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Miller Lied to Editors About Her Conversations With Libby

After reading both New York Times stories today about Judy Miller’s involvement in what Ariana Huffington calls Plamegate, I remain stupefied at the obtuseness of the Times’ publisher and editors at every step of this case. They showed abysmally poor judgment and their explanations of their actions in one of those articles shows that they’ve learned nothing from their mistakes.

Judy Miller cartoonJudy Miller, Little Miss Run Amok starring in her very own “Girl’s Gone Wild!” video (cartoon: Elena Steier)

As for Miller, her account is also deeply self-serving and unrevealing as to the most critical aspects of the story. She admits that Libby did tell her that Joe Wilson’s wife worked for a CIA bureau called WINPAC:

At that breakfast meeting, our conversation turned to Mr. Wilson’s wife. My notes [say]: “Wife works at Winpac.” Mr. Fitzgerald asked what that meant. Winpac stood for Weapons Intelligence, Non-Proliferation, and Arms Control, the name of a unit within the C.I.A. that, among other things, analyzes the spread of unconventional weapons.

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. But I told the grand jury that I believed that this was the first time I had heard that Mr. Wilson’s wife worked for Winpac. In fact, I told the grand jury that when Mr. Libby indicated that Ms. Plame worked for Winpac, I assumed that she worked as an analyst, not as an undercover operative.

Miller incredibly would have us believe that though Libby told her all this information about Wilson’s wife he did NOT tell her Wilson’s name:

My notes do not show that Mr. Libby identified Mr. Wilson’s wife by name. Nor do they show that he described Valerie Wilson as a covert agent or “operative,” as the conservative columnist Robert D. Novak first described her in a syndicated column published on July 14, 2003. (Mr. Novak used her maiden name, Valerie Plame.)

Mr. Fitzgerald asked me about another entry in my notebook, where I had written the words “Valerie Flame,” clearly a reference to Ms. Plame. Mr. Fitzgerald wanted to know whether the entry was based on my conversations with Mr. Libby. I said I didn’t think so. I said I believed the information came from another source, whom I could not recall.

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.

So she would have us believe that though Valerie Wilson’s name appears in her notebooks twice that she did not get that information from Libby. Oh, and by the way, she can’t remember where it did come from. Does this pass the smell test?

Miller also provides further implicit proof of a theory I have, that her interest in Wilson and his wife stemmed from a professional vendetta she was pursuing against him because his Times column disputed some of the underpinnings of her reporting on Iraqi WMD:

Mr. Fitzgerald asked whether I ever pursued an article about Mr. Wilson and his wife. I told him I had not, though I considered her connection to the C.I.A. potentially newsworthy. I testified that I recalled recommending to editors that we pursue a story.

Mr. Fitzgerald asked my reaction to Mr. Novak’s column. I told the grand jury I was annoyed at having been beaten on a story. I said I felt that since The Times had run Mr. Wilson’s original essay, it had an obligation to explore any allegation that undercut his credibility. At the same time, I added, I also believed that the newspaper needed to pursue the possibility that the White House was unfairly attacking a critic of the administration…

Given what we know of Miller’s vindictive, grudge-holding nature from reporters who worked for and with her in the Times Washington bureau, we can safely dismiss the last half of her rationale for pursuing the article as a journalistic fig leaf for her real motivation, which was to get Wilson.

It’s also interesting to note how she characterizes Wilson’s Op-Ed column in the opening line of her story:

In July 2003, Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former ambassador, created a firestorm by publishing an essay in The New York Times that accused the Bush administration of using faulty intelligence to justify the war in Iraq.

No, it didn’t create a “firestorm.” Only for Bush Administration official like Scooter and fellow-travelers like Judy did it create a “firestorm.” For the rest of us, it was a revelation and the beginning of a long process that witnessed the unraveling of all of the Bush justifications for the war. Her use of the term indicates (if we needed any further proof) that she’s no longer a journalist, but a strident advocate for her Administration patrons.

What’s all the more remarkable about her pursuit of this story is that she did so as part of a Times reporting team that was supposed to be examining the Administration’s failure to find WMD. One wonders why her editors were letting her pursue a case against Wilson who claimed there was no WMD when the purpose of her team was also to examine why there was no WMD. We’ll talk more about the absolute failure of Times management to oversee and monitor her reporting which is evident is this aspect of the case.

