"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)
New York Times reporter Judith Miller testified again on Wednesday before a grand jury regarding allegations that Irving Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, outed an undercover CIA operative in summer of 2003. After spending 85 days in jail for refusing to testify before the grand jury, Miller was released after receiving a personal waiver from Libby — who turned out to be her confidential source.
Miller’s reputation had already been deeply sullied by her inaccurate and one-sided reporting on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction before the war. Questions have swirled about her relationship with the small coterie of neoconservatives, including Libby, who staffed key positions in the Bush administration, and who were allied with Ahmad Chalabi, a corrupt Iraqi expatriate and notorious liar who became Miller’s principal source on WMD issues. Suspicions that Miller had crossed an ethical line and grown too close to her sources increased after the waiver letter she received from Libby was disclosed. That letter ended with this bizarre, highly personal passage: “You went into jail in the summer. It is fall now. You will have stories to cover — Iraqi elections and suicide bombers, biological threats and the Iranian nuclear program. Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them. Come back to work — and life. Until then, you will remain in my thoughts and prayers. With admiration, Scooter Libby.”
All of which raises the question: Should Miller herself be understood as a neocon?
The evidence suggests that she is not. Rather it was a combination of hawkish convictions about Saddam, ambition, arrogance pumped up by her pre-9/11 work on WMD and jihadis, lax editorial oversight, and her long-standing tendency to get too close to her sources, that led her to become a credulous mouthpiece for those who sought to justify war with Iraq.
Miller clearly agrees with the neocons on some subjects. But she is too knowledgeable about the Middle East and Islam, too evenhanded on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and too much of a liberal on domestic U.S. issues, to be considered a neoconservative herself. A veteran Middle East correspondent (she headed the Times’ Cairo bureau) who speaks some Arabic, she had a more balanced and nuanced view of the region than the neocons — at least until 9/11. She probably has more in common with “liberal hawks” such as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff, who were driven to support a U.S. war on Iraq by fears of Saddam’s weapons, a belief that military action could end Arab/Muslim terrorism, and impatience with the glacial pace of political reform in the Middle East.
Although some critics have noted that Miller associated herself with the neocon Middle East Forum, headed by Daniel Pipes, and had a brief relationship with Benador Associates, a neoconservative booking agency, neither association is more than circumstantial evidence for an ideological affinity with the neoconservatives. Rather, her research on radical Muslim movements gave her something in common with the Middle East Forum at a time when such interests were often viewed as eccentric in the Washington policy establishment. Her actual position on figures such as Sudanese Islamist Hasan Turabi is much more nuanced than that of the typical MEF authors. Miller should be judged by what she said, not by what Web pages she allowed her name to be listed at.
Miller’s trajectory on major issues departs significantly from that of the neoconservatives. Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense 2001-2005, immediately regretted that the U.S. did not go on to Baghdad in 1991, whereas as late as 1993 Miller saw Iraq as defanged. In 1996, in the now-notorious paper titled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Defending the Realm,” Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and David Wurmser, among others, advised then Israeli candidate for prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to scrap the Oslo Peace Accords and refuse to withdraw from the Occupied Territories, as well as to support a war against Iraq. In contrast, Miller supported Oslo and stressed that it was important that both Israelis and Palestinians felt secure so as to attract investment. As late as 1998 she was unsure what to do about Iraq, sometimes supporting bombing raids but at others raising questions about what options the U.S. had in the aftermath.
Yet over time Miller came to subscribe to key neocon ideas — and began increasingly to rely on neocons and their allies for sources. As a June 2004 profile of Miller in New York magazine makes clear, perhaps the pivotal moment in this evolution came in the ’90s, when Miller began focusing on the link between terrorism and WMD. She was particularly interested in al-Qaida’s plans to acquire WMD. Her work on this subject put her in contact with Ahmad Chalabi, whose party line she began to recite as early as 1998. Before 9/11, her beat made her look obsessed; afterward, as the piece’s author, Franklin Foer, notes, “she seemed more like Cassandra, the only one who’d been right. And this fact gave her tremendous power at the paper.”
In any case, Miller began to uncritically parrot even some of the neocons’ loonier claims. On CNN’s “American Morning With Paula Zahn” for May 14, 2002, Miller explained the controversy that had broken out about allegations that Cuba had a biological weapons program. She told Zahn, “And there are a lot of very unsavory contacts, as the administration regards them, between Cuba and especially Iranians who are involved in biological weapons.” Such frankly weird assertions raise questions about where in the world Miller got her so-called information. No serious intelligence professional believes that either Iran or Cuba has a significant biological weapons program, much less that a communist Latin American dictatorship was being helped by a Shiite Muslim fundamentalist state with deadly microbes.
