was feeding bad information to journalists and the White House and had set up a situation with Iraqi exiles where all of the influential institutions were shouting into the same garbage can, hearing the same echo. “Complicating matters for journalists, the accounts of these exiles were often eagerly confirmed by United States officials convinced of the need to intervene in Iraq. Administration officials now acknowledge that they sometimes fell for misinformation from these exile sources. So did many news organizations — in particular, this one.”
The reporter on many of the flawed stories at issue was Judith Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and authority on the Middle East. The Times, insisting that the problem did not lie with any individual journalist, did not mention her name. The paper was presumably trying to take the high road by defending its reporter, but the omission seems peculiar. While her editors must share a large portion of the blame, the pieces ran under Miller’s byline. It was Miller who clearly placed far too much credence in unreliable sources, and then credulously used dubious administration officials to confirm what she was told.
And of all Miller’s unreliable sources, the most unreliable was Ahmed Chalabi — whose little neocon-funded kingdom came crashing down last week when Iraqi forces smashed down his door after U.S. officials feared he was sending secrets to Iran.
Even before the latest suspicions about Chalabi, a reporter trying to convince an editor that the smooth-talking exile was a credible source would have a difficult case to make. First, he was a convicted criminal. While living in exile from Iraq, Chalabi was accused of embezzling millions from his Petra Bank in Amman, Jordan. Leaving the country in the trunk of a car reportedly driven by Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan, Chalabi was convicted in absentia and still faces 22 years in prison, if he ever returns. Evidence presented in the trial indicated Chalabi’s future outside of Jordan was secured by $70 million he stole from his depositors. Chalabi maintains his innocence and has suggested his prosecution was political because he was involved in efforts to overthrow dictator Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq.
Even more damning, Chalabi was a player, an interested party with his own virulently pro-war agenda — a fact that alone should have raised editorial suspicions about any claims he might make that would pave the way to war. He was also a highly controversial figure, the subject of bitter intra-administration battling. He was the darling of Richard Perle and his fellow neocon hawks, including such ardent advocates of the war as Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, but was viewed with deep suspicion by both the State Department and the CIA. State in particular had turned its back on Chalabi after his London-based Iraqi National Congress spent $5 million and an audit was unable to account for most of its expenditure.
One might have hoped that American journalists would have been at least as skeptical as the State Department before they burned their reputations on Chalabi’s pyre of lies. But even the most seasoned of correspondents and the most august of publications, including the Times and the Washington Post, appear to have been as deftly used by Chalabi as were the CIA, the Department of Defense and the Bush administration.
Miller, however, is the only journalist whose reliance on Chalabi became a matter of public debate. An e-mail exchange between the Times’ Baghdad bureau chief, John Burns, and Miller was published in the Washington Post. In the exchange, Miller said Chalabi “had provided most of the front page exclusives for our paper” and that she had been “reporting on him for over ten years.” Miller later told the New York Review of Books that she had exaggerated her claims to Burns in order to make a point. However, in an earlier interview with me, Miller did not discount the value of Chalabi’s insight.
“Of course, I talked with Chalabi,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been doing my job if I didn’t. But he was just one of many sources I used while I was in Iraq.”
Miller refused to say who some of those other sources were, claiming their identities were sacrosanct. Nonetheless, her reportage appeared to reflect Chalabi’s intelligence gathering and his political cant. At his behest, she interviewed defectors from Hussein’s regime, who claimed without substantiation that there was still a clandestine WMD program operating inside Iraq. U.S. investigators now believe that Chalabi sent these same Iraqi expatriates to at least eight Western spy agencies as part of a scheme to persuade them to overthrow Saddam. An unknown number of them appear to have stopped along the way to speak with Miller.
If the double-agent spy business had a trophy to hold up and show neophyte spooks what happens when their craft is perfectly executed, it would be a story by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon that appeared on the front page of the New York Times on a Sunday morning in September 2002. The front-page frightener was titled “Threats and Responses: The Iraqis; US Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts.” Miller and Gordon wrote that an intercepted shipment of aluminum tubes, to be used as centrifuges, was evidence Hussein was building a uranium gas separator to develop nuclear material. The story quoted national security advisor Condoleezza Rice invoking the image of “mushroom clouds over America.”
The story had an enormous impact, one amplified when Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Vice President Dick Cheney all did appearances on the Sunday morning talk shows, citing the first-rate journalism of the liberal New York Times. No single story did more to advance the political cause of the neoconservatives driving the Bush administration to invade Iraq.
But Miller’s story was wrong.