Judith Miller & Arthur SulzbergerJudith Miller & Arthur Sulzberger as she leaves prison. Will decision to stand by her come back to haunt him? (credit: Doug Mills/NYT

The New York Times’ account of Judith Miller’s involvement in the CIA leak case raises serious questions about the editorial leadership of the Times at the highest levels. I was always mystified why Bill Keller and Punch Sulzberger publicly lionized Miller at every opportunity. This account makes clear (at least to me) that they were bamboozled by her and let her set the terms of the paper’s own position regarding the case. This in turn showed an incredible lack of journalistic judgment considering Miller’s troubled reputation regarding her WMD and Ahmad Chalabi reporting:

It was in these early days that Mr. Keller and Mr. Sulzberger learned Mr. Libby’s identity. Neither man asked Ms. Miller detailed questions about her conversations with him.

Both said they viewed the case as a matter of principle, which made the particulars less important. “I didn’t interrogate her about the details of the interview,” Mr. Keller said. “I didn’t ask to see her notes. And I really didn’t feel the need to do that.”

As Ms. Miller, 57, remained resolute and moved closer to going to jail…the leadership of The Times stood squarely behind her.

“She’d given her pledge of confidentiality,” said Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher. “She was prepared to honor that. We were going to support her.”

But Mr. Sulzberger and the paper’s executive editor, Bill Keller, knew few details about Ms. Miller’s conversations with her confidential source other than his name. They did not review Ms. Miller’s notes. Mr. Keller said he learned about the “Valerie Flame” notation only this month. Mr. Sulzberger was told about it by Times reporters on Thursday.

It was in these early days that Mr. Keller and Mr. Sulzberger learned Mr. Libby’s identity. Neither man asked Ms. Miller detailed questions about her conversations with him.

Both said they viewed the case as a matter of principle, which made the particulars less important. “I didn’t interrogate her about the details of the interview,” Mr. Keller said. “I didn’t ask to see her notes. And I really didn’t feel the need to do that.”

Interviews show that the paper’s leaders, in taking what they considered to be a principled stand, ultimately left the major decisions in the case up to Ms. Miller, an intrepid reporter whom editors found hard to control.

“This car had her hand on the wheel because she was the one at risk,” Mr. Sulzberger said.

The Times publisher let Judith Miller drive the entire newspaper’s “car” simply because she stated she was upholding a journalistic principle? Well, it appears that by trusting her implicitly that they allowed her to drive all of them off a cliff. And with statements like this it seems clear that both Sulzberger and Keller will have to resign in order to restore any semblance of integrity to the Times. At the very least, the publisher should relinquish his control of the Times editorial policy.

Here are some more examples of the character in whom Sulzberger seemed to place so much trust:

Ms. Miller operated with a degree of autonomy rare at The Times.

Douglas Frantz, who succeeded Mr. Engelberg as the investigative editor, said that Ms. Miller once called herself “Miss Run Amok.”

“I said, ‘What does that mean?’ ” said Mr. Frantz, who was recently appointed managing editor at The Los Angeles Times. “And she said, ‘I can do whatever I want.’ “

Here, a Times reporter gets to the heart of the problem with Miller’s journalistic style and substance and reveals an utter lack of supervision that allowed her to run amok within the pages of the paper:

“Everyone admires our paper’s willingness to stand behind us and our work, but most people I talk to have been troubled and puzzled by Judy’s seeming ability to operate outside of conventional reportorial channels and managerial controls,” said Todd S. Purdum, a Washington reporter for The Times. “Partly because of that, many people have worried about whether this was the proper fight to fight.”

For me, this passage in the Times piece cinches Miller as an outright liar who never could have deserved anyone’s trust, let alone that of the Times’ two top executives:

In the fall of 2003, after The Washington Post reported that “two top White House officials disclosed Plame’s identity to at least six Washington journalists,” Philip Taubman, Ms. Abramson’s successor as Washington bureau chief, asked Ms. Miller and other Times reporters whether they were among the six. Ms. Miller denied it.

“The answer was generally no,” Mr. Taubman said. Ms. Miller said the subject of Mr. Wilson and his wife had come up in casual conversation with government officials, Mr. Taubman said, but Ms. Miller said “she had not been at the receiving end of a concerted effort, a deliberate organized effort to put out information.”

