If the sales of Judith Miller's memoir are commensurate with the vituperation of the attacks on her, the royalties will mount. Her critics—they are many and loud—say the former New York Times reporter bears a responsibility for the Iraq war because the articles she wrote in the lead-up to the invasion advanced the Bush Administration's contention that the country had weapons of mass destruction.
It’s easy to disparage Miller. Too easy. Censure her and we can sidestep looking at our own reporting, at broader disquieting questions about journalism since 9/11. As journalists, we all let our guard down in the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack on American soil. We abandoned some of the most important journalistic principles—speak truth to power; hold governments accountable; display healthy skepticism—at the base of the American flagpole. And I don't just mean the royal we, the institutional we. I, too, am culpable.
A few weeks after 9/11, Lotfi Raissi, an Algerian-born pilot, was arrested at his home near London's Heathrow airport. He was alleged to have trained several of the 9/11 pilots during the time he had been a flight instructor in Arizona, from 1997 to 2000. The incriminating evidence included the fact that several pages of his flight log were missing during the period of time he was alleged to have trained one of hijackers. I was among the journalistic mob that staked out his house and interviewed his neighbors, and I wrote several articles about his arrest and the efforts by the Bush Administration to extradite him, relying on evidence gathered by the FBI. I wince as I read them now. The articles appeared under the rubric "A National Challenged," and their clear import of was that the FBI had a strong case linking him to the 9/11 attacks. A British court subsequently found that Raissi had been falsely accused—the pages were "missing" due to the negligence of law enforcement officials—and ordered that he be paid compensation.
The Raissi story is illustrative of how the media reported the "war on terror," emphasizing national security over civil liberties. Editors behaved like politicians—they worried about putting the resources in places to cover the next terrorist attack, while paying scant attention to lives ruined by the erosion of civil liberties. When law enforcement officials, whether in Washington or New York, said they were worried that terrorists might use helicopters or crop dusters, it was a front-page story. The horror stories of individuals falsely accused of being a terrorist were buried inside the paper, if reported at all.
With the ruins of the World Trade Center still smoldering, Attorney General John Ashcroft told a congressional committee that a mosque in Brooklyn was funneling money to al Qaeda. It was the lead story in the New York Times. It turned out to be wrong, as the reporter, Eric Lichtblau, would later note, with remarkable candor and admirable journalistic integrity. Lichtblau understood why: "We in the media were no doubt swept up in that same national mood of fear and outrage," he wrote in Bush's Law: The Remaking of American Justice.
Not long ago, the New York Times announced that henceforth it would call torture "torture." Until then what the CIA was doing to get information from terrorist suspects—stuffing them in coffins; hanging them by their hands, naked; smashing them against walls; siccing snarling dogs on them—was called "enhanced interrogation techniques," a euphemism artfully drafted by Bush Administration lawyers.
The paper's editors gave various tortuous reasons as to why they wouldn't use the word "torture." It would be taking sides in a political debate was one; another was that there had not been a legal determination that these techniques were torture. Well, calling slavery slavery also took sides in a political debate, and we write that a person has allegedly committed murder before there has been a court determination.
Raymond Bonner is a former foreign correspondent and investigative reporter at The New York Times, and the author of Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong.
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