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Profile: Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha
a.k.a. MET Alpha
Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha was a participant or observer in the following events:
Jamal Mustafa Sultan Tikriti, photographed at Chalabi’s ANC headquarters on April 21, 2003. [Source: Reuters / Corbis]New York Times reporter Judith Miller is embedded with Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha (MET Alpha), a US Army unit charged with trying to find weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq. Miller had written a number of front-page Times stories before the war, strongly suggesting Iraq was pursuing WMD programs; all those stories will later be proven incorrect (see November 6-8, 2001, September 8, 2002, April 20, 2003, September 18, 2002, and July 25, 2003). Miller plays what the press will later call a “highly unusual role” with the unit. One US official will later claim that she turns the unit into a “rogue operation.” [Washington Post, 6/25/2003]
Accepting Military Restrictions - Miller accepted an unusual set of restrictions from the military in order to embed with MET Alpha. Most embedded journalists agreed not to report on forthcoming military tactics and to conceal sensitive information about troop movements and positions. Miller, on the other hand, agreed to allow the military to censor her work, and agreed not to publish items until they were approved by military officials. MET Alpha public affairs officer Eugene Pomeroy, who works closely with her, will later recall the agreement, saying that Miller helped negotiate the terms, and will recall the agreement being so sensitive that Defense Secretary Donal Rumsfeld signed off on it. According to the agreement, Pomeroy will recall: “Any articles going out had to be, well, censored. The mission contained some highly classified elements and people, what we dubbed the ‘Secret Squirrels,’ and their ‘sources and methods’ had to be protected and a war was about to start.” Miller’s copy is censored by a colonel, presumably MET Alpha commander Colonel Richard McPhee, who, according to Pomeroy, often reads her work in his sleeping bag, clutching a small flashlight between his teeth. Sometimes, while traveling with the unit, Miller wears a military uniform. [New York Magazine, 5/21/2005]
Threats and Connections - Miller, who has the reputation of being a “diva,” is friends with powerful neoconservatives such as Rumsfeld, his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, Pentagon adviser Richard Perle, and other figures in the Pentagon and the Bush administration. One military officer will later claim Miller sometimes “intimidated” Army soldiers by mentioning her relationship to Rumsfeld or Feith, saying, “Essentially, she threatened them,” to get the unit to do her bidding. Another officer says Miller “was always issuing threats of either going to the New York Times or to the secretary of defense. There was nothing veiled about that threat.” This officer adds that MET Alpha “was allowed to bend the rules.” [Washington Post, 6/25/2003; New York Magazine, 5/21/2005] In 2005, reporter Franklin Foer will write: “While Miller might not have intended to march in lockstep with these hawks, she was caught up in an almost irresistible cycle. Because she kept printing the neocon party line, the neocons kept coming to her with huge stories and great quotes, constantly expanding her access.” [New York Magazine, 5/21/2005]
Miller Influences Where the Unit Will Go - On April 21, MET Alpha is ordered to withdraw to the southern Iraqi town of Talil, but Miller objects in a handwritten note to two public affairs officers. Her note says: “I see no reason for me to waste time (or MET Alpha, for that matter) in Talil.… Request permission to stay on here with colleagues at the Palestine Hotel till MET Alpha returns or order to return is rescinded. I intend to write about this decision in the [New York] Times to send a successful team back home just as progress on WMD is being made.” Miller challenges the plan to go to Talil, and takes her concerns to Major General David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne. Petraeus does not have direct authority over McPhee, the commander of the 75th Exploitation Task Force, which contains the MET Alpha unit. But McPhee rescinds the withdrawal order after Petraeus advises him to do so. [Washington Post, 6/25/2003; New York Magazine, 5/21/2005]
