Spreading the Plame

It's time more journalists were called on the carpet for bad judgment

It's time to come to the defense of Judith Miller.

Yes, the former New York Times reporter served as a mouthpiece for the Bush administration during the buildup to the Iraq War. And she certainly had a dubious role in the Plamegate scandal. But the way her colleagues have been going after her, you'd think Miller was the only journalist who abetted the Bush administration's rush to war. Or that she was the only reporter who got too cozy with officials when they maliciously leaked a CIA agent's identity.

There are lots of them. Just last week, another war accomplice, New Yorker writer George Packer, spoke at the Miami Book Fair. Packer, you might remember, was a leading pro-war voice from the left. As talk of "regime change" crescendoed in late 2002, Packer wrote a tortured pro-war piece in the New York Times Magazine that left the Gray Lady naked and trembling.

Tom Friedman (center) shares a laugh with former New York Times Editor Howell Raines (left) and current Publisher Art Sulzberger Jr.
James Estrin
Tom Friedman (center) shares a laugh with former New York Times Editor Howell Raines (left) and current Publisher Art Sulzberger Jr.
Kingsley Guy, Sun-Sentinel editorial page gatekeeper.
Kingsley Guy, Sun-Sentinel editorial page gatekeeper.

Things have changed a little. On November 19, he told a Miami-Dade College auditorium crowd that he's now of "two minds" about the Iraq venture and quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald, saying the true test of intelligence is the ability to hold opposing viewpoints and still function.

In other words, Packer is confused. Damned confused. And he's still an apologist for the war, playing the blame game for why it hasn't come out well. He hasn't completely escaped ridicule. Harper's publisher, John R. MacArthur, recently referred to Packer as "handwringer-in-chief" and, less diplomatically, a "useful idiot."

C'mon, John, let's not resort to name-calling. That's supposed to be done only behind backs. Journalism, like Congress, prides itself on its collegiality. And that's a big reason why they're both incredibly effective institutions with such high public regard.

After Packer's talk, I politely asked him if he regretted his support for the war. He did. "I wish I would have had more information at the time," he told me.

Please, not that old chestnut. All the information anybody needed was on the table — and at least 35 percent of Americans were bright enough to oppose the thing from the get-go. If you don't believe that a large chunk of America saw through this charade from the beginning, go to Amazon.com and get a copy of Outcry, a book of mostly pre-Iraq War essays compiled and edited by Marie Spike of Coral Springs.

The only real intelligence failure came from the Bush administration and the war supporters. There was no proof that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and, weakened and humiliated as he was, the thug was no threat to the United States. And please don't talk about genocide. Saddam was in a box and hadn't dug a mass grave in a decade. An Iraqi is 58 times more likely to die a violent death now than before the war, according to the Lancetmedical journal.

The real reason for the war is obvious. It was all about America's role in the Middle East. And that was all about oil, more specifically our desire for it. All the rest of the excuses were just window-dressing.

People are coming around. Congressman John Murtha, a career Marine and former backer of the war, last week described the Iraq venture as "failed policy wrapped in illusion." True that. And giving power and texture to that illusion were a flawed media. Forget about Judith Miller for a moment and look at Teflon Tim. I'm talking about Tim Russert, of course, the front man for Meet the Press. He coddled Dick Cheney on a string of shows before and after the war began, letting Vice's lies about Iraq go unchecked. Turns out ol' Russ was chummy with Cheney's former chief of staff, Plamegate indictee Scooter Libby, passing on his criticisms of NBC coverage to network executives.

Surprise, surprise. In playing footsie with Bush administration bigs, Russert failed America. And what did he get for it? A recent puff piece in the New York Times.

Politicians of both parties will ultimately be held accountable for the Iraq debacle, but will pundits? And I'm not talking about Fox News or the Washington Times. They are what they are. I'm talking about mainstream journalists, specifically those who work at the big and bloated newspapers and magazines in New York and Washington.

Five of the worst offenders:

Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times. I'll start with the biggest, mushiest target of all. Friedman, who likes to pretend he's The Most Reasonable Man Anywhere, backed the war from day one. But what do you expect from a guy who thinks that the spread of McDonald's to every nook and cranny of the world is a good thing? A born imperialist, Friedman argues that we need democracy in the Middle East but doesn't seem to understand that bombing people might not be the best way to achieve it. And he seems utterly incapable of realizing that there were darker motives behind this war than a love of freedom, truth, and the American Way. On November 6, 2003, he called the invasion, with that trembling earnestness of his, a "radically liberal war." Today, Friedman harps on "staying the course" and insists the war is "winnable." A frequent tack of late has been to rail against the insurgents for blowing things up. That's right, he's come out strongly against suicide bombers. He's like a mouse on a sinking ship, running from nook to nook as the water comes to flood his excuses. Friedman simply can't accept that we were sunk in Iraq before the first tank hit the sand.

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