Jeff Gerth, meet Judith Miller

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Isn't former New York Times reporter Jeff Gerth writing the definitive book about Hillary Clinton sort of like Judith Miller deciding to write the definitive book about Iraq's WMDs? It just doesn't add up.

Isn't former New York Times reporter Jeff Gerth writing the definitive book about Hillary Clinton sort of like Judith Miller deciding to write the definitive book about Iraq's WMDs? It just doesn't add up.

After all, both Gerth and Miller, former star reporters, are well known for the facts they got wrong, more so than the stories they got right. While Miller limited most of her damage to a single topic, Iraq, Gerth, by contrast, became a Zelig-like figure at the newspaper during the 1990s, appearing at every crossroads where The New York Times lost its newsroom composure, and uncorked dark, convoluted tales featuring the conniving Clintons at the heart of a would-be criminal enterprise.

Indeed, Gerth was at the center of a rather unfortunate period in the Times' history. It was pre-public editor, pre-bloggers, and pre-Media Matters for America. And it was a time when the paper's leadership seemed more concerned with protecting high-profile scandal stories -- propping them up, really -- than with being accurate and honest with its readers.

But that shoddy approach to journalism caught up with the Times in recent years, and the paper has suffered a series of credibility setbacks, particularly with its prewar reporting. If you don't think Gerth's corner-cutting contributed to the paper's troubles -- if you think ambitious insiders at the Times didn't take notice of Gerth's star run when he was lauded and rewarded for writing accusatory stories that couldn't withstand close scrutiny and often didn't even make sense -- then I don't think you understand how the Beltway media's star system works.

Meaning Judith Miller simply picked up where Jeff Gerth left off.

I have no real nostalgic desire, in 2007, to rehash the Gerth blunders regarding Whitewater, rocket technology transfers to China, Monica Lewinsky, and Wen Ho Lee, among others. But with Her Way, Gerth is presenting himself as an expert on Hillary Clinton -- and the book is lauded as presumptively credible because, the media remind us, it is co-authored by respected investigative reporters -- despite the fact that, among mainstream reporters, perhaps nobody during the 1990s got more things wrong about Hillary and Bill Clinton than Jeff Gerth.

Gerth's misfires became as predictable as his reporting style. The drill went like this: Gerth would write accusatory, albeit muddled accounts of alleged Clinton wrongdoings and lean heavily on the cover-up angle. The allegations were often fueled by questionable partisan sources, and Gerth often refused to seriously consider alternative (i.e. benign) explanations for the questions raised. Republicans, seizing on Gerth's high-profile work, would then create an investigatory body (such as the Cox committee), or urge for an independent counsel (like Kenneth Starr). That meant Gerth would receive leak after leak from grateful Clinton investigators and then play up their over-the-top accusations without a hint of skepticism, only to have the investigators' final reports and conclusions be widely dismissed as ineffectual and untrustworthy. But by that point, Gerth has moved onto a new target, and the same closed loop began anew.

It's interesting that once President Bush came into office, Gerth seemed to lose his investigative zeal. He took some swings at corruption surrounding Halliburton and Enron. But Gerth was careful never to suggest White House cover-ups were under way, and his stories did not create much buzz or shift the D.C. landscape; the thrill seemed to be gone. Perhaps that was because Gerth's GOP cheering section -- his base -- was no longer interested in journalists aggressively trying to connect widely scattered dots about the president or his aides. And without their prodding and their leaks, Gerth's pipeline dried up. (From 1995 through 2000, Gerth had more than 180* bylines at the Times; from 2001 through 2005, he produced less than half that number.)

Gerth is also a famously bad writer. Even journalist James Stewart, a fellow Whitewater cheerleader who wrote lovingly of Gerth's journalistic skills in Blood Sport (Simon & Schuster, 1997), reported: "Some Gerth submissions left [Times] editors stunned, not even knowing where to begin." That brand of bad writing, as Little Rock columnist Gene Lyons and Slate's Bruce Gottlieb have detailed, allowed Gerth to camouflage all sorts of holes in his reporting. Gerth seemed to take bad writing, and camouflaging, to new heights during his discredited Whitewater adventures.