Redirecting the Unit's Mission - Miller is also friends with Iraqi National Congress (INC) leader Ahmed Chalabi, who gave her leads for many later-debunked stories. More than half a dozen military officers will later claim that Miller acts as a go-between between Chalabi and the unit. On one occasion in April she takes some unit leaders to Chalabi’s headquarters, where the unit takes custody of Jamal Mustafa Sultan Tikriti, Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law, number 40 on the US’s most wanted list. She also sits in on his debriefing. None of the members of the unit have any experience in interrogation. Several US military officials will say they are upset that completely untrained officers led the debriefing of Tikriti. One Chalabi aide will explain why they turned Tikriti over to the MET Alpha unit instead of using the ANC’s usual contacts with the US miliary, saying, “We told Judy because we thought it was a good story.” When Miller later writes a story about Tikriti’s capture, she will claim that the handover was pure coincidence, as leaders of the unit “happened to be meeting” with Chalabi to “discuss nonproliferation issues.” One official will later complain that the unit became the “Judith Miller team” when she effectively redirected it from finding WMDs to holding and interrogating high-ranking prisoners. A military officer will later say: “This was totally out of their lane, getting involved with human intelligence.… [Miller] came in with a plan. She was leading them.… She ended up almost hijacking the mission.” A senior staff officer of the 75th Exploitation Task Force will similarly complain, “It’s impossible to exaggerate the impact she had on the mission of this unit, and not for the better.” [Washington Post, 6/25/2003]
Guarding Her Access - Pomeroy and another witness will recall Miller jealously guarding her access from other reporters. In one instance, when Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman travels with the unit for a day, Miller orders the unit’s troops not to speak to him. According to Pomeroy, “She told people that she had clearance to be there and Bart didn’t.” [New York Magazine, 5/21/2005]
Miller Has Unit Investigate Dubious Tips from Chalabi - In other cases, the unit apparently follows leads given to Miller by Chalabi or his aides. For instance, it discovers Iraqi intelligence documents and maps related to Israel, and Miller writes a story about this. Chalabi aide Zaab Sethna will later say: “We thought this was a great story for the New York Times.… That came from us.” While embedded with the unit, Miller writes stories for the Times strongly suggesting the unit has discovered WMDs. For instance, one of her headlines is “US Analysts Link Iraq Labs to Germ Arms,” and another is “US Experts Find Radioactive Material in Iraq.” But like her pre-war stories about WMDs in Iraq, these stories also will be completely discredited. It is unclear how long Miller hijacks the MET Alpha unit for, but the Washington Post will publish an expose about these connections in late June 2003. [Washington Post, 6/25/2003] In late 2003, Miller will say that her reliance on Chalabi’s information is “exaggerated.” [New York Review of Books, 2/26/2004] In 2005, Foer will call Miller one of “Chalabi’s credulous allies” along with a number of Bush administration officials. The Times will not acknowledge the breadth of Chalabi’s influence on the reports it published by Miller until May 2005, but will refuse to connect Chalabi and Miller. Foer will note that although Miller had more access to MET Alpha than any other reporter, “she was the only major reporter on the WMD beat to miss the story so completely.” [New York Magazine, 5/21/2005]
A Mouthpiece for the Administration? - In 2004, Miller tells columnist and media expert Michael Massing that as an investigative reporter in the intelligence area, “my job isn’t to assess the government’s information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of the New York Times what the government thought about Iraq’s arsenal.” Massing will write, “Many journalists would disagree with this; instead, they would consider offering an independent evaluation of official claims one of their chief responsibilities.” [New York Review of Books, 2/26/2004]
Admission of Error - In late 2005, Miller will admit that her reporting on Iraqi WMD issues was almost “entirely wrong” (see October 16, 2005).
Entity Tags: Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, Richard McPhee, Michael Massing, Ahmed Chalabi, Jamal Mustafa Sultan Tikriti, Iraqi National Congress, David Petraeus, Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith, Judith Miller, Franklin Foer
Timeline Tags: US Military, Iraq under US Occupation, Domestic Propaganda
New York Times reporter Judith Miller speaks about her reporting on PBS. [Source: PBS]New York Times reporter Judith Miller, embedded with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division south of Baghdad, writes that Iraq destroyed large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons in the days before the March 2003 invasion.
