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When Journalists Join the Cover-ups

By Robert Parry
October 18, 2005

As embarrassing as the Judith Miller case is for the New York Times, the fiasco underscores a more troubling development that strikes near the heart of American democracy – the press corps’ gradual retreat from the principle of skepticism on national security issues to career-boosting “patriotism.” 

Miller – and many other prominent Washington journalists over the past quarter century – largely built their careers by positioning themselves as defenders of supposed American interests. Instead of tough reporting about national security operations, these reporters often became conduits for government spin and propaganda.

In that sense, Miller’s prominence at the Times – where she had wide latitude to report and publish whatever she wanted – was a marker for how the “patriotic” journalists had overwhelmed the competing “skeptical” journalists, who saw their duty as bringing a critical eye to all government information, including national security claims. [For more on that broader history, see Secrecy & Privilege or Lost History or Part II of this series.]

For her part – both in the credulous reporting about Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction and protection of a White House source who sought to discredit a whistleblower about a key WMD lie – Miller has come to personify the notion that American journalists should tailor their reporting to what is “good for the country” as defined by government officials.

Indeed, at this point in her career, the 57-year-old Miller seems to have trouble distinguishing between being a journalist and being part of the government team. Note, for instance, two of her comments about her grand jury testimony on the White House outing of CIA officer Valerie Plame, who was the wife of the WMD whistleblower, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson.

Presumably to give some deniability to one of her anti-Wilson sources – Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff I. Lewis Libby – Miller said she told special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald “that Mr. Libby might have thought I still had security clearance, given my special embedded status in Iraq,” where she had traveled with a military unit in a fruitless search for WMD.

In other words, Miller was saying that Libby might be forgiven for disclosing the identity of a covert CIA officer to a journalist because he might have thought Miller had government authorization to hear such secrets.

But the notion that a reporter would accept a security clearance – which is a legally binding commitment to give the government authority over what information can be released – is anathema to anyone who believes in a free and independent press.

It is one thing for “embedded” journalists to accept the necessity of military censorship over tactical details in exchange for access to the battlefield. It is altogether different for a journalist to have a “security clearance.”

For some journalistic purists, this statement was the most shocking element of Miller’s lengthy account of her testimony as published in the Times.

Sacrificing Objectivity

Secondly, toward the end of a Times chronology on the case, written by three other reporters, Miller is quoted as saying that she hoped she would eventually return to the newsroom and resume covering “the same thing I’ve always covered – threats to our country.” [NYT, Oct. 16. 2005]

To describe one’s “beat” as covering “threats to our country” amounts to another repudiation of a core journalistic principle – objectivity – the concept of a reporter setting aside his or her personal views so the facts can be researched and presented to the reader in as fair and balanced a way as possible.

Rather than insist on a separation between government and journalism, Miller appears to see little distinction between the two. Her comments suggest that she views her job as defending the security interests of the United States, rather than giving the public the unvarnished facts.

What that meant in the run-up to the war in Iraq was her serving as a conveyor belt for bogus intelligence on Iraq’s WMD. Most memorably, Miller co-wrote a key article asserting that Iraq’s purchase of aluminum tubes was evidence that Saddam Hussein was working on a nuclear bomb.

Cheney and other administration officials then cited the Times article as validation for their case against Iraq for alleged violation of arms control commitments. Both in Miller’s article and in TV appearances, administration officials told the American people that they couldn’t wait for the “smoking gun” proof of Iraq’s WMD to be “a mushroom cloud.”

The aluminum-tube story was later debunked by U.S. Energy Department experts and State Department analysts, but it remained a terrifying argument as George W. Bush stampeded the Congress and the country to war in fall 2002 and winter 2003. [For details, see “Powell's Widening Credibility Gap.”]

The aluminum-tube story was one of six articles that prompted a post-invasion Times self-criticism. Miller wrote or co-wrote five of the six articles that were deemed overly credulous of the U.S. government's point of view.

“In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged,” the Times editor's note said. [NYT, May 26, 2004]

Source Protection

Since the Oct. 16, 2005, articles detailing Miller’s role in the Plame controversy, Miller’s image as a journalistic martyr – who went to jail rather than betray the confidence of a source – also has been tarnished.

After 85 days in jail resisting a federal subpoena, Miller finally agreed to testify about her three conversations with Libby regarding Ambassador Wilson’s criticism of another high-profile administration WMD claim, that Iraq had been seeking enriched uranium from the African nation of Niger.

In 2002, Cheney’s office expressed interest in a dubious report from Italy claiming that Iraq was trying to buy “yellowcake” uranium in Niger. Reacting to Cheney’s concern, the CIA dispatched Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador in Africa, to check out the allegations.

Wilson returned believing that the claim was most likely baseless, an opinion shared by other U.S. government experts. Nevertheless, the claim ended up in Bush’s State of the Union speech in January 2003.

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Wilson began speaking with journalists on background about how his Niger findings had diverged from Bush’s State of the Union claim. Libby, a leading architect of the Iraq War, learned about Wilson’s criticism and began passing on negative information about Wilson to Miller.

