Can the reporter--or the New York Times--be trusted?
The New York Times editorial page told readers over and over again that Times reporter Judith Miller went to jail for 85 days for a noble cause–the protection of confidential sources. But to many outside observers, the principles that Miller went to jail for were far from clear, with many fundamental questions left unanswered. Readers and media watchers were eager to hear Miller’s side of the story, and to see the newspaper devote its considerable journalistic energy to investigating a crucial political story that its reporter was in the middle of: the efforts of Bush administration officials to punish a critic by leaking the covert identity of Valerie Plame Wilson to the media.
But neither the October 16 report written by a team of Times reporters, nor the accompanying first-person tale written by Miller herself, answered the questions posed by critics. In fact, those questions have only multiplied.
The first–and arguably the most important–question is how Miller came to know Valerie Wilson’s identity. Wilson was a covert CIA employee married to former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, whose July 6, 2003 New York Times op-ed called into question the integrity of the Bush administration’s handling of intelligence about Iraqi WMDs; when she was outed as a CIA operative by Robert Novak (Washington Post, 7/14/03), seemingly in retaliation for her husband’s criticism, it sparked the current investigation into who revealed her identity to journalists.
So where did Miller first hear about Valerie Plame Wilson? She claims she cannot remember. She can only surmise–according to her own vague notes–that the name “Valerie Flame” appeared in her notes based not on her conversations with Lewis “Scooter” Libby, chief of staff to vice president Dick Cheney, but “from another source” whom she “could not recall.” Miller’s conversations with Libby are apparently of significant importance to special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who had her jailed for contempt when she would not testify about them to a grand jury.
Miller’s inability to recall pertinent information extended to her conversations with Libby. One talk occurred on July 8, 2003, two days after Wilson’s op-ed had caused significant turmoil for the White House and its allies.
Miller reported that she “almost certainly began this interview by asking about Mr. Wilson’s essay, which appeared to have agitated Mr. Libby.” Their conversation turned to Wilson’s wife, and Miller’s notes suggest Libby told her that Wilson worked at the WINPAC unit of the CIA (Weapons Intelligence, Non-Proliferation, and Arms Control). But Miller again drew a blank, this time on the significance of this information: “I said I couldn’t be certain whether I had known Ms. Plame’s identity before this meeting, and I had no clear memory of the context of our conversation that resulted in this notation.”
Miller’s inability to remember details of her conversations beyond the words written in her notebook–an unusual memory deficit for a professional journalist, to say the least–is a striking feature of her account. Later in her article, she states: “Mr. Fitzgerald asked if I could recall discussing the Wilson-Plame connection with other sources. I said I had, though I could not recall any by name or when those conversations occurred.” Later, she says that after her second conversation with Libby, she “might have called others about Mr. Wilson’s wife”–but apparently can’t be sure.
The first-person account written by Miller, combined with the Times reporters’ own investigation, raises several intriguing questions. Among them:
–Miller was plainly deceptive in her dealings with newsroom colleagues. The Times reported that once it became known at least six Washington journalists had talked to White House officials about Wilson’s CIA identity, Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman asked Miller if she was one of those journalists. Miller denied it.
Miller also claimed to have ”made a strong recommendation” to her editor about doing a story about Wilson’s CIA role, but was told no. The Times‘ Washington bureau chief at the time, Jill Abramson, “said Ms. Miller never made any such recommendation.” The article does not follow up on this remarkable contradiction, but it seems likely that if any of Miller’s editors had received such a suggestion, they would have come forward to back up her story.
Why Miller didn’t provide the name of the editor she talked to is another mystery. It’s certainly difficult to square the idea that she asked to do a story on Valerie Wilson’s identity with the fact that she denied receiving this information.
–In her own account, Miller strongly suggests that she possessed a special security clearance: “During the Iraq war, the Pentagon had given me clearance to see secret information as part of my assignment ’embedded’ with a special military unit hunting for unconventional weapons.”
Miller also suggested that “Libby might have thought I still had security clearance,” and that during one of their meetings “I might have expressed frustration to Mr. Libby that I was not permitted to discuss with editors some of the more sensitive information about Iraq. Mr. Fitzgerald asked me if I knew whether I was cleared to discuss classified information at the time of my meetings with Mr. Libby. I said I did not know.”
This would be a highly unusual arrangement. NBC Pentagon reporter Jim Miklasziewski was unable to find confirmation of Miller’s supposed clearance from Pentagon or CIA sources (MSNBC.com, 10/17/05). Former CBS correspondent Bill Lynch suggested (Poynter.org, 10/16/05) that such a deal would be “as close as one can get to government licensing of journalists, and the New York Times (if it knew) should never have allowed her to become so compromised.”
On October 20, the Times was able to get more information from Miller, reporting that she had signed a standard non-disclosure form for embedded reporters “with some modifications, adding that what she had meant to say in her published account was that she had had temporary access to classified information under rules set by her unit.”
Why Miller couldn’t say what she meant in a first-person account is unclear. When the Times asked her if “she had ever left the impression with sources, including Mr. Libby, that she had access to classified information after leaving her assignment in Iraq, Ms. Miller said she could not recall.” As Miller put it, “I don’t remember if I ever told him I was disembedded…. I might not have.” The term “embedded” is usually used to mean “traveling with a military unit”; Miller seems to be using it in a much broader sense.
