Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.
Finally, the New York Times and Judith Miller speak, and the paper and reporter leave their readers with as many questions as answers. In Sunday's edition, the Times publishes a lengthy account by three reporters (Don Van Natta Jr., Adam Liptak and Clifford Levy) of what it calls "the Miller case" and a first-person account by Miller. Neither piece explains all.
Miller spent eighty-five days in a federal prison after she refused to cooperate with special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who has been investigating the Bush Administration leak that outed undercover CIA officer Valerie Wilson, the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, a critic of the Bush White House. She was released from jail after she received a personal waiver from a confidential source, Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff, that granted her permission to discuss their conversations with Fitzgerald. With that waiver in hand, she cut a deal with Fitzgerald that limited his questioning only to her discussions with Libby (not other sources) and that compelled Miller to turn over her notes of these conversations with Libby.
The denouement of Miller's legal tussle with Fitzgerald was rather puzzling. Libby's lawyer indicated that Miller could have had the personal waiver a year earlier. And after Miller and the Times had spent months crowing that Miller--unlike other reporters--would stand on principle and not submit to Fitzgerald's zealous pursuits, her final settlement with Fitzgerald (which resembled that of the other reporters) was not in sync with the grand we're-protecting-journalism rhetoric the Times and Miller had hurled. Moreover, there were new and old questions about Miller's involvement in the case. Why had Fitzgerald subpoenaed her? How did it come to happen that she only recently discovered a notebook containing notes of Miller's first conversation with Libby about Joseph (and possibly Valerie) Wilson? What had Libby told her? What sort of relationship did she have with Libby? Was Miller eager to discredit Wilson because her prewar reporting on Iraq's WMDs had overstated and hyped the claim that Saddam Hussein presented a WMD threat?
The Times's double-header does not clear up all the mysteries. Let's start with Miller's article, "My Four Hours Testifying in the Federal Grand Jury Room." Miller does not explain the disappearance and discovery of a notebook that contained notes of a June 23, 2003, conversation she had with Libby. This chat occurred two weeks before Wilson published an op-ed piece for the Times in which he revealed that after being sent to Niger in 2002 by the CIA he had concluded that it was highly unlikely that Iraq had been able to obtain weapons-grade uranium there. For weeks, Wilson had been talking to reporters--off the record--about his trip to Niger, and media stories regarding the trip had appeared without naming Wilson as the former diplomat who had gone on this mission.
Miller's account of the June 23, 2003, discussion with Libby indicates that the White House was already looking to discredit Wilson's account prior to Wilson going public with his story--and that this was part of a White House effort to protect itself from intelligence leaks suggesting that the Bush Administration had played up the prewar intelligence on WMDs in Iraq. This was, of course, occurring at a time when the absence of WMDs in Iraq was becoming a problem for the White House. It is not surprising that Libby tried to peddle to Miller the argument that the White House had not relied on skimpy intelligence to go to war. And in this conversation, according to Miller, Libby told her that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA.
How did Libby know this? Why did Libby know this? Miller may not possess the answers to these critical questions. But Valerie Wilson's employment status at the CIA was classified information. Wittingly or not, Libby was passing classified information to a reporter whom he obviously hoped would be sympathetic to the White House's cause.
In a second meeting on July 8, 2003--two days after Wilson's op-ed appeared--Libby and Miller again discussed Wilson. Once again, Libby was telling Miller that the White House had based its claim that Iraq had been seeking uranium in Niger on solid intelligence. Miller writes that Libby cited the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq produced in October 2002 and said it had firmly concluded Iraq had been pursuing uranium. (It seems that Libby did not tell Miller that this NIE contained a dissent from the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), which said, "the claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa are, in INR's assessment, highly dubious.") At this meeting, Libby again referred to Wilson's wife, apparently telling Miller, according to her notes, that she "works at Winpac," the CIA office on Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control.
Miller says she told Fitzgerald's grand jury that she believes this is the first time she had heard that Wilson's wife worked at Winpac. But she cannot recall--she says--why Libby was discussing Wilson's wife. That seems strange. It's not odd that someone would not recall the details of a conversation that happened two years ago. But six days after this conversation--when Novak outed her--Valerie Wilson was big news. Did Miller--who now says she was annoyed she had been scooped on the Plame/Wilson story by Novak--at that point not recall her six-day-old conversation with Libby on this matter and not develop a deeper impression of the portion of their chat that covered Valerie Wilson?
There's more on this point. In the notebook in which she recorded her notes from this meeting with Libby, Miller wrote the words "Valerie Flame." Clearly, this was a reference to Valerie Plame. Was Libby the source for this name? Miller says she does not think so and that she told Fitzgerald "I believed the information came from another source, whom I could not recall." Again, it might be hard for a reporter to remember who told them what over two years ago. But isn't it difficult to believe that come July 14, 2003--the day the name Valerie Plame became public--Miller would not have recalled who had told her days earlier about this CIA officer? And isn't it hard to believe that she would no longer remember that?
There is something else odd about her July 8, 2003, discussion with Libby. When the subject turned to Wilson, Libby asked Miller that he be identified in any story she would write as a "former Hill staffer." Previously the two had agreed that Miller would refer to Libby as a "senior administration official." Now Miller agreed that she would ID him as a "former Hill staffer." (Libby had once worked on Capitol Hill.) She assumed, she writes, that "Libby did not want the White House to be seen as attacking Mr. Wilson." But this shows the dishonest game that reporters can play. Technically, Libby was a former Hill staffer, but he was talking to Miller--and trying to undermine Wilson's account--as a White House official. Calling Libby a "former Hill staffer" in print would have been highly misleading. (Miller never did write a piece on Wilson.) Is this how the Times plays ball? This small slice of Miller's piece deserves a response from executive editor Bill Keller.