Gerth's career was quickly elevated by the Times' convoluted Whitewater narrative about the Clintons and their 1970s real-estate investment with James McDougal -- who later opened an Arkansas savings and loan that eventually failed -- as well as the kaleidoscope of conflicts that modest deal supposedly triggered. Prior to entering the Clinton chase, Gerth was perhaps best known for formally apologizing for a story he'd co-written for Penthouse prior to joining the Times. In that article, Gerth tried to link a California resort with organized crime. The resort co-owners sued, and in order to avoid being targeted in the $522 million libel suit, Gerth wrote a letter of apology to the owners for any harm the article caused.

It appears to have been the last time Gerth apologized for his reporting.

Even the headline on Gerth's infamous first Whitewater story from March 8, 1992, was inaccurate. As Lyons noted in Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater, (Franklin Square Press, 1996), the Times headline read "Clintons Joined S.& L. Operator In an Ozark Real Estate Venture." The operator, of course, was James McDougal. Except that when the Clintons joined the venture in 1978, McDougal was not a savings and loan operator.

The actual contents of the article did not fare much better. Gerth wrote: "The Clintons appear to have invested little money, so stood to lose little if the venture failed, but might have cashed in on their 50 percent interest if it had done well." Not true; the Clintons put $220,000 in borrowed money at risk. (They lost approximately $42,000.)

Another example: Gerth wrote about Beverly Bassett Schaffer, an Arkansas bank regulator appointed by then-Gov. Clinton and who was portrayed in the Times as a political crony who went easy on McDougal's savings and loan, Madison Guaranty. Bassett Schaffer served as a linchpin in the early Whitewater conspiracy. In the first Whitewater article, Gerth informed readers that Schaffer "did not remember the federal examination of Madison." In truth, after reviewing her Madison file, Schaffer faxed Gerth 20 pages of notes before he wrote his accusatory story. (Among the facts lost down Gerth's memory hole: It was Bassett Schaffer who first recommended that Madison be shut down, a full 18 months before it happened.)

Incredibly, Gerth not only left out any mention of the notes Bassett Schaffer had faxed to him regarding the examination, but he claimed Bassett Schaffer "did not remember" the examination.

A stunned Bassett Schaffer complained to Gerth in writing: "This information was ignored and, instead, you based your story on the word of a mentally ill man [McDougal] I have never met and documents which you admitted to me ... were incomplete." (It's no exaggeration to suggest Gerth's conduct regarding Bassett Schaffer would have been a firing offense in many newsrooms.)

Printing Starr's leaks

Despite years of conspiratorial reporting and commentary from the Times (readers could practically hear William Safire's heart beating faster when the columnist typed up his predictions about pending Clinton indictments), Whitewater proved to be a dry hole. "Through it all, the evidence against the Clintons bordered on the nonexistent," wrote Jeffery Toobin in his 1999 book A Vast Conspiracy (Random House).

Nonetheless, Gerth's unusually close relationship with Whitewater sleuth Kenneth Starr paid off when the Monica Lewinsky story broke in early 1998. At the time, Gerth served as the newspaper's point person -- a clearinghouse of sorts -- between the paper and Starr's talkative lieutenants, who were anxious to use the press to shape the unfolding investigation and pressure the White House by planting doomsday stories in the media. Gerth helped.