Miller’s statement only makes sense in light of the speech given by John Bolton, then undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, in May of 2002, in which he alleged that Cuba had a biological weapons program. Thomas Fingar, head of the State Department’s Intelligence bureau, along with a retired national security officer, demurred from the charges in Bolton’s speech. When Christian Westermann at the State Department intelligence bureau raised questions about the intelligence on which Bolton was basing his campaign, Bolton called him into his office, chewed him out, and then allegedly tried to have him fired, according to the April 18, 2005, edition of the Washington Post. Miller was channeling Bolton in her comments to Paula Zahn, and very likely was simply repeating whatever Bolton himself had told her. Washington political analyst Steven C. Clemons asserted that Bolton was a regular source for Miller in her reporting on national security and weapons of mass destruction issues. Bolton has a special interest in getting up a U.S. war against Iran, accounting for the bogus charge that it was active in Havana.
While Miller was in jail, John Bolton, now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, came to visit her.
Miller’s reporting on this subject, as with so many other subjects involving the claims of the hawks and neocons, was embarrassingly bad. Since Bolton had so many detractors in the intelligence community, it would have been easy for a good reporter to double-check his claims and to discover with what suspicion they were viewed by the professionals. (Bolton is merely a bad-tempered lawyer who did political work for the Republican Party, including helping Bush-Cheney stop the Florida recount in 2000, and has no special knowledge of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons programs, much less of the Middle East.) That Miller neglected to seek out the whole story but rather contented herself with serving as a stenographer for figures such as Bolton and Iraqi fraudster Ahmad Chalabi suggests either a conviction on her part of an ideological sort, or an excessive trust in her sources — probably both.
Miller was not always a dupe of far-right-wing hawks. After the Gulf War, she responded on CNN to a 1993 speech by Saddam Hussein in which he claimed that Iraq was stronger and wiser since the 1991 war. On Jan. 8, 1993, Miller told anchor Donna Kelley, “I don’t think that the allied forces at this stage face any real threat from Saddam Hussein. He has suffered a real body blow through the Gulf War. His nuclear capability, for the moment, has been eradicated. The U.N. has destroyed thousands of chemical munitions. They continue searching for biological and other weapons of mass destruction. I think a lot of this is just bravado. This is the mother of all rhetoric, that’s Saddam Hussein, and I don’t think anyone believes it, inside Iraq or outside of the area.” Miller’s description of the state of Iraq’s weapons programs in 1993 was entirely accurate, though the biological program was not completely shut down by Hussein Kamel, head of Iraq’s WMD program (and Saddam’s son in law), until 1995. In this interview she was still functioning as a balanced news reporter who did not allow her obvious hatred for Saddam to interfere with her analytical judgment about the sort of threat he posed.
But by the late 1990s, Miller had emerged as a hawk on the Iraq issue again. The heating up of the conflict had been provoked by the replacement of Rolf Ekeus as head of the United Nations weapons inspection team, UNSCOM, with Australian Richard Butler, who made a series of wild allegations against Iraq with little or no evidence. He demanded access to Saddam’s presidential palaces in early 1998, which Saddam at that time refused. Saddam, a germophobe, is later alleged to have told his U.S. captors that he feared the U.N. inspectors would make his palaces “dirty.” No unconventional weapons were discovered in them. Miller commented on the crisis on CNN & Co. on Jan. 28, 1998, saying, “Well, I think the Israelis are busy buying gas masks after Richard Butler made his remarks about Saddam Hussein possibly having enough biological agents to blow Tel Aviv and other cities off the map.” Miller was uninterested in the dissenters among the weapons inspectors who deeply disagreed with Butler. She admitted that it was not clear what the U.S. options were after an airstrike. But then in another interview on Jan. 29, 1998, Miller said on MSNBC’s “News at Issue” that an airstrike against Iraq might force Saddam to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions.
In mid-August of 1998, at a time when some observers suspected that the Clinton administration might engage Iraq militarily to take the focus in Washington off the Lewinsky scandal, Miller dropped a new bombshell. She published an article in the New York Times based on an interview with Khidhir Hamza, who claimed to be “the highest ranking scientist ever to defect from Iraq,” and who had come to the U.S. in 1994. Hamza asserted that Iraq continued to have a viable nuclear weapons program and that only half of it had been destroyed by the Gulf War. One of Hamza’s critics, Iraqi nuclear scientist Imad Khadduri, maintains that Hamza had only been given the lead position in the Iraqi nuclear program for six months in 1987, but was soon dismissed for petty embezzlement. He left the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission in 1989, became a college lecturer and businessman, then went to Libya in 1994. Khadduri says that Hamza established links to the Iraqi National Congress of Ahmad Chalabi and began publishing articles in the British press on Iraq’s alleged nuclear program in 1995. He alleges that the Times on Sunday sent documents provided by Hamza to the International Atomic Energy Commission, which declared them false, but that the newspaper published Hamza’s pieces anyway. Coming to the United States, Hamza was picked up by Benador Associates, a public relations firm and speakers’ bureau closely associated with neoconservatives and their causes, including support for the expansionist Likud Party in Israel.
