Judith Miller is a woman of many accomplishments. An investigative New York Times journalist from 1977-2005, Miller won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for her reporting on Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda; wrote two New York Times bestsellers – “Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf” and “Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War”; and holds the record for the longest amount of time spent in jail by a reporter – 85 days – for refusing to divulge the identity of a source.
(That source was Scooter Libby, then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff. After receiving a personal waiver from Libby, Miller testified before a grand jury in October 2005 that he had identified Valerie Plame to her as a CIA operative – a felony for which he was later convicted.)
Today Miller is an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy research, a contributing editor of City Journal, and a commentator on Fox News. Her latest book, “The Story: A Reporter’s Journey she published,” detailing her storied journalistic career, was published in April by Simon & Schuster.
The Jewish Press: You mention in The Story that you almost interviewed Osama bin Laden in 1998. How did that come about?
Miller: I tried to interview bin Laden in 1992 when he was living in Khartoum. I schlepped out to his compound and was greeted by men in turbans and Kalashnikovs who told me that the pleasure of my company was not requested. So I left my card. Years later, along comes this invitation.
But at that point I declined because I was a little fearful of driving through the mountains of Afghanistan with just a cell phone and no security. So I said no. Silly me.
You did get a chance later to interview Al Qaeda fighters. Correct?
Yes, many of them. They were being held by Commander Ahmed Shah Massoud in prisons in northern Afghanistan. They were from all over the world – from London, from China….
There was one guy I’ll never forget named Muhammad Khaled Mihraban, who was a 26-year-old Pakistani. He told me he had already killed over 100 people and said that if he were released he would continue to fight for the Taliban and the caliphate until he was killed.
I was so impressed by this kind of passion and commitment that I kept badgering the paper to put together what ultimately became our Pulitzer Prize-winning series on the rise of militant Islam and bin Laden’s network. That was published in January of 2001– nine months before 9/11.
I guess it didn’t make enough of an impression.
No, I don’t think I got a single call on any of the many stories we wrote. I had satellite photos of where bin Laden’s camps were in Afghanistan, [I wrote about Al Qaeda] conducting chemical weapons experiments and talking about how to use anthrax, etc. There was plenty of news in that series, but it wasn’t awarded the Pulitzer until 2002.
Sometimes it takes a catastrophe like 9/11 to wake Americans up.
A month after 9/11 you were almost attacked with anthrax. What was that like?
Well, I got a letter containing powder and a similar warning to the warning sent to Senator Daschle and NBC’s Tom Brokaw. Fortunately, it did not contain real anthrax spores.
But it created quite a stir at the time. The New York Times was evacuated and I sat at my desk in this abandoned newsroom that was utterly silent except for the sound of unanswered telephones. It was eerie.
At the Times you were friendly with arguably the paper’s two most beloved personalities in the pro-Israel community: William Safire and A.M. Rosenthal. Can you talk about them?