Even on the weekend, our obsession with the Plame/CIA leak scandal–and the Judy Miller sideshow–doesn’t end. Here’s a piece I posted on my blog at www.davidcorn.com.

The wheels of The New York Times turn slowly, but perhaps they are moving in the right direction. On Friday, executive editor Bill Keller sent out a memo in which he offered a “first cut” at the “lessons we have learned” from the Judy Miller mess. The memo was no defense of Miller and the Times.

To his credit, Keller starts with the original sin in the Miller scandal: her problematic prewar reporting on Iraq’s WMD, which relied too heavily on administration and Iraqi exile sources and which, consequently (and perhaps purposefully) hyped a nonexistent threat. Keller, who was not the top editor when Miller ran amok on this story, wrote,

I wish we had dealt with the controversy over our coverage of WMD as soon as I became executive editor. At the time, we thought we had compelling reasons for kicking the issue down the road. The paper had just been through a major trauma, the Jayson Blair episode, and needed to regain its equilibrium. It felt somehow unsavory to begin a tenure by attacking our predecessors. I was trying to get my arms around a huge new job, appoint my team, get the paper fully back to normal, and I feared the WMD issue could become a crippling distraction.

So it was a year before we got around to really dealing with the controversy. At that point, we published a long editors’ note acknowledging the prewar journalistic lapses, and–to my mind, at least as important–we intensified aggressive reporting aimed at exposing the way bad or manipulated intelligence had fed the drive to war. (I’m thinking of our excellent investigation of those infamous aluminum tubes, the report on how the Iraqi National Congress recruited exiles to promote Saddam’s WMD threat, our close look at the military’s war-planning intelligence, and the dissection, one year later, of Colin Powell’s U.N. case for the war, among other examples. The fact is sometimes overlooked that a lot of the best reporting on how this intel fiasco came about appeared in the NYT.)

By waiting a year to own up to our mistakes, we allowed the anger inside and outside the paper to fester. Worse, we fear, we fostered an impression that The Times put a higher premium on protecting its reporters than on coming clean with its readers. If we had lanced the WMD boil earlier, we might have damped any suspicion that THIS time, the paper was putting the defense of a reporter above the duty to its readers.

This is a serious admission. Might Keller feel his leadership at the TImes is in jeopardy? Or is he simply being a mensch? I do wonder why there has been no disciplining of Miller for her botched coverage of the WMD issue. Keller is acknowledging these “journalistic lapses” were significant and that they had a negative impact on the newspaper. So why were the people responsible for these mistakes not held accountable? After all, they caused more harm to the paper than did Jayson Blair.

Keller does not write about Miller’s lead role in the WMD fiasco. But he does criticize her–and himself–for actions taken (and not taken) during the leak investigation. Keller notes that he was negligent by not fully examining Miller’s involvement in the leak story and that he missed “significant alarm bells.” He also says that Miller was not forthcoming with the paper and that she even misled an editor:

Until Fitzgerald came after her, I didn’t know that Judy had been one of the reporters on the receiving end of the anti-Wilson whisper campaign. I should have wondered why I was learning this from the special counsel, a year after the fact. (In November of 2003 [Washington bureau chief] Phil Taubman tried to ascertain whether any of our correspondents had been offered similar leaks. As we reported last Sunday, Judy seems to have misled Phil Taubman about the extent of her involvement.) This alone should have been enough to make me probe deeper.

Indeed. He should have probed deeper. But what will Keller do, if anything, about Miller misleading Taubman? He doesn’t say. And he insists that fighting Fitzgerald in court was still necessary, with this caveat:

if I had known the details of Judy’s entanglement with [Scooter] Libby, I’d have been more careful in how the paper articulated its defense, and perhaps more willing than I had been to support efforts aimed at exploring compromises.

And Keller seconds an email sent by Richard Stevenson, a Washington correspondent for the newspaper, who wrote:

I think there is, or should be, a contract between the paper and its reporters. The contract holds that the paper will go to the mat to back them up institutionally–but only to the degree that the reporter has lived up to his or her end of the bargain, specifically to have conducted him or herself in a way consistent with our legal, ethical and journalistic standards, to have been open and candid with the paper about sources, mistakes, conflicts and the like, and generally to deserve having the reputations of all of us put behind him or her.