Miller gave an interview with National Public Radio about her piece on Hamza, on Aug. 17, 1998, with Linda Wertheimer. Miller gushed, “In fact, Linda, I think what struck my colleague and I when we were listening to Dr. Hamza talk, was Saddam Hussein’s determination at all costs to have a nuclear bomb.” She reported that the Gulf War bombings of Iraq’s nuclear sites only hit about half of them, according to Hamza. In fact, Iraq’s nuclear facilities were found and ordered destroyed after the war by the United Nations inspectors, and they were extremely thorough, as inspector and former U.S. Marine Scott Ritter insisted. When Wertheimer asked if Hamza was credible, Miller said, “Yes. We were able to speak to people, intelligence officials, administration officials, nuclear experts, a great variety of people, all of whom found Dr. Hamza very credible.”
In fact, the story that Hamza was telling was extremely controversial and was controverted by knowledgeable persons. Either Miller was lying when she reported unanimity in the judgment of Hamza’s credibility, or she only talked to a handful of hawks. Wertheimer adds, “I gather that the CIA almost missed him. The story of his defection and his attempts to find a safe haven in the United States reads sort of like a cross between a thriller and a farce.” The transcript reports “LAUGHTER.” Of course, the reason that the CIA “almost missed him” was that he was a minor bit player who had not been involved in the Iraqi nuclear program at all since 1989 and had no new information aside from baldfaced lies. (In 2001 Scribner published Hamza’s mendacious book, which described him as “Saddam’s Bombmaker,” and thereafter he became a constant presence on American television news, flacked by Benador, purveying his lurid and completely false tales of an Iraq near to having a nuclear bomb.
Already by 1998, Miller was reporting Iraqi National Congress propaganda, purveying an image of Iraq completely different from that she gave in 1993, when she admitted that the country’s weapons of mass destruction programs had been dismantled. On Dec. 29, 1998, she commented to Diane Dimond of CNBC’s “Upfront Tonight” about the Clinton administration’s bombing of Iraq and the $100 million that the U.S. Congress had appropriated to support the Iraqi expatriates who were attempting to overthrow Saddam. She complained, “But I did notice that just before the bombing, Ahmed Chalabi, who was one of the leaders of the opposition, told me that he only had about four hours notice. The administration called him and said, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re going to start bombing in a few hours.’ This doesn’t leave the opposition with a lot of time to prepare a kind of internal action, if it has the ability to do that. And we’re not sure if the Iraqi opposition could stage a coup or start a rebellion at this point. It may be a weak reed, but it’s the only reed the administration has at the moment.”
Miller was already talking to Chalabi, and was willing to act as a conduit for his grouses about not being kept in the loop by the Clinton administration. It was the start of a beautiful friendship. Leaked New York Times memos showed that Chalabi was Miller’s principal source for stories she later did on Iraq’s fabled and in fact nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. According to Foer, Miller also relied heavily on the neocons’ intelligence-fixing outfit, the notorious Office of Special Plans headed by Douglas Feith. Almost all of its “intelligence” was completely bogus.
Miller was a consistent critic of Saddam’s regime, but before 1998 she was capable of making nuanced judgments about the problem it posed for the United States. At some point after that, she apparently began to believe that she, with her prescient expertise about WMD and radical Islam, and her hawkish and neocon sources were right. This was when her fateful decline began. A minor scientist and sometime college teacher such as Khidhir Hamza became “the highest ranking scientist” to defect from Iraq. She relayed complaints from Gucci revolutionaries like Chalabi that they had been left out of the loop by the Clinton administration, and retailed Iraq National Congress tall tales to her unsuspecting audience. By the late 1990s, she had laid the ground for her subsequent path, of becoming stenographer to a motley crew of neoconservative hawks and Iraqi expatriate wheelers and dealers. The aluminum tubes story, in particular, which she co-wrote and which helped pave the way to war, will likely be taught in journalism classes for years as a textbook study of flawed reporting.
In the end, Miller’s decline seems due more to professional ambition than ideological conviction — although her own beliefs clearly grew closer to the neocons’. “While Miller might not have intended to march in lockstep with these hawks, she was caught up in an almost irresistible cycle,” Foer writes. “Because she kept printing the neocon party line, the neocons kept coming to her with huge stories and great quotes, constantly expanding her access.”
In the end, it seems that Miller will go down in history not so much as a true believer as a useful idiot.
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)