Miller, who said she regarded Libby as “a good-faith source, who was usually straight with me,” met with him on June 23, 2003, in the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House, according to the Times chronology. At that meeting, “Ms. Miller said her notes leave open the possibility that Mr. Libby told her Mr. Wilson’s wife might work at the agency,” the Times reported.

But Libby provided clearer details at a second meeting on July 8, 2003, two days after Wilson went public in an Op-Ed piece about his criticism of Bush’s use of the Niger allegations. At a breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel near the White House, Libby told Miller that Wilson’s wife worked at a CIA unit known as Winpac, for weapons intelligence, nonproliferation and arms control, the Times reported.

Miller’s notebook, the one used for that interview, contained a reference to “Valerie Flame,” an apparent misspelling of Mrs. Wilson’s maiden name. In the Times account, Miller said she told Fitzgerald’s grand jury that she believed the name didn’t come from Libby but from another source. But Miller claimed she couldn’t recall the source’s name.

In a third conversation, by telephone on July 12, 2003, Miller and Libby returned to the Wilson topic. Miller’s notes contain a reference to a “Victoria Wilson,” another misspelled reference to Wilson’s wife, Miller said.

Two days later, on July 14, 2003, conservative columnist Robert Novak publicly outed Plame as a CIA operative in an article that cited “two administration sources” and tried to discredit Wilson’s findings on the grounds that his wife had recommended him for the Niger mission.

Miller never wrote an article about the Wilson-Plame affair although she claimed she “made a strong recommendation to my editor” for a story after Novak’s column appeared, but was rebuffed.

Times managing editor Jill Abramson, who was Washington bureau chief in summer 2003, said Miller never made such a recommendation, and Miller said she wouldn’t divulge the name of the editor who supposedly said no, the Times chronology said.

A Criminal Probe

The Wilson-Plame affair took another turn in the latter half of 2003 when the CIA sought a criminal investigation of the leak of Plame’s covert identity. Because of conflicts of interest in George W. Bush’s Justice Department, Fitzgerald – the U.S. Attorney in Chicago – was named as a special prosecutor in December 2003.

Known as a hard-nosed and independent-minded prosecutor, Fitzgerald demanded testimony from Miller and several other journalists in summer 2004. Miller refused to cooperate, saying she had promised her sources confidentiality and arguing that waivers signed by Libby and other officials had been coerced.

Almost a year later, Miller was imprisoned for contempt of court. After 85 days in jail, she relented and agreed to testify, but only after she received a personal assurance from Libby that he wanted her to appear.

But the details of the Miller-Libby minuet over the waiver put Miller’s refusal to testify in a different – and more troubling – light.

According to the Times account, Libby’s lawyer, Joseph A. Tate, assured Miller’s lawyer Abrams as early as summer 2004 that Miller was free to testify, but he added that Libby already had told Fitzgerald’s grand jury that Libby had not given Miller the name or undercover status of Wilson’s wife.

“That raised a potential conflict for Ms. Miller,” the Times reported. “Did the references in her notes to ‘Valerie Flame’ and ‘Victoria Wilson’ suggest that she would have to contradict Mr. Libby’s account of their conversations? Ms. Miller said in an interview that Mr. Tate was sending her a message that Libby did not want her to testify.”

According to Miller’s account, her attorney Abrams told her that Libby’s lawyer Tate “was pressing about what you would say. When I wouldn’t give him an assurance that you would exonerate Libby, if you were to cooperate, he then immediately gave me this, ‘Don’t go there, or, we don’t want you there.’”

Responding to a question from the New York Times, Tate called Miller’s interpretation of his position “outrageous.” After all, if Miller were telling the truth, Tate’s maneuver would border on suborning perjury and obstruction of justice.

But there is also a disturbing element for Miller’s defenders. Her subsequent actions could be interpreted as finding another means to protect Libby. By refusing to testify and going to jail, Miller helped Libby – temporarily at least – avoid a possible indictment for perjury and obstruction of justice.

Miller’s jailing also drew the Times editorial page and many Washington journalists into a campaign aimed at pressuring Fitzgerald to back off his investigation. In effect, many members of the Washington news media were pulled, unwittingly or not, into what looks like a cover-up of a criminal conspiracy.

The Times editorialized that Miller would not reverse her refusal to testify and that additional incarceration was unjustified. But the jail time worked. When Miller realized that Fitzgerald wouldn’t relent and that she might stay in prison indefinitely, she decided to reopen negotiations with Libby about whether she should testify.

Libby sent her a friendly letter that read like an invitation to testify but also to stick with the team. “Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning,” Libby wrote. “They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them.”

When Miller finally appeared before the grand jury, she offered an account that seemed to twist and turn in underground directions to protect Libby. For instance, she insisted that someone else had mentioned “Valerie Flame,” but she said she couldn’t recall who.

Before testifying to the grand jury, Miller also extracted an agreement from Fitzgerald that he wouldn’t ask her questions about any source other than Libby.

But the longer back story of “Plame-gate” is how the Washington media culture changed over a generation, from the skeptical days of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers to an era in which leading journalists see their “roots” connecting to the national security state.

[Click here to proceed to Part Two]


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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