The fact that her editor asked her whether she was among the six who discussed Valerie Plame with Libby and she replied with such an equivocating answer is simply unconscionable. Instead of allowing her to ride off into the sunset to write a book about the story and rake in her millions, the Times should fire her ass now. Here’s what Miss Judy plans to do on her summer vacation:

She said she thought she would write a book about her experiences in the leak case, although she added that she did not yet have a book deal. She also plans on taking some time off but says she hopes to return to the newsroom.

She said she hopes to cover “the same thing I’ve always covered – threats to our country.”

How touching. But it’s doubtful you’ll be reading any scoop-excerpts from her book in the Times. It’s clear if you read between the lines of the Times story that she will not return to the paper after writing her book. But the Times continues to look awful by not calling her out for the scoundrel she is.

Just as Miller developed a too cozy relationship with her Bush Administration sources and tried to carry water for them regarding Plamegate, so Sulzberger has misplaced the loyalty he’s shown to her. She doesn’t deserve any as she has done irreparable harm to one of the world’s great newspapers. And I hate to say this but so many aspects of this operatic tragedy remind me of the Jayson Blair story. There you also had a troubled reporter who exploited and manipulated the credulousness of his editors to pursue his own agenda. The fact that no one properly supervised Blair led to his demise and the Times severe black eye. I would argue that this case is much more significant and therefore the lapses in judgment also are more troubling.

Another issue that troubles me is that in choosing to protect Miller and uphold a questionable journalistic principle (at least in Miller’s case), the Times completely abandoned its primary responsibility–to be a great newspaper covering the stories of the day. Plamegate promises to become one of the most important developments of the entire Bush presidency and the Times completely abdicated its coverage. Again, this is unconscionable and shows a terrible lack of judgment that should have consequences for the individuals who made these decisions.

If you read the following passage carefully, you’ll discover that Sulzberger, who nominally controlled the paper’s editorial policy was also calling the shots for the newsroom as well. He undoubtedly believed that protecting Judy also meant not writing anything in the news section that might jeopardize her situation. In retrospect, a terrible misjudgment:

Ms. Abramson called The Times’s coverage of the case “constrained.” She said that if Ms. Miller was willing to go to jail to protect her source, it would have been “unconscionable then to out her source in the pages of the paper.”

Mr. Keller and Ms. Abramson said this created an almost impossible tension between covering the case and the principle they believed to be at the heart of it.

The editorial page, which is run by Mr. Sulzberger and Gail Collins, the editorial page editor, championed Ms. Miller’s cause. The Times published more than 15 editorials and called for Congress to pass a shield law that would make it harder for federal prosecutors to compel reporters to testify.

Mr. Sulzberger said he did not personally write the editorials, but regularly urged Ms. Collins to devote space to them.

Asked in the interview whether he had any regrets about the editorials, given the outcome of the case, Mr. Sulzberger said no.

A man who has no regrets about his role in such a journalistic disaster doesn’t deserve to continue in that role. Here’s more deluded thinking from the publisher:

Last week, Mr. Sulzberger said it was impossible to know whether Ms. Miller could have struck a deal a year earlier, as at least four other journalists had done.

“Maybe a deal was possible earlier,” Mr. Sulzberger said. “And maybe, in retrospect, looking back, you could say this was a moment you could have jumped on. If so, shame on us. I tend to think not.”

Shame on you indeed.

Let’s close with a typically querulous quotation from the embattled Keller:

“It’s too early to judge it, and it’s probably for other people to judge,” said Mr. Keller, the executive editor. “I hope that people will remember that this institution stood behind a reporter, and the principle, when it wasn’t easy to do that, or popular to do that.”

He’s wrong on all counts. It’s not too early to judge and people already are judging his behavior for the failure it is. The only question is when he’ll begin to draw the same conclusions. The other stuff about principle is posturing for posterity and (unfortunately) beside the point.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Anne from New York City October 18, 2005, 6:51 AM

    Great post! Someone needs to investigate why Miller is still working at the Times.

  • Solomon2 October 20, 2005, 12:38 PM

    It’s too weird. It’s been clear for a few years now that the NYT sometimes lets at least some reporters run amok, but there are too many gaps in our knowledge to judge these things…except I don’t like this part about deliberately misidentifying a source.

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