Single Unidentified 'Scientist' as Source - Miller’s source is identified as an Iraqi scientist who claims to have worked in Iraq’s chemical weapons program for over a decade; this scientist is said to have told an American military team hunting for unconventional weapons in Iraq, the Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, or MET Alpha (see April-May 2003), of the stockpiles. According to MET Alpha, the scientist has taken the team to a supply of material he buried in his backyard—“precursors for a toxic agent”—as evidence of Iraq’s illicit weapons programs. The scientist also claims that Iraq sent unconventional weapons and technology to Syria, and has been cooperating with al-Qaeda. In the last years of the Hussein regime, Miller reports the scientist as claiming, Iraq “focused its efforts… on research and development projects that are virtually impervious to detection by international inspectors, and even American forces on the ground combing through Iraq’s giant weapons plants.” MET Alpha refuses to identify the scientist, saying to do so would imperil his safety, and does not take Miller to see the scientist’s buried supply of materials. According to Miller, the team describes the scientist’s assertions and his cache of materials as “the most important discovery to date in the hunt for illegal weapons.” Moreover, Miller writes that the discovery “supports the Bush administration’s charges that Iraq continued to develop those weapons and lied to the United Nations about it. Finding and destroying illegal weapons was a major justification for the war.”
Military Controlled, Vetted Report - Miller admits to not interviewing the scientist, not being permitted to write about the scientist for three days, and having her report vetted by military officials before submitting it for publication. She says that portions of her report detailing the chemicals located by the MET Alpha team were deleted, again for fear that such reporting might place the scientist in jeopardy. Neither Pentagon officials in Washington nor CENTCOM officials in Qatar will verify that the scientist is actually working with American forces. Miller’s only contact with the scientist is viewing him “from a distance at the sites where he said that material from the arms program was buried,” where he wore a baseball cap and pointed at spots in the sand where he claimed chemical weapons materials were buried.
'Incalculable Value' - Miller quotes the commander of the 101st Airborne, Major General David Petraeus, as calling the potential of MET Alpha’s work “enormous.” Petraeus adds: “What they’ve discovered 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.” [New York Times, 4/21/2003] The day after her report is published, Miller will tell a PBS interviewer: “I think they found something more than a smoking gun.… What they’ve found is… a silver bullet in the form of a person, an Iraqi individual, a scientist, as we’ve called him, who really worked on the programs, who knows them firsthand, and who has led MET Alpha people to some pretty startling conclusions.” Asked if the report will confirm “the insistence coming from the US government that after the war, various Iraqi tongues would loosen, and there might be people who would be willing to help,” Miller responds: “Yes, it clearly does.… That’s what the Bush administration has finally done. They have changed the political environment, and they’ve enabled people like the scientists that MET Alpha has found to come forth.” [American Journalism Review, 8/2003; Huffington Post, 1/30/2007]
Report Almost Entirely Wrong - Miller’s reporting will be proven to be almost entirely wrong. Neither Miller nor MET Alpha will ever produce any tangible evidence of the scientist’s claims, including the so-called “evidence” he claims he buried in his backyard. And, Miller will later admit, the “scientist” was actually a former Iraqi military intelligence officer with no connection to Iraq’s WMD programs (see July 25, 2003). [Slate, 7/25/2003] Other reporters, such as the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman and the Associated Press’s Dafna Linzer, report that teams such as MET Alpha have found nothing of use. Linzer will soon report that nothing the Iraqi scientist claims can be verified. And Miller will admit that much of the information she has published in the Times has come from Iraqi National Congress head Ahmed Chalabi (see May 1, 2003), a known fabricator (see 1992-1996, (1994), November 6-8, 2001, Summer 2002, Early 2003, and July 9, 2004). Miller will continue to insist that her reporting is accurate. [American Journalism Review, 8/2003]
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