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.
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
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]
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
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
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
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
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
here to proceed to Part Two]