–Miller and her defenders have long claimed that that Miller was unwavering on the principle of not revealing a confidential source. But Miller’s refusal to testify doesn’t in the end seem as principled as either she or her paper originally claimed. As the Times reported, Miller was seeking a suitable waiver from Libby from the start, and eventually based her decision not to testify “in part because she thought that Mr. Libby’s lawyer might be signaling to keep her quiet unless she would exonerate his client.”
According to Miller, that “signaling” was the suggestion that Libby had testified about their conversations in ways that in Miller’s view were false. In other words, she refused to testify because she believed her testimony would expose her source as a perjurer. When your reason for not testifying is a belief that your source has committed a crime, then “journalistic privilege” begins to look more like obstruction of justice.
–During the course of one of her interviews with Libby, Miller revealed that she agreed to change his identification from “senior administration official” to “former Hill staffer.” Miller reported that she “agreed to the new ground rules because I knew that Mr. Libby had once worked on Capitol Hill.” He did not explain why he made this request, but Miller “assumed Mr. Libby did not want the White House to be seen as attacking Mr. Wilson.” This passage is extremely incriminating; not only does she acknowledge that she was willing to cooperate with a source to mislead readers, but she admits that the purpose of this deception was to conceal the White House’s attack on a critic. Such partisan attacks, under New York Times ethics rules, are not to be made anonymously at all, let alone with a blatantly misleading identification.
–The Times report raises serious questions about the paper’s management of Miller’s reporting, and of the reporting about Miller’s case. Times executive editor Bill Keller expressed the wish that “it had been a clear-cut whistle-blower case. I wish it had been a reporter who came with less public baggage.”
The paper did not spend much time dwelling upon what this might mean, but their readers deserve better. Miller’s reporting on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was embarrassingly wrong. Even after the Times had to publicly apologize for several of her articles, Miller moved on to write several misleading or erroneous articles about the investigation into the United Nations’ oil-for-food program.
But this should not have come as a surprise, since serious complaints about Miller’s work had circulated for years–sometimes within the paper itself. The Washington Post recalled (10/17/05) that in 2000 Times reporter Craig Pyes wrote in a memo:
More recently, a dispute erupted between Miller and then Baghdad bureau chief John Burns, who was angry that Miller was writing stories from Iraq without his oversight. The subject of the reporting was Ahmed Chalabi, who Miller claimed “provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper.” Chalabi’s information on Iraqi weapons was notoriously flawed.
One would think that a reporter with such a track record would be monitored carefully–presuming they were still employed. But to hear the Times tell it, Miller set her own rules. Though Keller had removed Miller from the Iraq weapons beat, “she kept kind of drifting on her own back into the national security realm.” If Keller and the Times editors do not control what their reporters are doing, then who does?
Barbara Crossette, a former U.N. bureau chief at the Times who says she unsuccessfully tried to supervise Miller’s oil-for-food reporting, wrote in a letter to Poynter Online (10/17/05) that Miller “had at least one very highly placed friend at the paper, and many Timespeople were afraid to tangle with her because of that.” The only person more highly placed at the paper than Keller is publisher Arthur Sulzberger, who reportedly has a friendship with Miller going back to the late ’70s, when they were reporters together at the Times‘ Washington Bureau. As New York magazine noted in a profile of Miller (6/7/04), “Fairly or unfairly, there’s a sense that Miller has protection at the absolute top–and that fear reportedly deters some editors from challenging her.”
When the Times published a report on how the Jayson Blair fiasco was allowed to happen, much of the article discussed the personal contacts that Blair had developed that allowed him to get away with errors and eventual fabrications. The fact that the piece on Miller did not examine the office culture that allowed her to escape supervision suggests a disturbing double standard.
Once Miller went off to jail, it became clear that Keller and others at the Times were able to exercise control over what was written about Miller and her case. “Some reporters said editors seemed reluctant to publish articles about other aspects of the case as well, like how it was being investigated by Mr. Fitzgerald,” the Times reported. When one such article was not published, one Times reporter said, “It was taken pretty clearly among us as a signal that we were cutting too close to the bone, that we were getting into an area that could complicate Judy’s situation.”
Two other Times reporters were rebuffed after offering potential story ideas about the case. According to Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman, “Mr. Keller did not want them pursued because of the risk of provoking Mr. Fitzgerald or exposing Mr. Libby while Ms. Miller was in jail.” The fact that the Times would make journalistic decisions based on how they might affect Miller’s legal status–putting her personal interests above the public interest–is unconscionable.
After her release from jail, Miller told CNN‘s Lou Dobbs (10/4/05), “I didn’t want to be in jail, but I knew that the principle of confidentiality was so important that I had to, because if people can’t trust us to come to us to tell us the things that government and powerful corporations don’t want us to know, we’re dead in the water. The public won’t know. That’s why I was sitting in jail. For the public’s right to know.”
But neither the Times or Miller has offered the public any explanation of how her conduct lives up to such lofty rhetoric. In this case, Miller seems to have worked to opposite ends–to shield the public from things that a powerful government didn’t want us to know.