The implication here, of course, is that Miller did not hold up her end of that bargain. And Keller seems to be agreeing with that. So what might be her future at the paper? Keller provides no hint, and he notes that he and the top editors of the Times will continue to wrestle with the remaining issues “in the coming weeks.”

For anyone rooting for the Times to remedy the Miller problem, Keller’s memo was more encouraging than the articles the paper published a week ago. But, curiously, Keller did not address one of the key credibility issues created by the Miller controversy. In her first-person account–which ran last weekend and which her attorney, Robert Bennett, now says the Times forced her to publish against his advice to her–Miller noted that she agreed to Libby’s request to be identified as an anonymous “former Hill staffer” when he was passing her negative information on former Ambassador Joseph Wilson. That is, Miller colluded with a senior White House official–Dick Cheney’s chief of staff–to camouflage a White House attack on Wilson, a critic of the administration. This violated the Times‘ rules for anonymous sourcing. (Reporters are supposed to identify an anonymous source with as much information as possible so readers can determine if the source is pushing an agenda.) Put aside Miller’s sloppy and misleading mission-driven WMD coverage, her inability to remember which source told her about “Valerie Flame,” her suspicious discovery of a notebook referencing a conversation with Libby she had not originally told the special prosecutor about, and the gap between her absolutist, fighting-for-a-principle rhetoric about her imprisonment and the fact that she had tried to negotiate a compromise to avoid going to jail, the episode in which she offered to mislead her readers about a White House source to facilitate an administration assault on a policy critic, is the most clear-cut example of Miller’s bad behavior. Yet, as far as I can tell, Keller and the Times have not acknowledged this piece of the Miller mess.

Still, Keller’s memo is evidence that he finally comprehends what a jam Miller created for the newspaper and that he understands the troubles began before Fitzgerald came knocking. This is progress. And it’s no accident that the day after Keller circulated his memo, The Washington Post ran a piece by Howard Kurtz–headlined, “A Split The Times & Miller”–that quoted Bennett, Miller’s lawyer, bitching about the Times. The article notes that Miller would not cooperate with the Times reporters working on the paper’s account of the Miller case until 24 hours before the deadline for the story. And Bennett downplayed the significance of Miller’s inability to remember the first conversation she had with Libby about Joseph Wilson (in which Libby may have mentioned Wilson’s wife, the undercover CIA official, weeks before she was outed in a July 14, 2003 Bob Novak column.) The fact that Bennett (and apparently Miller, too) felt it was necessary for Bennett to defend Miller after Keller had disseminated his memo is a sign that the kinship Keller and Miller displayed in public when they were presenting her as a Joan of Arc for modern-day journalism has deteriorated. (And see Maureen Dowd’s acerbic slam at Miller in Saturday’s Times, in which she opines that if Miller returns to the newspaper after her book leave is done untold damage will ensue.) Perhaps this will allow Keller to remedy further the problems that Miller has caused for his paper. Perhaps denial has transformed into acceptance, and Keller and the paper are ready for hard work of recovery.


TRUSTING LIBBY. Thanks to Michael Isikoff for the shout-out. On HuffingtonPost.com, he writes,

Forget the aspens turning in clusters–or, for at least the next couple of days, the prospect of indictments. (Nothing, it now seems, until next week.) The real story of last weekend’s Judy Miller revelations is not what Scooter Libby may have told her about Joe Wilson’s wife. It is how Libby clearly, and unequivocally, misrepresented the contents of the classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) about Iraqi WMD. Save for the estimable David Corn of the Nation, nobody has picked up on this. But it’s huge. At a time when questions about the Bush administration’s case for war were beginning to mount, Libby assured Miller: Don’t worry, there’s still secret stuff out there that will prove we were right all along. As a Washington reporter who frequently writes about intelligence matters, I can assure you, this is the way it always works: “Trust me,” the high level government official will tell you, “if you knew what I knew–if you could read the top secret reports I’ve read–you’d know why we’re doing this.” Only in this case, we know what Libby told Miller at their two hour breakfast at the Ritz Carleton Hotel on July 8, 2003, wasn’t true.

For Isikoff’s full examination of how Libby tried to mislead Miller (who seems to have been rather willing to be misled) about the prewar intelligence, see his “Terror Watch” column (written with Mark Hosenball) here.