Judith Miller’s Tale Under Scrutiny — At Her Own Paper

By: William E. Jackson, Jr.

There are basically two possible and quite divergent scenarios surrounding jailed New York Times reporter Judith Miller’s involvement in the Plame/CIA leak case. It is quite possible that she had no ulterior or activist role in the leak and she really is just protecting her source(s) and her journalistic champions justifiably are standing by her. But a counter view, which I have been suggesting since February, is strongly emerging now, with a surprising number of Timesmen and Timeswomen (off the record) believing it, or at least fearing it is true.

One would think that, as worries about Miller’s true role rise with every day she spends in jail, The Times would finally answer a few questions about what it knows and when it knew it. Yet, in his eye-opening internal review of July 28, the paper’s intelligence reporter in Washington, Doug Jehl, revealed: “Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times declined to address written questions about whether Ms. Miller was assigned to report about Mr. Wilson’s trip, whether she tried to write a story about it, or whether she ever told editors or colleagues at the newspaper that she had obtained information about the role played by Ms. Wilson.”

Here we have a hint of the “split” at The Times. On one level is the top management — Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. and Bill Keller — who endorse Miller’s version that she was actually “reporting” on Plame in July 2003 and her view of herself as valiant defender of the First Amendment. A Times spokeswoman summed up the corporate bottom line last week: “Judy is an intrepid, principled, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has provided our readers with thorough and comprehensive reporting throughout her career.”

On another level, some of the paper’s elite reporters — not to mention some Times columnists — suggest in various pieces on the Plame affair that they are somewhat skeptical of her claim that she was contemplating writing a story on Plame in early summer 2003. The issue is critical because, if she was not actually talking to people about a story, what was she talking to them about?

Adam Liptak, who reports on legal affairs for The Times, stated to NPR’s Terry Gross on August 2: “Judy and her lawyers have declined to answer the question of whether they have done anything at all to contact the source and try to obtain a satisfactory waiver” that would permit her to break confidentiality and testify before the grand jury.

It is hard to fathom why national media critics have not made more of Doug Jehl’s critical analysis in the July 28 Times, which raised doubts about Miller’s claims to have been “reporting” on Plame in the summer of 2003. On August 1, I posed that issue to Howard Kurtz on “Media BackTalks” at the online Washington Post. His response: “The fact that Judith Miller never wrote a story about the Plame matter has been cited again and again from the first moment she was subpoenaed in the case. That does raise a question about the nature of her involvement, but it’s possible she was just talking to her sources and this matter came up, or that she was reporting a story and didn’t feel she had enough material to write (not an uncommon occurrence in journalism). I do think the Times should clarify her role…”

On the day that Jehl’s story was published, a delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) met with Miller in the Alexandria Detention Center. Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger, who headed the delegation, said after the visit: “There’s no good purpose in keeping this dedicated, honorable, committed professional in jail.”

But there is no free ride in public relations for Miller these days. The board of The American Society of Journalists and Authors revealed this week that it had voted unanimously to not go along with an earlier decision to give an award to Miller. It would hardly be surprising if the Times’ Washington office produces a further story on her role, as rumor has it.

One of the most interesting remarks on Miller in recent days came from an ex-Timesman. On NPR’s “Morning Edition” of August 3, her former boss for investigations at The Times, Steve Engleberg, who was known for being a restraining influence on her, told David Folkenflik that Miller builds trust with sources because she shares “their obsessions and passions.” But he cautioned that once a reporter “fishes in the waters that the intelligence services fish in” that water can include “charlatans and fabricators” (he did not mention Miller’s friend Ahmad Chalabi by name).

Then he added that, after he left the Times for The Oregonian, he had been “appalled” by some of her reporting from the field in Iraq in the spring of 2003. “That was just so patently below the standards that I thought The Times had for such things,” he said. However, he put primary blame on Times editors for printing her stories on WMD. While not a commentary on the Plame case, it was another public relations blow for Miller.

Some facts are clear. Miller never wrote a story about the Plame matter. The Times says it has no reporter’s or editor’s notes to turn over to the court, as requested. None of her reporter colleagues have come forward to attest that she was working on such a story. The Times, in print, until the Jehl article, was notably reticent in inquiring into the details of her own case, other than covering her courtroom appearances.

On the other hand, despite his non-cooperation in answering his own reporter’s questions, Keller has made several public appearances to defend Miller.

In his August 2 appearance on “Charlie Rose,” he emphasized that “Judy” had made the “choices” all along the way. Yet, he admitted he does not know what conversations she has had with confidential source(s), and their lawyers, about getting a genuine, uncoerced waiver. This brought to mind Times lawyer Floyd Abrams’ previous acknowledgement that he did not necessarily know who her sources were. As Arianna Huffington has argued, “a lot hinges on how much of what Judy knows Bill Keller and Arthur Sulzberger also know.”

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