Saturday, January 13, 2007

LOS ANGELES TIMES LAUNDERS JUDITH MILLER: Bad move, some stains are ineradicable

Today the Los Angeles Times published a long op-ed piece by Judith Miller on ProMed. The well-known service describes itself as "[t]he global electronic reporting system for outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases & toxins, open to all sources," operated by the International Society for Infectious Diseases.

As an informative piece, Miller's item, entitled "Website for the germ obsessed," was middling.

However, it brings up an activity the Times has been fiddling with: The laundering of Judith Miller by sneaking her back into newspaper pages under the utilization of her journalistically accumulated "expertise" in germs.

The thinking appears to be that one can separate it from her disgraced work on WMDs in Iraq.

This is not really possible and to grasp why, you have to know a bit about why Miller is so interested -- one might say "obsessed" -- with germs.

First, Miller wrote a book about germs, entitled the same, along with NY Times colleagues William Broad and Steven Engelberg. The LA Times signature line for her duly notes this. What it doesn't note is that the book, while a bestseller, wasn't such a great thing.

It is a history of germ warfare and potentials for bioterror written from the point of view of Miller's favorite sources, the scientists who were involved in secret weapons programs. As such it is a long and horrifying trip through the macabre, based on the say-so of a very small group of weaponeers with a singularly weird view of what actually constitutes good science.

If you wish to be made afraid, very afraid, Miller's Germs is great. If you're more skeptical in light of current history, then you can read these commentaries on Miller, the book and one of her mentors, here and here.

Speaking professionally as GlobalSecurity.Org Senior Fellow, one who has come to be known for some expertise on the subject of bioweapons, DD is by no means a believer in the worth of Miller's work prior to her fall from grace.

But getting back to the Los Angeles Times, the newspaper first laundered Miller in August of last year, publishing her tribute to a Russian bioweaponeer named Lev S. Sandakhchiev.

The scientist had died and Miller was there to salute him in the pages of the newspaper as someone who had allegedly saved the world from bioweapons.

Whoah, Nelly!

This is Miller's screwy take on the dark story of biological warfare. The scientists who developed these corrupt weapons, for her, become heroes and mentors. In Miller's world, the bioweapons developer is a great man because, as published on the opinion page of the Times, "[he] made a courageous decision."

"A compact, wiry, chain-smoking scientist, he grasped after the Soviet Union's collapse that the survival of his lab and its scientists depended on abandoning his life's long work in bioweapons and opening up to the West . . . "

Other scientists could just as easily say a more courageous decision would have been not to work on bioweapons at all. It is a decision tens of thousands of others have made without thinking twice.

Indeed, the blabbering bioweapons scientists of the Soviet Union, shrewdly realizing that the money and good life were going to dry up, spilled their secrets to the west in hopes of book deals and jobs. For some, this worked. It has instituted a system in which the US government pays them for their information and attempts to secure their employment in biodefense so that they don't run off and sell themselves to the highest bidders.

There's an infernal logic to it. One realizes the necessity of making pay-offs to such men but it's a severe twisting of things to paint the same people as individuals who save the world from bioweapons.

It's like insisting those who spend a lifetime developing sneaky ways to set fires to homes ought to be rewarded in their waning days for talking about it; as reformed arsonists, awarded jobs in fire departments so that they don't "go over to the dark side" again.

Yet this is the outlook that informs and infuses Miller's writing on germs. It would be difficult to find a stranger and more unscientific way of viewing things.

The average daily reader of the Los Angeles Times, of course, is not expected to know any of this. But its editors certainly should.

Miller's work has even contaminated peer-reviewed science.

In the summer of 2005, myself and well known bioweapons and arms control expert Milton Leitenberg publicly
critiqued a paper
published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science which purported to show how terrorists could easily kill Americans by contaminating the milk supply with botulinum toxin, the deadliest poison known to man.

The paper was entitled "Analyzing a Bioterror Attack on the Food Supply: The Case of Botulinum Toxin in the Milk." We found it alarmist and shot through with what, in our estimation, amounted to significant errors.

At the time, it was also astonishing to see an article of Judith Miller's as part of its scholarly footnotes.

The item in question was a piece written for the New York Times when Miller was embedded with the US military's team tasked with finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Readers may recall it was the rubbish reporting on WMD's in Iraq by Miller which led to her downfall.

For the PNAS paper, Miller's article was cited as evidence terrorists could easily make botulinum toxin of a certain potency.

During our analysis of the problem, I found no basis for this assumption in any scientific literature. It was, rather, the product of a man named Nissar Hindawi, a Miller source who was part of the stable of bad informants maintained by Iraqi opposition leader Ahmad Chalabi. (You can look it up. The article, entitled "Aftereffects -- Germ Weapons: Leading Iraqi scientist says he lied to UN inspectors," from April 27, 2003. It is the same as that cited in the PNAS paper.)

In actuality, Miller's informant -- Hindawi, was another damnable bioweapons scientist, one who had left Iraq's programs in 1989 before the outbreak of the first Gulf War. (See WMD: Weapons of Miller's descriptions," a critical look at this work from The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Once again, these are arcane points to many readers. However, it is impossible to escape the toxic remnants of Miller's work at the New York Times when looking at issues having to do with weapons of mass destruction and biological terrorism. Even when least expected, Miller's thrown down articles lurk in collections of scholarly footnotes, buried like intellectual landmines which must be defused one by one.

For these reasons, Miller is a really bad choice to write about any aspects of disease or science. It is certainly one of her favorite subjects but her career's work shows it is informed and colored by an education gained from the worst sources -- bioweapons developers.

If the Los Angeles Times continues to launder her work back into the mainstream, it may find out the downside of the practice the hard way.

Coincidentally: David Petraeus, of all people, is found embedded in Miller's crap reporting about WMD's in Iraq. Petraeus, as no one can have missed, is the Bush adminstration's man to take control in Iraq, the fellow who rewrote the Army's training manual on counter-insurgency -- yadda-yadda -- the man who will make the deadly mess all right.

In April of 2003, Miller was embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq, covering an army exploitation team -- called MET-Alpha -- aimed at finding WMDs. Petraeus was commanding the 101st Airborne.

In a NY Times story entitled, "Iraq Destroys Illicit Arms," Miller writes of how just days before the war Iraqis had been getting rid of chemical weapons and that some unspecified materials found buried in the ground were expected to be "precursors for a toxic agent that is banned by chemical weapons treaties."

Wrote Miller:

"The potential of MET Alpha's work is 'enormous," said Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Division.

" ' What they've discovered,' he added, 'could prove to be of incalculable value. Though much work must still be done to validate the information MET Alpha has uncovered, if it proves out it will clearly be one of the major discoveries of this operation, and it may be the major discovery.' "


Anonymous Perry E. Metzger said...

Promed is mostly a mailing list, not a web site. If the subscribers are "germ obsessed" that is understandable given that they are primarily medical professionals tasked with tracking and fighting infectious diseases -- I suppose one could similarly call fire department officials "fire obsessed" and academics who study earthquakes "earthquake obsessed".

In just the title of the piece, we immediately see the level of commitment showed by Ms. Miller towards even handed presentation of well checked information -- that is to say, none to speak of.

6:47 AM  

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