Two weeks after the Lewinsky charge went public, Gerth co-wrote a Page One exclusive that suggested Clinton had summoned his personal secretary, Betty Currie, to the Oval Office the day after he gave a deposition in the sexual misconduct lawsuit filed by Paula Jones, leading Currie "through an account of his relationship" with Monica Lewinsky that differed in part "from her own recollections." The Times' source: "lawyers familiar with her account." The article, which came amid the Monica media frenzy and was deemed to be a very Big Deal, set in motion the media narrative that Clinton had tried to coach Currie into lying. The article also came complete with Gerth's patented worse-case-scenario-for-Clinton spin. "It just comes screaming at you out of the Times story," NPR's Nina Totenberg said at the time. "This has all the earmarks of a Starr leak."

Indeed it did. Months later, Starr admitted to journalist Steven Brill that he and his deputy spoke with Gerth at length the day before his Currie story ran. Starr insisted they simply confirmed the information Gerth and his team already had, which, of course, revolved around secret grand jury testimony that only prosecutors and Currie knew about at the time. (Obviously, Currie and her attorney had no reason to leak it.)

In the end, the Currie story proved to be a total washout. As testimony from Currie's five grand jury appearances later showed, there was no discernable difference in how she and Clinton recalled the meeting in question. The Washington Post later noted, "Rather than Currie being the crack in the Clinton armada that the independent counsel's office had hoped for, her testimony shows she was intent on remaining a faithful personal secretary unwilling to undermine her CEO." [Emphasis added.]

From Monica, Gerth soon moved on to more high-minded Clinton pursuits, such as the allegation of illegal technology transfers to China. The guts of the story were that after a civilian Chinese rocket carrying a Loral Space and Communications satellite exploded and crashed shortly after takeoff on February 14, 1996, Loral engineers diagnosed the problem and gave Chinese officials a report on the mishap. But in the process, Loral may have given the Chinese too much sensitive information. The Justice Department opened an inquiry into those charges.

That's the story Gerth began to report in April 1998. But, as usual, Gerth went much further. His stories clearly implied that a crucial White House waiver needed by Loral to launch satellites in China was granted because Loral chairman Bernard Schwartz was a longtime contributor to the Democratic Party. Once granted that waiver, Gerth asserted, Loral leaked ballistic missile secrets to the People's Republic of China. The allegation, and the fact that it was made on the front page of The New York Times, set off a Beltway firestorm, with administration critics declaring that Clinton had sold out America's national security in exchange for some campaign cash. In essence, Clinton was being charged with treason.

As was his custom, though, during his missile reporting, Gerth had downplayed or left out key information, omissions that strengthened the angle he was pushing. For instance, the allegation that Loral's actions had damaged national security; Gerth's articles omitted any reference to the fact that a CIA report concluded that the Loral incident had not harmed national security. (News consumers had to rely on The Washington Post to find out that information.)

In his original damning exposé, Gerth reported that Clinton had "quietly" approved a Loral waiver to launch another Chinese satellite despite the company's security breach. "Quietly" certainly carried with it the connotation that Clinton was acting on the hush-hush.

How's this for "quietly"?

1. Clinton immediately notified Congress of his February decision to approve the launch.

2. The State Department and all of Clinton's top national security aides approved of the decision.

3. Even the Pentagon, which first raised concerns about Loral, recommended the China approval.

Fast-forward to May 23, 2000, when the Los Angeles Times reported that just months after looking into the matter in 1998, Justice Department investigators became convinced the Loral chairman had done nothing wrong. A task force led by prosecutor Charles La Bella had been unable to turn up "a scintilla of evidence -- or information -- that the president was corruptly influenced by Bernard Schwartz." One federal investigator told the paper, "Poor Bernie Schwartz got a bad deal. There never was a whiff of a scent of a case against him."

It took 17 days for The New York Times, on Page 24, to inform readers that Schwartz had been cleared. And no, Gerth did not write that story.

By then, Gerth had already won a Pulitzer Prize for his missile technology reporting. The Loral stories resulted in something besides a Pulitzer -- it resulted in the creation of the Cox committee, named after then-Rep. Christopher Cox (R-CA). Cox was to investigate Chinese espionage and the theft of U.S. missile technology in hopes of embarrassing the Clinton administration. Fueled by the unfolding Lewinsky scandal, Republicans embraced Gerth's reporting as yet another entry into the world of perpetual Clinton investigation.