It turned out that the aluminum tubes were covered with an anodized coating, which would have been machined off to make them usable in a centrifuge. But that change in the thickness of the tube wall would have rendered the tubes useless for a centrifuge, according to a number of nuclear scientists who spoke publicly after Miller’s story. Aluminum, which has not been used in uranium gas separators since the 1950s, has been replaced by steel. The tubes, in fact, were almost certainly intended for use as rocket bodies. Hussein’s multiple-launch rocket systems had rusted on their pads and he had ordered the tubes from Italy. “Medusa 81,” the Italian rocket model name, was stamped on the sides of the tubes, and in a factory north of Baghdad, American intelligence officers later discovered boxes of rocket fins and motors awaiting the arrival of the tubes of terror.
The probable source for Miller’s story, in addition to U.S. intelligence operatives, was Adnan Ihsan Saeed, an Iraqi defector Miller was introduced to by Chalabi. Miller had quoted him in a December 2001 report when Saeed had told her he had worked on nuclear operations in Iraq and that there were at least 20 banned-weapons facilities undergoing repairs. Of course, no such facilities have been found — meaning Saeed was either lying or horribly uninformed.
“I had no reason to believe what I reported at the time was inaccurate,” Miller told me. “I believed the intelligence information I had at the time. I sure didn’t believe they were making it up. This was a learning process. You constantly have to ask the question, ‘What do you know at the time you are writing it?’ We tried really hard to get more information and we vetted information very, very carefully.”
But Miller’s entire journalistic approach was flawed. A few months after the aluminum tubes story, a former CIA analyst, who has observed Miller’s professional products and relationships for years, explained to me how simple it was to manipulate the correspondent and her newspaper.
“The White House had a perfect deal with Miller,” he said. “Chalabi is providing the Bush people with the information they need to support their political objectives with Iraq, and he is supplying the same material to Judy Miller. Chalabi tips her on something and then she goes to the White House, which has already heard the same thing from Chalabi, and she gets it corroborated by some insider she always describes as a ‘senior administration official.’ She also got the Pentagon to confirm things for her, which made sense, since they were working so closely with Chalabi. Too bad Judy didn’t spend a little more time talking to those of us in the intelligence community who had information that contradicted almost everything Chalabi said.”
Long after the fact, Miller conceded in her interview with me that she was wrong about the aluminum tubes, but not that she had made a mistake.
“We worked our asses off to get that story,” she said. “No one leaked anything to us. I reported what I knew at the time. I wish I were omniscient. I wish I were God and had all the information I had needed. But I’m not God and I don’t know. All I can rely on is what people tell me. That’s all any investigative reporter can do. And if you find out that it’s not true, you go back and write that. You just keep chipping away at an assertion until you find out what stands up.”
In that description of her methodology, Miller described a type of journalism that publishes works in progress, and she raises, inadvertently, important questions about the craft. If highly placed sources in governments and intelligence operations give her information, is she obligated to sit on it until she can corroborate? How does a reporter independently confirm data that even the CIA is struggling to nail down? And what if both the source and the governmental official who “corroborates” it are less than trustworthy?
According to Todd Gitlin of Columbia University’s school of journalism, a reporter in that position needs to ladle on an extra helping of doubt. “Independent corroboration is very hard to come by. Since she’s been around, if you’re aware that such echo-chamber effects are plausible, what do you do? I think you write with much greater skepticism, at times. I think you don’t write at all unless you can make a stronger case when you are aware that people are playing you and spinning you for their purposes.”
More than skepticism, though, Gitlin believes that news organizations have a responsibility to explain possible motivations for whoever is leaking the information to reporters. This can be done without identifying the source, he insists, and the Times, as well as a few other papers, is supposedly in the midst of adopting this protocol.
Miller’s centrifuge story, although the most influential, was not the most egregious of her pieces. A story titled “Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert” was based on a source she never met or even interviewed. For that story, Miller watched a man in a baseball cap from a distance, who pointed at the desert floor, and used that as a basis for filing a piece that confirmed the U.S. had discovered “precursors to weapons of mass destruction.” According to her sources in the Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha of the U.S. Army, this unnamed scientist from Hussein’s WMD program had told them the “building blocks” of WMD were buried in that spot. Miller explained to me several months later that she had seen a letter from the man, written in Arabic and translated for her, that gave his claims credence.
“I have a photograph of him,” she explained. “I know who he is. There’s no way I would have gone forward with such a story without knowing who my source was, even if I got it from guys in my unit. You know, maybe it turns out that he was lying or ill-informed or cannot be independently verified.”
The next day she was on national television, including PBS’s “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” proclaiming that what had been discovered was “more than a smoking gun” and was a “silver bullet in the form of an Iraqi scientist.” In an interview with Ray Suarez, Miller began using the plural “scientists” and implied there was more than one source. She gave the Bush administration credit for creating a “political atmosphere where these scientists can come forward.” The story was trumpeted by conservative talk-show hosts like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh and, once it was zapped off to regional newspapers via the Times wire service, it acquired even more dramatic purchase. “Illegal Material Spotted,” the Rocky Mountain News blared with a subhead that distorted even more: “Iraqi Scientist Leads U.S. Team to Illicit Weapons Location.” “Outlawed Material Destroyed by the Iraqis Before the War” was the headline of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Unfortunately, none of it was true.
