THE PLANK SEPTEMBER 29, 2008
On the cover of this Sunday's New York Times Book Review, Times managing editor Jill Abramson wrote a 3,400-word piece assessing Bob Woodward's bestseller The War Within. Her review offers a broad, largely positive survey of the previous three installments in Woodward's Bush series, writing that "his books offer a definitive portrait" of the president "in real time." A little more than halfway through the piece, Abramson trains her critic's eye back on herself and reflects on the Times's controversial pre-war coverage of Saddam Hussein's W.M.D program. She writes:
In "Plan of Attack" Woodward acknowledges an error of his own: he admits he should have pushed The Washington Post to publish a front-page article about the flimsiness of the intelligence on W.M.D. I was Washington bureau chief for The Times while this was happening, and I failed to push hard enough for an almost identical, skeptical article, written by James Risen. This was a period when there were too many credulous accounts of the administration's claims about Iraq's W.M.D. (including some published in The Times and The Post).
I found this fascinating. In the way that Abramson notes that Woodward's personal evolution as a reporter infuses another layer of intrigue to the arc of his Bush books, Abramson's review offers a candid rebuke of a period of difficult history in the Times's Washington bureau, when the flurry of Judith Miller bylines channeled the Bush administration's W.M.D claims onto the front page. This was the time when Miller had titled herself "Miss Run Amok," and tensions boiled between Abramson's Washington bureau and then-executive editor Howell Raines.
Abramson told me this morning that she felt it was neccessary to discuss the Times's reporting in her Woodward review. '"I just thought it would be disingenuous [not to], since basically I was dealing with more or less the same subject," she said. Abramson told me that she couldn't recall why Risen's skeptical piece didn't make it immediately into the paper. "I can't recall if it sat in the Washington queue, or the foreign queue, or what," she said. But whatever the reason, she called the episode "egregious."
The Times has revisited this period in fits and starts. On May 26 2004, the paper published a 1,400-word Editor's Note that refrained from citing specific reporters or editors involved in the W.M.D coverage. Four days later, the paper's inaugural public editor, Dan Okrent, offered his own critical take. During my time as a reporter at the New York Observer, I wrote a series of articles exploring the Times's pre-war coverage and the feeling by some close to James Risen that his reporting wasn't getting as much play as that of Judith Miller (no sources could recall any specific stories that were held or killed). At the time, Risen declined to comment on the matter then (and didn't return my call this morning). But in March 2004, he wrote a letter to the New York Review of Books making a strong case that he was skeptical of the prewar intelligence: "Your story on the pre-war coverage of Iraq, focusing in part on The New York Times, failed to mention that I wrote several stories before the war critical of the Bush administration's case, both on the evidence of links between Iraq and al-Qaeda, and on the basis for claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction." Miller declined to comment when I called her this morning.
Abramson added that since her time as Washington bureau chief, she has thought a lot about the paper's pre-war coverage and what could have been done differently. "In real time, I failed to grasp its importance and urgency," she said of Risen's article.