After the overheated Cox Report was published in January 1999, it was ridiculed by experts in the field for being little more than a scare document riddled with factual errors, its language "inflammatory" and its key conclusions "unwarranted." That was the conclusion reached by a research team connected to Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation, which reported that "there is no credible evidence presented or instances described of actual theft of U.S. missile technology."

Neither Gerth nor anybody else at the paper ever reported on the research team's findings. That may have been in part because the newspaper was still institutionally committed to the Cox Report, which the paper had hyped relentlessly. How else to explain the paper's embarrassing, unsigned editorial at the time of the report's release, labeling the Cox committee's work "an invaluable public service" and celebrating its "unsparing investigation." That's a flattering description that perhaps only Cox committee staffers still cling to today.

The Times' Wen Ho Lee fiasco

Like Whitewater, the Cox committee report may have been a bust, but it produced more scandal fodder for the Times. That's because the Cox committee's star witness was an obsessive Energy Department sleuth with no formal technical training named Notra Trulock. Trulock claimed that he had cracked the case of how the Chinese government had obtained information about U.S. warheads, including the most sophisticated in the arsenal, the W-88 Trident D-5. According to Trulock, the information came from an American employee at Los Alamos National Laboratories, a soft-spoken 60-year-old scientist named Wen Ho Lee, who was spying for Chinese government. Worse, Clinton administration officials were dragging their feet in uncovering the dastardly plot. Trulock had been spinning his fantastic tale about Lee for years. (That China had obtained the W-88 information was a confirmed fact.) But most government officials, including those at the CIA, wouldn't bite. Trulock, though, eventually found an eager audience with the Cox committee and with the Times.

On March 6, 1999, the Times uncorked a breathless, 4,000-word exclusive ("Breach at Los Alamos: A Special Report: China Stole Nuclear Secrets For Bombs, U.S. Aides Say") that essentially presented Trulock's doomsday allegations as fact, and contained a loaded quote from a government investigator who compared the alleged spy case to Americans Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of giving atomic secrets to the Soviet Union and executed in 1953. The article was co-authored by Gerth. Predictably, Republicans went bonkers, framing the controversy in the most hysterical terms.

Although it did not name Lee (that came three days later), the article made clear that Lee was the prime suspect in what the paper called a historic bout of communist espionage. Relentlessly prosecutorial in tone, the March 6 story often, in unqualified terms, referred to "the espionage," "the leak," "the theft," and "the crime," leaving readers no room for doubt.

Interrogating Lee the next day at Los Alamos -- without his attorney present -- FBI agents waved the Times article around. "You know, Wen Ho, this, it's bad," said one agent. "I mean, look at this newspaper article! I mean, 'China Stole Secrets for Bombs.' It all but says your name in here."

Yet by the summer of 1999, a crew of respected reporters -- the New York Daily News' Lars-Erik Nelson, the Los Angeles Times' Bob Drogin, and The Washington Post's Walter Pincus and Vernon Loeb -- were firing missiles into the Times' leaky Wen Ho Lee ship, reporting that the paper's initial, breathless spy caper just didn't withstand scrutiny and that it was "built on thin air," as Robert S. Vrooman, Los Alamos' former counterintelligence chief described the case against Lee.

It quickly became obvious that the Times, much as with Gerth's work on Whitewater and Lewinsky, had been duped by partisan sources with axes to grind against the Clinton administration. Indeed, the Times' competitors revealed that Trulock, the paper's star source, had posted a message of thanks and support on the right-wing Clinton-hating website FreeRepublic.com and that Trulock once spit on the Energy Department's acting counterintelligence chief, who was black, and who, in a subsequent affidavit, accused Trulock of "having racist views towards minority groups." Additionally, after leaving the Energy Department, Trulock became a spokesman for the conservative Free Congress Foundation and then an associate editor at the right-wing media watchdog group Accuracy in Media. That's who the Times built its Wen Ho Lee story around, adopting his spin as fact.

