By Jack Shafer
"The Ballad of Judith Miller."
Sat Dec 17, 2005 17:56

"The Ballad of Judith Miller."

Judith Miller, Interrogator
Her brief career as a questioner of a Hamas suspect in an Israeli
By Jack Shafer
Posted Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2005, at 6:42 PM ET

The Chicago Sun-Times confirmed yesterday Oscar Wilde's maxim that
modern journalism is valuable because it keeps us in touch with the
ignorance of the community when it published a story titled "N.Y.
Times Reporter Named in Court Filing: Bridgeview Man Interrogated In
Israel Says Miller Watched."

The Sun-Times plays up as hot news a charge by Muhammed Salah that
Judith Miller witnessed his 1993 interrogation in Israel. Salah
currently faces federal charges in Chicago of laundering millions of
dollars over 15 years to support the terrorist organization Hamas.
He wants his confession to Israeli authorities from 1993 suppressed
in this prosecution, claiming that interrogators tortured it out of
him, and hopes that dragging Miller into his case will help
accomplish that.

Salah's court filing, quoted by the paper, finds it curious that the
prosecutors don't reveal the name of the news reporter who observed
the interrogation. "She is the infamous Judith Miller, who recently
left her position at the New York Times amidst a swirl of
controversy and claims of highly unprofessional and politically
motivated conduct," the Sun-Times quotes the filing.

But Miller's proximity to Salah's interrogation hasn't been news
since 1996, when Miller described the scene in her book God Has
Ninety-Nine Names. This salient fact, which the Sun-Times seems to
have missed, also gives us another excuse to examine the unusual
sources and methods Miller brings to the practice of journalism.

In her book, Miller writes of arriving at the Governor's
Building, "Israel's highest security prison in the occupied West
Bank," on Feb. 11, 1993. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had given
personal approval for Miller's prison visit, she writes, because he
wanted her to hear with her own ears the testimony of Salah, who had
confessed to holding rank as a "senior figure in the clandestine
military wing of the U.S.-based command structure" of Hamas. The CIA
and FBI denied the existence of such a network despite Israeli
protests, and Rabin thought a New York Times reporter such as Miller
might persuade Washington otherwise.

Miller settles into a room down the hall from Salah and observes him
via closed-circuit television. Salah's interrogator, "Nadav," asks
Miller what question she wants asked before he goes down to see the
prisoner. She writes:

His request made me deeply uncomfortable. On the one hand, I wanted
to hear Salah repeat what the Israelis insisted he had been telling
them. On the other hand, I did not want to become part of an actual
interrogation. Where was the line between journalism and
participating in an official inquiry, and, for all I knew, torture?

How uncomfortable was she? The book gives no clue as to how much
time passed from the arousal of her unease to her self-examination
of the line separating journalism and torture. In her very next
sentence, Miller writes:

"Ask him to discuss how and why he got involved with Hamas," I
suggested tentatively. "Or the material you say you found on him
implicating him in military activities in the West Bank and Gaza."

Nadav takes his place with Salah and "steers the conversation
toward" Miller's questions while she watches the show on the
monitor. Salah sings and sings, and Miller deduces from his cheeky
tone to some of Nadav's queries that he'd not been tortured, an
assertion made by his West Bank lawyer. (You can read these quoted
passages from God Has Ninety-Nine Names by using's "Search Inside" feature.)

Should reporters witness the interrogation of prisoners? Having
raised the question, Miller doesn't answer it—unless you regard her
participation as some sort of answer. In my book, a reporter
shouldn't flinch from observing a scene that he isn't prohibited
from writing about, including an interrogation, so I'd give Miller
the benefit of the doubt.

Should reporters "suggest" questions for interrogators, even
questions that reprise questions the interrogator has asked before?
Hell, no. If Judith Miller wanted to hear Salah's words for herself,
she should have demanded that Rabin authorize a visit in a
noninterrogation setting—Salah's cell or a visitor's area where
coercion isn't implied. Let her ask questions such as, "Are you
being treated humanely?" But a reporter who conducts a prisoner
interrogation—or even a reinterrogation—by remote control crosses
the line from observer to participant.

Miller published a Page One story about Salah in the New York Times
on Feb. 17, 1993, six days after her visit to the prison. Her
account teems with assertions made by Salah to his interrogators,
but her cited sources are conversations with Israeli authorities
and "notes of the session provided" by the Israelis. She makes no
mention of the closed-circuit hookup that allowed her to view
Salah's questioning in real time and doesn't disclose that she
suggested questions to the interrogator.

The good news in this anecdote is that before plowing ahead Miss Run
Amok-style, Miller at least recognized the ethical questions. She
knows the words, she just can't carry the tune.


"The Ballad of Judith Miller." Write the lyrics (or whatever you
have on your mind) and send to me via e-mail. The address is (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the
writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer is Slate's editor at large.
James Bamford Rolling Stone Magazine - "The Man Who Sold the War - Meet John Rendon, Bush's general in the propaganda war.


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