In its editors note, the Times admitted Miller’s “informant also claimed that Iraq had sent unconventional weapons to Syria and had been cooperating with Al Qaeda — two claims that were then, and remain, highly controversial. But the tone of the article suggested that this Iraqi ‘scientist’ — who in a later article described himself as an official of military intelligence — had provided the justification the Americans had been seeking for the invasion. The Times never followed up on the veracity of this source or the attempts to verify his claims.”
Miller, who knew all of this already at the time I interviewed her, remained righteously indignant, unwilling to accept that she had goofed in the grandest of fashions.
“You know what,” she offered angrily. “I was proved fucking right. That’s what happened. People who disagreed with me were saying, ‘There she goes again.’ But I was proved fucking right.”
Even though the Times has been, by its own admission, deluged with e-mails and letters criticizing Judith Miller and the paper’s coverage of WMD, management has consistently defended her and refused to make statements about her work in impartial public forums. The only time there has been any hint that Miller’s journalism was being deconstructed by editors was in a note posted on an obscure blog run by the paper’s new ombudsman, Daniel Okrent. Times Executive Editor Bill Keller wrote that a “fair amount of the mail on this subject seemed to me to come from people who had not actually read the coverage, but had heard about it on the cyber-grapevine.” Keller, who was not executive editor at the time Miller was filing her questionable dispatches, said, “I did not see a prima facie case for recanting or repudiating the stories. The brief against the coverage was that it was insufficiently skeptical, but that is an easier claim to make in hindsight than in context.” Rather than scrutinize his correspondent’s work, Keller chose to base his assessment of Miller’s WMD work on her past performances. Describing her as “smart, well-sourced, industrious and fearless,” Keller dismissed criticisms that her work was fatally flawed.
Until this week, the Times blamed everyone other than its own editors and reporters for its lapsed journalism. As late as May 21, in an editorial on the disgraced Chalabi titled “Friends Like This,” the paper contradicted its own behavior and amplified its hypocrisies by an order of magnitude. “There’s little to recommend Mr. Chalabi as a politician, or certainly as an informer. But he can’t be made a scapegoat. The Bush administration should have known what it was doing when it gave enormous credence to a questionable character whose own self-interest was totally invested in getting the Americans to invade Iraq.”
All true — but the paper failed to point out that much of its reporting was dependent on Chalabi and Iraqi defectors provided through the exiled Iraqi National Congress, the same operation that was getting the Bush White House to gobble up its lies and distortions. Why weren’t Times editors as intellectually disciplined on the subject of Chalabi when Miller and other reporters were trotting in with stories based on spurious allegations from the Iraqi National Congress and Chalabi’s merry band of defectors?
The fact that Chalabi was able to feed disinformation to America’s most widely recognized publication and have it go relatively unchallenged as the electorate was whipped into a get-Saddam frenzy ought to be keeping Times editors awake all night. Nobody wanted a war against Iraq more than Ahmed Chalabi — and the biggest paper in the U.S. gave it to him almost as willingly as the White House did.
The failures of Miller and the Times’ reporting on Iraq are far greater sins than those of the paper’s disgraced Jayson Blair. While the newspaper’s management cast Blair into outer darkness after his deceptions, Miller and other reporters who contributed to sending America into a war have been shielded from full scrutiny. The Times plays an unequaled role in the national discourse, and when it publishes a front-page piece about aluminum tubes and mushroom clouds, that story very quickly runs away from home to live on its own. The day after Miller’s tubes narrative showed up, Andrea Mitchell of NBC News went on national TV to proclaim, “They were the kind of tubes that could only be used in a centrifuge to make nuclear fuel.” Norah O’Donnell had already told the network’s viewers the day before of the “alarming disclosure,” and the New York Times wire service distributed Miller’s report to dozens of papers across the landscape. Invariably, they gave it prominence. Sadly, the sons and daughters of America were sent marching off to war wearing the boots of a well-told and widely disseminated lie.
Of course, Judy Miller and the Times are not the only journalists to be taken by Ahmed Chalabi. Jim Hoagland, a columnist at the Washington Post, has also written of his long association with the exile. But no one was so fooled as Miller and her paper.
Russ Baker, who has written critically of Miller for the Nation, places profound blame at the feet of the reporter and her paper. “I am convinced there would not have been a war without Judy Miller,” he said.
The introspection and analysis of America’s rush to war with Iraq have turned into a race among the ruins. Few people doubt any longer that the agencies of the U.S. government did not properly perform. No institution, however, either public or private, has violated the trust of its vast constituency as profoundly as the New York Times.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)