Wen Ho Lee was charged in December 1999 with 59 counts of mishandling nuclear secrets and denied bail. He spent 278 days in solitary confinement. The story, though, completely unraveled in the summer of 2000, when government witnesses had to tell their tall tales in court as part of Lee's bail hearing. The most damaging revelation came from the FBI's lead agent, Robert Messemer, who was forced to recant crucial testimony he'd given in December, when he charged that Lee had lied to investigators and colleagues. On September 13, 2000, after a U.S. District Court judge lit into top government officials who had "embarrassed our entire nation" with their handling of the case, Lee was free. Incredibly, as the Lee case fell apart, indignant Times editorials demanded the government appoint an "independent examiner" to determine whether Lee had been unfairly targeted. Why didn't the daily just ask Gerth?

Today, the Times' original breathless Wen Ho Lee exposé, much like Gerth's first Whitewater exposé, reads like a journalistic train wreck, with unproven allegations strewn across the landscape. As Lucinda Fleeson concluded in the magazine American Journalism Review:

After 19 months of sensational reporting and demagogic politicking, none of the major points made in Gerth and [James] Risen's original March 6, 1999, story hold up:

* There is no evidence that there was espionage at Los Alamos as opposed to any of hundreds of other locations.

Wen Ho Lee did not fail two lie detector tests. He passed lie detector tests in 1984 and December 1998. In February 1999 the FBI gave him two tests, one of which was pronounced inconclusive and the other interpreted as deceptive.

* Whether the Chinese made a great leap forward in their nuclear development continues to be a matter of sharp dispute -- clearly the Chinese obtained information that enabled them to learn how to miniaturize warheads, but the Chinese haven't deployed anything like the W88.

* This wasn't the most serious spy case since the Rosenbergs.

* While Republicans complain they have been stonewalled by the Clinton administration in their efforts to obtain some documents, there is no evidence of a Clinton cover-up. In fact, it now appears that [then-Attorney General Janet] Reno acted properly when she initially resisted pressure to investigate Lee.

According to a Columbia Journalism Review interview in 2001, Gerth was "unwilling to articulate any lessons learned from the Wen Ho Lee story beyond saying that intelligence stories, by their nature, are fraught with danger." That's not surprising. Gerth has been unwilling to articulate any mistakes made.

For instance, Gerth appears to be almost delusional about his flawed Whitewater reporting. "The New York Times has never run a correction of the [March 8, 1992] story because there's nothing to correct," Gerth proudly told CJR.

You gotta love that outdated Times view of the world: If all-knowing and unerring Times editors refuse to run a correction, that means everything's accurate.

Gerth produced for CJR a 1999 letter written by Joseph Lelyveld, then the executive editor of the Times, to an Arkansas newspaper editor who had criticized the Times' Whitewater coverage. In the letter, Lelyveld condescendingly announced that Gerth's work was above reproach. According to CJR, Gerth was practically beaming with pride when he shared the correspondence -- his "trump card," as the magazine described it.

Honestly, does Gerth really think that a cover-your-ass letter written by his boss means that Gerth and the Times did nothing wrong during Whitewater? That type of elitist, protect-your-own approach might have worked during the 1990s. But it's not going to fly in the new digital era, where fact-checking reigns (just ask Judith Miller) and where Gerth won't be able to hind behind genuflecting Times editors.

I agree that Her Way should be judged on its own merits. And Gerth, along with co-writer Don Van Natta Jr., are free as journalists to portray Hillary Clinton however they wish. But readers are also free during the upcoming book release and book tour to press Gerth to explain how getting stories wrong about the Clintons for a decade now qualifies him as an expert on the topic.

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Jeff Gerth
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Gerth and Van Natta's "Her Way"
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