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.

Jim Hoagland, Washington Post: This is sort of the Post's version of Miller, only he gets more leeway because he's an op-ed columnist. A veritable Dr. Strangelove of the war, he carried on a bizarre one-way discourse with Saddam Hussein before it started, referring to the dictator as "old chum" and gleefully chiding him about his imminent destruction. At the heart of Hoagland's madness was Ahmad Chalabi, the huckster who ran the Iraqi National Congress and was used as a chief source by the Bush administration in the buildup to war. Hoagland, to his great detriment, forged a too-close, 30-year friendship with Chalabi. It obviously skewed the man's logic. In 2001, he criticized the L.A. Times for repeating claims that Chalabi, wanted on embezzlement charges in Jordan, was a "crook." Then he waxed poetic about how Chalabi sacrificed "most of his fortune so he can risk his life to fight Saddam." Too bad he forgot to report that the man and the INC were paid tens of millions of dollars by the Pentagon for Chalabi's often faulty — but oh so handy — "intelligence." If Hoagland had any left, he'd pull a Murtha.

Kingsley Guy, Sun-Sentinel. I put Guy's name here only because he runs the Sun-Sentinel's editorial page, where numerous unsigned and unintelligible commentaries have appeared regarding Iraq. And the Sun-Sentinel isn't really a major player in the media's failure, just a good example of a medium-sized newspaper that blew it on Iraq in an XL way. During the buildup, the editorialists wrote repeatedly of how "strong" the case was for war. On October 12, 2002, they made like Thomas Paine when they wrote, "The United States can't stand by as Hussein seeks nuclear weapons and refines his other weapons of mass destruction." March, young man, march. Shortly after the bombing began, Guy's guys wrote, "It's time for Americans to unite behind their president and their troops." Troops, yes, but president? That's flat-out un-American. Repent, Kingsley.

Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times. Kristof didn't cheerlead for the war. In fact, he routinely refers to himself, gaggingly, as a "dove." But reading his columns during the past couple of years reveals something more akin to a chicken. Or maybe a dodo. A month before the invasion, he wrote: "President Bush and Colin Powell have adroitly shown that Iraq is hiding weapons." A week later, he typed: "As best one can tell, the war plans are now smart, meticulous, and comprehensive." Brilliant analysis there, Nick. If anyone so much as suggested that Bush might have oil or revenge on his mind, Kristof gave them a right-good smack. Last year, he compared blaming Bush for his oil-lust or revenge for his father to arguing that Bill Clinton was a serial killer. Kristof has repeatedly written that if there's anything wrong with this war, it's that America was suffering from "an overdose of moral clarity." We're just too darned good, people. After bombs began falling on Baghdad, he wrote: "Let's be clear: Iraq will not turn into another Vietnam... [T]he U.S. will easily win this war." He added that it would wind up like Lebanon or Gaza only forgot to say it would be more like Lebanon and Gaza on crack. Here's my advice to Mr. Kristof: Stop trying to fly with the hawks. They're smarter and meaner than you are. If you're a dove, bea damned dove.

Jeffrey Goldberg, New Yorker. In fairness, I believe that all the journalists so far mentioned thought they were doing the right thing. I'm not sure with Goldberg, though. Apparently under the direction of Paul Wolfowitz, Goldberg ginned up fears in the pages of what was once my favorite magazine that Saddam was going to unleash a horrible chemical assault on the "countries of the West" and bolstered the equally false notion that the dictator was walking arm-in-arm with Osama bin Laden (see his 2002 award-winning masterpiece "The Great Terror"). There seemed to be design in Goldberg's drivel, which was lauded around the world by the Bush administration. I think Vanity Fair writer James Wolcott got it right when he described Goldberg's prose as "neocon propaganda and scaremongering disseminated under the guise of reporting." Such tripe should never have appeared in the pages of the once-great magazine. To blame is Editor David Remnick, who himself gave mealy-mouthed support to the war (only Seymour Hersh saved the magazine from absolute disgrace). And how has Remnick responded to the failures? He promoted Goldberg to Washington Bureau chief and hired Packer after they allgot it wrong.

Now for the good news. All these guys — even Goldberg, God help us — can still come clean. They just need to admit they were dead wrong and stop writing specious pieces that continue to rationalize one of the worst crimes in American history.

Then we can all go back to doing what we should have been doing in the first place. Bashing Judith Miller.

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