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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Judith Miller: The 9/11 Story That Got Away

In case you missed this like I did, here is an interview with Judith Miller published today where she discusses being tipped off by sources within the administration about a large impending atttack by Al Qaida in July 2001, just two months before the 9/11 terrorism attacks. I cut a lot of the parts where she justifies not following the story up with more vigor to overcome the objections of her editor about running it in The New York Times. Explaining why she didn't follow up seems to be a big part of her motive for giving the interview:

The 9/11 Story That Got Away, by Rory O'Connor and William Scott Malone, AlterNet, May 18, 2006:  ...Enter Judith Miller, the Pulitzer Prize-winning ex-New York Times reporter at the center of the ongoing perjury and obstruction of justice case involving former top White House official I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby. Miller spent 85 days in jail before finally disclosing that Libby was the anonymous source who confirmed to her that Valerie Plame was a CIA official, although Miller never wrote a story about Plame.

Now, in an exclusive interview, 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... 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."

Interview with Judith Miller:

"I was working on a special project in 2000-2001 -- trying to do a series on where Al Qaida was, who Al Qaida was, and what kind of a threat it posed to the United States. In the beginning I thought it was going to be pretty straightforward, but it turned out to be anything but. And it took me a long, long time...

"I was fairly persuaded that the attack on the Cole was an Al Qaida operation, based on the sources that I was talking to, because I had no independent information, obviously. The people that I was covering ardently believed that Al Qaida was behind a lot of these attacks on American forces... At the time there was still a fair amount of debate and a fair amount of resistance to that thesis within the intelligence community... But from the get go, I think the instinctive reaction of the people I was covering was that this was an Al Qaida operation. So I started looking at the attack on the Cole as an example of Al Qaida terrorism.

"I learned that the Al Qaida Cole attack was not exactly a hugely efficient operation, and I learned later on that there had been an earlier attempt to take out the Cole or another American ship that had floundered badly because of poor Al Qaida training. Because of incidents like that ... people tended to discount Al Qaida. They said, 'Oh, they are just a bunch of amateurs." But ... the people I was covering didn't think that …

"I had begun to hear rumors about intensified intercepts and tapping of telephones. But that was just vaguest kind of rumors in the street, indicators... My sources also told me at that time that there had been a lot of chatter overheard -- I didn't know specifically what that meant -- but a lot of talk about an impending attack at one time or another. ...

"...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.

"I remember going back to work in New York the next day and meeting with my editor Stephen Engelberg. I was rather excited, as I usually get about information of this kind, and I said, 'Steve, I think we have a great story. And the story is that two members of Al Qaida overheard on an intercept (and I assumed that it was the National Security Agency, because that's who does these things) were heard complaining about the lack of American response to the Cole, but also … contemplating what would happen the next time, when there was, as they said, the impending major attack that was being planned. They said this was such a big attack that the U.S. would have to respond.' Then I waited.

"And Stephen said, 'That's great! Who were the guys overheard?' "I said, 'Well, I don't know. I just know that they were both Al Qaida operatives.' "'Where were they overheard?' Steve asked. "Well, I didn't know where the two individuals were. I didn't know what countries they were in; I didn't know whether they were having a local call or a long-distance call.

"'What was the attack they were planning?' he said. 'Was it domestic, was it international, was it another military target, was it a civilian target?' I didn't know. 'Had they discussed it?' "I didn't know, and it was at that point that I realized that I didn't have the whole story. As Steve put it to me, 'You have a great first and second paragraph. What's your third?"'

Anatomy of a scoop

Stephen Engelberg confirms Miller's tale in all respects. Engelberg first mentioned the incident in an article by Douglas McCollam in the October 2005 edition of Columbia Journalism Review, which noted:

"Miller was naturally excited about the scoop and wanted the Times to go with the story. Engelberg, himself a veteran intelligence reporter, wasn't so sure. There had been a lot of chatter about potential attacks; how did they know this was anything other than big talk? Who were these guys? What country were they in? How had we gotten the intercept? Miller didn't have any answers, and Engelberg didn't think they could publish without more context. Miller agreed to try and find out more, but in the end, the story never ran." ....

Interview with Judith Miller:

"I realized that this information was enormously sensitive, and that it was going to be difficult to get more information, but that my source undoubtedly knew more. So I promised to Steve that I would go back and try to get more. And I did … try.

"He knew who my source was. He knew that the source was impeccable. I had also confirmed from a second source that ... there was such an intercept -- though my second source did not seem to know as much about the content of the intercept as the first source did. But that was enough for me to know that there was a good story there.

"But whoever knew about the 'who' and the 'where' was not willing tell me at that time. After the fact I was told that, 'The bad guys were in Yemen on this conversation.' I didn't know that at that time. I remember knowing that the person who'd told me seemed to know who had been overheard, but he was not about to share that information with me …

"And Washington being Washington, and the CT world being the CT world, I was soon off pursuing other things. I simply couldn't nail it down with more specificity...

"The morning of Sept. 11, I was downtown about 12 blocks from the World Trade Center. I remember walking to a school around the corner with a very clear view of the World Trade Center...

"When I got to the Baxter School, there were people standing out in front of the school, pointing at the World Trade Center, which was on fire, and I looked up. I asked what had happened, and they said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. ... I thought, 'Gosh! That was a pretty big space for a Cessna or something to have gotten into that building.'

"And here I had spent my whole summer, my whole past year thinking about an Al Qaida attack, and I yet wouldn't let myself believe that it was happening right then. I simply wouldn't believe...

"By that time I walked to my house a couple of blocks away, and I heard a boom, and I turned around and once again I didn't see the plane, but I saw the fire shoot out from the building from the plane.

"It was only then, after the second plane hit, that I allowed myself to believe that it really was a terrorist attack -- the attack that we had been so worried about for so long. And I think I was kind of amazed at myself, at the power of denial...

"It was very strange … it was a strange feeling to have written a series that virtually predicted this, and to have had not a single other reporter call, not a single other newspaper follow up on some of the information that we had broken in that series. At the time of the series, which was published in January 2001, we had information about chemical and biological experiments at Al Qaida camps.

We had gotten the location of the camps, we had gotten satellite overhead of the camps. I had interviewed, in Afghanistan, Al Qaida-trained people who said that they were going to get out of the 'prison' in Afghanistan and go back and continue their jihad. They had talked about suicide bombings. We had Jordanian intelligence say that attempts to blow up hotels, roads and tourist targets in Jordan over the millennium was part of the Al Qaida planned attack. And yet I guess people just didn't believe it. ..."

The one that got away

Like Miller, Steve Engelberg, now managing editor of the Oregonian in Portland, still thinks about that story that got away. "More than once I've wondered what would have happened if we'd run the piece?" he told the CJR. "A case can be made that it would have been alarmist, and I just couldn't justify it, but you can't help but think maybe I made the wrong call." ...

"So I sometimes think back, and Steve and I have talked a few times about the fact that that story wasn't fit, and that neither one of us pursued it at that time with the kind of vigor and determination that we would have had we known what was going to happen. And I always wondered how the person who sent that [intercept] warning must have felt...

    Posted by on Thursday, May 18, 2006 at 05:23 PM in Politics, Press, Terrorism | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (0)

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