In a notebook that chronicled a third pre-leak conversation with Libby--which transpired on July 12, 2003--Miller scribbled the words "Victoria Wilson." Miller writes, "I told Mr. Fitzgerald I was not sure whether Mr. Libby had used this name or whether I just made a mistake in writing it on my own. Another possibility, I said, is that I gave Mr. Libby the wrong name on purpose to see whether he would correct me and confirm her identity." She says she might have been calling others about Wilson's wife, but she is not sure on this point. There is a lot of don't-know in her account. Can Miller not answer a simple question: Did you know Joseph Wilson's wife was named Valerie Wilson (or Plame) and did counter-WMD work at the CIA before Novak published his column? If so, how did you learn this?
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Miller's piece, fittingly, ends on a weird and uncertain note. When she was before the grand jury, she recalls, Fitzgerald asked her to read from a letter that Libby sent her last month while she was in jail. The letter encouraged her to testify and said, "The public report of every other reporter's testimony makes clear that they did not discuss Ms. Plame's name or identity with me." Miller told Fitzgerald that she was surprised by the letter because it might be perceived as an attempt by Libby to encourage her to testify that she had not discussed Valerie Wilson's CIA identity with him even though they had. Fitzgerald asked Miller about the letter's closing lines. "Out West," Libby had written, "where you vacation, the aspens will be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them." What, Fitzgerald wondered, did Miller make of this reference to connected roots? In her Times piece, Miller says she answered Fitzgerald by recalling the last time she had seen Libby. In August 2003, she was at a rodeo in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and a man in jeans, a cowboy hat and sunglasses approached her and asked her about a conference she had just attended in Aspen, Colorado. She had no idea who this fellow was. "Judy," he told her. "It's Scooter Libby." And that was--literally--all Miller wrote.
This may be a nice anecdote for ending an article, but it hardly was responsive to Fitzgerald's question. As for her readers, Miller fails them by not providing a clearer answer. Why did an editor not send this page back to Miller with the query: "Funny bit, but irrelevant; tell reader what you think odd sign-off in Libby letter means"? But given the article Miller has produced, it is, in a way, an appropriate conclusion.
The news story that appears in the Times is less exasperating. But it too leaves one wanting more. It doesn't tell the reader anything else about the missing notebook, the "Valerie Flame" reference, or Miller's dealings with Libby. In a section covering Miller's history at the paper, the story quotes Miller on her WMD stories:
"W.M.D.-I got it totally wrong," she said. "The analysts, the experts and the journalists who covered them--we were all wrong. If your sources are wrong, you are wrong. I did the best job that I could."
The paper did not note that there were experts and journalists before the war who were skeptical of the WMD claims. For instance, Mohamed ElBaradeii and the International Atomic Energy Agency said before the war that there was no evidence Iraq had revived its nuclear weapons program. The day after Colin Powell's infamous--and misleading--show at the United Nations, The Washington Post published several articles that quoted technical experts taking issue with his Powell's pronouncements. Miller was not wrong because everybody was wrong. She was wrong because she relied upon sources--administration officials, Iraqi exiles connected to Ahmed Chalabi--who had a reason to hype the WMD threat. But the Times gives her a pass on this, allowing her to spin away.
The triple-bylined article does not advance the story much beyond the account presented in Miller's piece. Regarding who else might have told Miller about "Victoria Wilson," this article has no additional information and only notes, "In an interview, [Miller] would not discuss her sources." Well, thanks for cracking that nut.
The article does dig slightly further into the dispute between Miller's legal camp and Libby's attorney over what happened during their negotiations. According to Miller, her attorney, Floyd Abrams, said that Libby's attorney, Joseph Tate, pressed Abrams to tell him what Miller would say to the grand jury should she testify. Abrams also claimed that Tate said that Libby had already testified that he had not mentioned Valerie Wilson's name or her undercover status to Miller. This raises the possibility that Libby was seeking to shape Miller's testimony, which could be illegal. Tate calls such an interpretation "outrageous." But the Times account does not sort this out as clearly as a reader--or a prosecutor--might like.
The Times story also further undermines Miller's attempt to become the Joan of Arc for modern-day journalists. The article notes that her attorneys had tried early on to arrange a deal under which Miller would testify before the grand jury if Fitzgerald limited the scope of the questions. In public, Miller and the Times management struck an absolutist and noble-sounding stance. But in the suites, they were trying to reach a compromise. The article also chronicles how the Times was constrained in covering the Miller case and Fitzgerald's investigation:
In August, Douglas Jehl and David Johnston, two other Washington reporters, sent a memo to the Washington bureau chief, Mr. [Philip] Taubman, listing ideas for coverage of the case. Mr. Taubman said 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.
Mr. Taubman said he felt bad for his reporters, but he added that he and other senior editors felt that they had no choice. "No editor wants to be in the position of keeping information out of the newspaper," Mr. Taubman said.
So much for without fear or favor. This is an awful acknowledgment for the nation's leading paper. Taubman and Jill Abramson, a managing editor, called the situation "Excruciatingly difficult." It was worse. As I've written before, Jayson Blair bamboozled his editors; Judy Miller handcuffed hers. If a deal could have been reached a year earlier, the Times would not be as embarrassed as it is today. No wonder, as the paper reports, when Miller made a post-release speech in the newsroom, claiming a victory for press freedoms, her colleagues "responded with restrained applause."
When the Times reporters interviewed Abramson and asked her what she regretted about the paper's handling of the Miller case, she replied, "The entire thing." That was a refreshing shot of candor. But Miller's account and the paper's extensive take-out do not totally clear the air. They leave the impression that we're still not getting all the news that ought to be fit to print.