For the portion of the American press that still looks to Watergate and the Pentagon Papers for inspiration, and that considers itself a check on state power, the hour of its greatest humiliation can, I think, be located with some precision: it happened on Sunday, September 8, 2002.
On that morning the New York Times published a now notorious story, reported by Michael R. Gordon and Judith Miller, in which nameless Bush Administration officials claimed that Iraq was trying to buy the kind of aluminum tubes necessary to build a nuclear centrifuge. Press critic Michael Massing, who in 2004 reviewed these events, describes what happened:
Gordon and Miller argue that the information about the aluminum tubes was not a leak. “The administration wasn’t really ready to make its case publicly at the time,” Gordon told me. “Somebody mentioned to me this tubes thing. It took a lot to check it out.” Perhaps so, but administration officials were clearly delighted with the story. On that morning’s talk shows, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice all referred to the information in the Times story. “It’s now public,” Cheney said on Meet the Press, that Saddam Hussein “has been seeking to acquire” the “kind of tubes” needed to build a centrifuge to produce highly enriched uranium, “which is what you have to have in order to build a bomb.” On CNN’s Late Edition, Rice said the tubes “are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge programs.” She added: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”—a phrase lifted directly from the Times.
We know from retrospective accounts that the Bush White House had already decided to go to war. We know from the Downing Street Memo that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." We know that the Bush forces had decided to rev up their sales campaign that week because ''from a marketing point of view you don't introduce new products in August," as chief of staff Andrew Card brazenly put it. We know that the appearance of the tubes story in the Times is what allowed Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld and Rice to run with it on the Sunday shows, because without that they would have been divulging classified information and flouting their own rules. We also know that the tubes story was wrong: they weren't for centrifuges. And yet it was coming from the very top of the professional pyramid, the New York Times. Massing again:
The performance of the Times was especially deficient. While occasionally running articles that questioned administration claims, it more often deferred to them. (The Times‘s editorial page was consistently much more skeptical.) Compared to other major papers, the Times placed more credence in defectors, expressed less confidence in inspectors, and paid less attention to dissenters. The September 8 story on the aluminum tubes was especially significant. Not only did it put the Times‘s imprimatur on one of the administration’s chief claims, but it also established a position at the paper that apparently discouraged further investigation into this and related topics.
The reporters working on the story strongly disagree. That the tubes were intended for centrifuges “was the dominant view of the US intelligence community,” Michael Gordon told me. “It looks like it’s the wrong view. But the story captured what was and still is the majority view of the intelligence community—whether right or wrong"…
Asked about this, Miller said that as an investigative reporter in the intelligence area, “my job isn’t to assess the government’s information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of The New York Times what the government thought about Iraq’s arsenal.”
That's not getting the story wrong. That's redefining the job as: reflecting what the government thinks.
This was the nadir. This was when the watchdog press fell completely apart: On that Sunday when Bush Administration officials peddling bad information anonymously put the imprimatur of the New York Times on a story that allowed other Bush Administration officials to dissemble about the tubes and manipulate fears of a nuclear nightmare on television, even as they knew they were going to war anyway.
The government had closed circle on the press, laundering its own manipulated intelligence through the by-lines of two experienced reporters, smuggling the deed past layers of editors, and then marching it like a trained dog onto the Sunday talk shows to perform in a lurid doomsday act.
"The jewel in the crown is nuclear,'' a senior administration official said in that Sep. 8, 2002 article. ''The closer he gets to a nuclear capability, the more credible is his threat to use chemical or biological weapons. Nuclear weapons are his hole card.'' Almost all the sources Gordon and Miller used were anonymous: "An Iraqi defector said… Administration officials also assert… administration hard-liners argue…"
"'The question is not, why now?'' the official added, referring to a potential military campaign to oust Mr. Hussein. ''The question is why waiting is better. The closer Saddam Hussein gets to a nuclear weapon, the harder he will be to deal with.''
The very notion of hard evidence was under attack, but the Times journalists, instead of discerning this fact and alerting us to it, were conduits for it:
Hard-liners are alarmed that American intelligence underestimated the pace and scale of Iraq's nuclear program before Baghdad's defeat in the gulf war. Conscious of this lapse in the past, they argue that Washington dare not wait until analysts have found hard evidence that Mr. Hussein has acquired a nuclear weapon. The first sign of a ''smoking gun,'' they argue, may be a mushroom cloud. (italics added)
Notice that when Michael Gordon told Massing that capturing the dominant view within the government was the job, even if that view was wrong and led the nation into war, and when Judy Miller told Massing her role wasn’t to "assess the government’s information" or perform an independent check on it, but simply to "tell readers of The New York Times what the government thought," it was two years after the nadir. And after the public rationale for the war was shown to be false. Plenty of time for reflection, but… where was the reflection? To this day Gordon doesn't think there was anything seriously wrong with his reporting, and he continues to appear on the front page of the New York Times.
