October 21, 2005

Judy's Vaulted Access

Was Judith Miller conned into thinking that her special deal with the Pentagon was a sweet deal or was it really a lemon? Remember Franklin Foer's report on how she got that special deal? She was so full of herself because she thought she had bought the keys to an exclusive.

No other journalist would have such access, which meant she would have the exclusive when they uncovered the WMD stockpiles, the smoking gun. As one reporter who covered the war told me, “This was going to be the show.” Back in Kuwait, the Coalition had arranged for helicopter pools that would swoop reporters into WMD sites as MET Alpha uncovered them.

...The Pentagon had seemingly rewarded Miller’s prewar reporting with this sweet arrangement.

But, what was the result of having "special" access?

But it also extracted a high price for her presence. Under most embedding agreements, journalists were provided access in exchange for adhering to a few rigid but simple rules: No reporting on forthcoming military tactics, no revealing of sensitive information about troop positions. For the most part, these rules were enforced by common sense. Reporters censored themselves. Transgressions, they understood, would lead the military to cancel their access and throw them out of Iraq. So, by agreeing to preapproval of her pieces, Miller signed up for something far more restrictive.

...Last month, I traded e-mail with Eugene Pomeroy, a former National Guard soldier who is now working in Baghdad as a contractor for a security firm. During the war, Pomeroy served as the public-affairs officer for MET Alpha. This meant that he had one primary duty: to shepherd Judy Miller around Iraq. It wasn’t a particularly happy experience. In one e-mail to me, he joked, “As far as I can gather, not many people at Defense liked this woman, and the sense I got was that she wasn't their problem anymore now that she was in Iraq. Maybe they were hoping that she'd step on a mine. I certainly was.”

...According to Pomeroy, as well as an editor at the Times, Miller had helped negotiate her own embedding agreement with the Pentagon—an agreement so sensitive that, according to one Times editor, Rumsfeld himself signed off on it. Although she never fully acknowledged the specific terms of that arrangement in her articles, they were as stringent as any conditions imposed on any reporter in Iraq. “Any articles going out had to be, well, censored,” Pomeroy told me. “The mission contained some highly classified elements and people, what we dubbed the 'Secret Squirrels,' and their 'sources and methods' had to be protected and a war was about to start.” Before she filed her copy, it would be censored by a colonel who often read the article in his sleeping bag, clutching a small flashlight between his teeth. (When reporters attended tactical meetings with battlefield commanders, they faced similar restrictions.)

So Judy negotiated her own agreement but had much less autonomy than any other reporter on the scene in Iraq. No wonder Rummy was happy to sign off on that. He knew that he would have total control over Judy's words and even better could have a useful idiol to funnel propaganda through the pages of the New York Times.

Update: From Jay Rosen's continuing questions about Miller's secret clearance.

Clearance is a terrible trade off: the reporter gets to know, but can’t tell the world unless the government says it’s okay, and if you slip up or don’t ask they can throw you in jail. What kind of journalist would count that an advantage?

I can think of one kind: a reporter who, working closely with sources inside government, had already agreed to submit all her copy to those officials for their approval anyway. Thinking it over, said reporter might say to rapidly rationalizing self: They’re making me pay the costs (in censorship.) I should get more of the benefits (in classified data.) Clearance at a higher level let’s me see more of what they find. How can I push to publish the best stuff if I don’t know what they have?

Posted by Mary at October 21, 2005 07:29 AM | Media | Technorati links |