View Full Version : The NY Times, Judy Miller And 9/11: The Most Stunning Failure Yet?

05-23-2006, 01:25 PM
The NY Times, Judy Miller and 9/11: The most stunning failure yet?


William Bunch

Just in the last three years, we've lived through a non-stop string of controversy and scandal at the New York Times -- the Jayson Blair scandal, the various Judy Miller WMD-misinfo-and-Plame scandals, not to mention questions about the timing of its (deservedly) Pulitzer Prize-winning scoop on warrantless wiretapping, which could have been published before the 2004 presidential election.

At this point, we thought that nothing new coming out of West 43rd Street could surprise us -- until today.

Because just now, some 56 months after the fact, we are learning that both Judy Miller and her editors at the New York Times had information that foretold the 9/11 terror attacks and elected not to publish it. Reading the new story carefully, it does seem that a decision to publish the article in the summer of 2001 was not a "slam dunk,' that there were legitimate questions whether Miller's tip was enough to hang a story on. But the episode does raise a couple of other serious questions -- surely about the pre-attack ineptitude of the Bush White House, but also over the Times' handling of this explosive info both before and after 9/11.

The news comes (by way of Raw Story) from journalists Rory O'Connor and William Scott Malone, and it was published today on the Alternet web site:

Now, in an exclusive interview, [Judy] Miller reveals how the attack on the Cole spurred her reporting on Al Qaida and led her, in July 2001, to a still-anonymous top-level White House source, who shared top-secret NSA signals intelligence (SIGINT) concerning an even bigger impending Al Qaida attack, perhaps to be visited on the continental United States.

Ultimately, Miller never wrote that story either. But two months later -- on Sept. 11 -- Miller and her editor at the Times, Stephen Engelberg, both remembered and regretted the story they "didn't do."

She said that the key information about a possible al-Qaeda attack came to her on July 4 weekend:

"But I did manage to have a conversation with a source that weekend. The person told me that there was some concern about an intercept that had been picked up. The incident that had gotten everyone's attention was a conversation between two members of Al Qaida. And they had been talking to one another, supposedly expressing disappointment that the United States had not chosen to retaliate more seriously against what had happened to the Cole. And one Al Qaida operative was overheard saying to the other, 'Don't worry; we're planning something so big now that the U.S. will have to respond.'

"And I was obviously floored by that information. I thought it was a very good story: (1) the source was impeccable; (2) the information was specific, tying Al Qaida operatives to, at least, knowledge of the attack on the Cole; and (3) they were warning that something big was coming, to which the United States would have to respond. This struck me as a major page one-potential story.

Miller's editor at the time was Engelberg, one of the most respected names in the newspaper business, now a top editor at the Oregonian in Portland. He said he was tantalized by the tip but that he felt with so little specifics -- about who the alleged al-Qaeda operatives were, or the nature of any planned attack -- that there just wasn't enough there for a full-blown article. Like any good editor, he still broods over that decision years later.

"On Sept. 11th, I was standing on the platform at the 125th Street station," he remembered ruefully more than four years later. "I was with a friend, and we both saw the World Trade Center burning and saw the second one hit. 'It's Al-Qaida!' I yelled. 'We had a heads-up!' So yes, I do still have regrets."

Three points here, one about Bush and two about journalism:

1) This has been said so many time before, so we won't belabor the point, but how much more evidence do people need that the Bush White House had plenty of information about the pending 9/11 attacks, and failed to take the threat seriously? The relatively high marks that Bush gets on terrorism issues, even today, just aren't supported by the facts.

2) As for the New York Times, the decision not to publish pre-9/11 is a toss-up. But why, in God's name, was this information not published in any clear and meaningful way immediately after 9/11, on the pages of the Times itself. Doesn't anyone think that information of advance warnings of the attack in the highest levels of Washington is something that the public needed to know in those early days after the attacks?

Instead, from what we can gather, the information has dribbled out... some of it in a 2005 article in Columbia Journalism Review, and some of it today in a story on an alternative, progressive Web site. Who exactly was the Times protecting in not writing this article in September 2001, immediately after the attack, and why?

3) Another stunner from the new article: One reason that Miller wasn't able to do the additional reporting that might have added enough meat to get the al-Qaeda story in the paper pre-9/11 was because she, Engelberg, and another reporter were all busy trying to finish a book:

"At the time I also had had a book coming out. Steve, Bill Broad and I were co-authors of a book about biological terrorism. So we were working flat out on that book trying to meet our deadline. I was desperately trying to get my arms around this series that we were trying to do on Al Qaida. I was having a lot of trouble because the information was very hard to come by. There was a lot going on. I was also doing biological weapons stories and homeland security stories. And in Washington, if you don't have a sense of immediacy about something, and if you sense that there is bureaucratic resistance to a story, you tend to focus on areas of less resistance.

So this is now the third time that the timing and flow of a news article with major impact on the electorate and the American political debate was affected by journalists working on a book, and the conflict that posed with their responsibility to newspaper readers. The others are Bob Woodward's withholding of information about the CIA-Valerie Plame case he uncovered during his book research, and James Risen's warrantless wiretapping scoop, which was finally published in the Times after he finished writing a book on the same subject.

There's got to be a better system here. In theory, we think that newspaper reporters writing books is a good thing, certainly for the career of the reporter and usually for the reading public. But must the public's right-to-know be a casualty, time and time again?

Ignatius Riley
05-24-2006, 09:52 AM
Newspapers are businesses run by businessman looking to make profits that will allow them to have stock in their companies bought and sold on the NYSE. Something like 90 percent of the newspapers out there are owned by a handful, eight or so, companies. These companies sell one thing to customers. The product they sell is eyeballs. Their customers are prospective advertizers. The advertizers buy space in the papers that can get them the right eyeballs.

In short, a newspaper does not provide a service to a reader. For newspapers to provide service, first newspapers must become not-for-profit.

05-24-2006, 05:17 PM