When the Society of Professional Journalists gave Miller a First Amendment award it was October of 2005, three years after mushroom cloud Sunday. When David Gregory of NBC said there was nothing wrong with his and his colleagues' performance in examining Bush's case for war ("I think the questions were asked. I think we pushed. I think we prodded…") six years had elapsed.
Today it is recognized at the Times and in the journalism world that Judy Miller was a bad actor who did a lot of damage and had to go. But it has never been recognized that secrecy was itself a bad actor in the events that led to the collapse, that it did a lot of damage, and parts of it might have to go. Our press has never come to terms with the ways in which it got itself on the wrong side of secrecy as the national security state swelled in size after September 11th. (I develop this point in a fuller way in my 14-min video, here.)
In May of 2004, the New York Times, to its great credit, finally went back and looked at its coverage of the build-up to war in Iraq. (Shamefully, NBC and the other networks have never done that.) But the Times did not look at the problem of journalists giving powerful officials a free pass by stripping names from fear-mongering words and just reporting the words, or of newspapers sworn to inform the public keeping secrets from that same (misinformed) public, of reporters getting played and yet refusing to ID the people who played them because they needed to signal some future player that the confidential source game would go on.
In its look back the Times declared itself insufficiently skeptical, especially about Iraqi defectors. True enough. But the look back was itself insufficiently skeptical. Radical doubt, which is basic to understanding what drives Julian Assange, was impermissible then. One of the consequences of that is the appeal of radical transparency today.
Simon Jenkins got at some of this in a Guardian column on Wikileaks: "Accountability can only default to disclosure. As Jefferson remarked, the press is the last best hope when democratic oversight fails." But at the nadir the last best hope failed, too. When that happens accountability defaults to extreme disclosure, which is where we are today. The institutional press isn't driving it; the wilds of the Internet are. To understand Julian Assange and the weird reactions to him in the American press we need to tell a story that starts with Judy Miller and ends with Wikileaks.
After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…
Here is the 14-min video I did trying to puzzle through my own thoughts on Wikileaks. They are closely related to the argument I develop here.
Marcy Wheeler (aka emptywheel) has a must-read reply to this post: Hatfill and Wen Ho Lee and Plame and al-Awlaki and Assange:
Now, I think Rosen actually misses a key step here: from where the press sees itself as the neutral conduit of what the government is thinking, to where the press thinks it’s leaks from the government can stand-in for due process in the Anwar al-Awlaki case, and from there to Assange. Recall how Dana Temple-Raston, a very good national security journalist, lectured Glenn Greenwald about how the leaks she had received justified the government’s targeting of al-Awlaki.
She's right. I left that out because I couldn't think of a good way to weave it in. But it's crucial. See my comment on the exchange with Temple-Raston at Adam Serwer's blog.
Glenn Greenwald at Salon: The media's authoritarianism and Wikileaks, also comments on this post: "Almost every radio and television show I've done over the last ten days concerning WikiLeaks — and most media accounts I read — have featured someone, somewhere, touting this lie, usually without contradiction: that WikiLeaks has indiscriminately dumped thousands of cables, whereas newspapers have only selectively published some." Indiscriminately dumped is a false claim, as Glenn shows.
PARIS — For many Europeans, Washington’s fierce reaction to the flood of secret diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks displays imperial arrogance and hypocrisy, indicating a post-9/11 obsession with secrecy that contradicts American principles.
I endorse almost everything my colleague Clay Shirky says in his post, Wikileaks and the Long Haul.
My earlier post on Wikileaks (July 26, 2010) Wikileaks, the World’s First Stateless News Organization.
I spoke Dec. 11th at this Personal Democracy Forum symposium on Wikilkeaks and Net freedom. The five key points I made (in 140 characters or less.)
1. It takes "the world's first stateless news organization" http://jr.ly/5jnk to show our news organizations how statist they really are.
2. The sources are voting with their leaks. That they chose to go to Wikileaks rather than the newspapers says something about the newspapers.
3. The watchdog press died. What's possible today is a distributed "eye on power" system that includes the old press as one component part.
4. It's said the state has a monopoly on the legal use of force. But the state cannot have a monopoly on the legitimate use of digital "force."
5. Everything a journalist learns that he cannot tell the public alienates him from the public. Wikileaks is built to prevent this alienation.
You can watch the archived livestream of the symposium here. My part is on panel 1, at 35:00.