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When Journalists Join the Cover-ups

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As embarrassing as the Judith Miller case is for the New York Times, the fiasco underscores a more troubling development that strikes near the heart of American democracy the press corps ' gradual retreat from the principle of skepticism on national security issues to career-boosting "patriotism. "

Miller and many other prominent Washington journalists over the past quarter century largely built their careers by positioning themselves as defenders of supposed American interests. Instead of tough reporting about national security operations, these reporters often became conduits for government spin and propaganda.

In that sense, Miller 's prominence at the Times where she had wide latitude to report and publish whatever she wanted was a marker for how the "patriotic " journalists had overwhelmed the competing "skeptical " journalists, who saw their duty as bringing a critical eye to all government information, including national security claims. [For more on that broader history, see
Secrecy & Privilege
or Lost History or Part II of this series.]

For her part both in the credulous reporting about Iraq 's non-existent weapons of mass destruction and protection of a White House source who sought to discredit a whistleblower about a key WMD lie Miller has come to personify the notion that American journalists should tailor their reporting to what is "good for the country " as defined by government officials.

Indeed, at this point in her career, the 57-year-old Miller seems to have trouble distinguishing between being a journalist and being part of the government team. Note, for instance, two of her comments about her grand jury testimony on the White House outing of CIA officer Valerie Plame, who was the wife of the WMD whistleblower, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson.

Presumably to give some deniability to one of her anti-Wilson sources Vice President Dick Cheney 's chief of staff I. Lewis Libby Miller said she told special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald "that Mr. Libby might have thought I still had security clearance, given my special embedded status in Iraq, " where she had traveled with a military unit in a fruitless search for WMD.

In other words, Miller was saying that Libby might be forgiven for disclosing the identity of a covert CIA officer to a journalist because he might have thought Miller had government authorization to hear such secrets.

But the notion that a reporter would accept a security clearance which is a legally binding commitment to give the government authority over what information can be released is anathema to anyone who believes in a free and independent press.
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It is one thing for "embedded " journalists to accept the necessity of military censorship over tactical details in exchange for access to the battlefield. It is altogether different for a journalist to have a "security clearance. "

For some journalistic purists, this statement was the most shocking element Miller 's lengthy account of her testimony as published in the Times.

Sacrificing Objectivity


Secondly, toward the end of a Times chronology on the case, written by three other reporters, Miller is quoted as saying that she hoped she would eventually return to the newsroom and resume covering "the same thing I 've always covered threats to our country. " [NYT, Oct. 16. 2005]

To describe one 's "beat " as covering "threats to our country " amounts to another repudiation of a core journalistic principle objectivity the concept of a reporter setting aside his or her personal views so the facts can be researched and presented to the reader in as fair and balanced a way as possible.

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Rather than insist on a separation between government and journalism, Miller appears to see little distinction between the two. Her comments suggest that she views her job as defending the security interests of the United States, rather than giving the public the unvarnished facts.

What that meant in the run-up to the war in Iraq was her serving as a conveyor belt for bogus intelligence on Iraq 's WMD. Most memorably, Miller co-wrote a key article asserting that Iraq 's purchase of aluminum tubes was evidence that Saddam Hussein was working on a nuclear bomb.

Cheney and other administration officials then cited the Times article as validation for their case against Iraq for alleged violation of arms control commitments. Both in Miller 's article and in TV appearances, administration officials told the American people that they couldn 't wait for the "smoking gun " proof of Iraq 's WMD to be "a mushroom cloud. "

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
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