News Intelligence Analysis




From: Editor & Publisher


What was Judith Miller Up To?

Was she simply a recipient of the leak of Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA agent--or did she carry that news to others herself? Speculation grows that the special prosecutor is looking at the possibility that unnamed journalists "started a chain of conversations," passing information about Plame to administration officials.

By William E. Jackson, Jr.


(July 12, 2005) -- From Frank Rich in the New York Times to Michael Kinsley in the Los Angeles Times, opinions were expressed across a wide spectrum in the days following the decision by federal district court Judge Frank Hogan to sentence Judith Miller to jail and let Matt Cooper go free in special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation of officials who may have committed a crime in leaking the identity of CIA undercover agent Valerie Plame two years ago.

Bob Schieffer on "Face the Nation" even went so far as to compare Miller's sentence for refusing to reveal sources to a grand jury to Martin Luther King's civil disobedience.

In his column of July 10, grieving for his colleague Miller who "has been taken away in shackles for refusing to name the source for a story she never wrote," Rich weighed in with the melodramatic conclusion that "this is worse than Watergate.” But Rich later found ground in reality when he wrote that the scandal began with the sending of American men and women to war in Iraq based on twisted intelligence. Unlike many of Miller's apologists, he recalled that "Judy Miller was one of two reporters responsible for a notoriously credulous front-page Times story" (with Michael Gordon in September 2002) that enabled the Bush Administration's propaganda campaign to hype the threat of Saddam's WMD.

This was just one of her error-ridden contributions to the cause of invasion. Demonstrating a singular lack of propriety, one of the most insensitive comments of the past week came from Miller herself when she told the judge after he sentenced her to jail: if U.S. troops could risk death in Iraq, "surely, I can face prison to defend a free press."

It is important to note that The Times' legal affairs reporter, Adam Liptak, has been thoroughly professional in day-to-day reporting on the case, despite the eminent pro-Miller roles of his publisher and executive editor. It would be far more difficult to follow the ins and outs of the case without his regular reports. However, it remains a mystery as to how Liptak can be certain that she conducted interviews and was contemplating writing about the controversy in July of 2003, possibly a key element in this case.

Prosecutor Fitzgerald has insisted: "This case is not about a whistle-blower. It's about a potential retaliation against a whistle-blower." Helping the government vindictively to leak -- to "declare war" (as Cooper put it) -- hardly counts as watching the government closely and aggressively. As reported by AP, when Times counsel Floyd Abrams was asked why prosecutors had sought Miller's testimony when she never wrote a story about Plame, he said: “We don't know, but most likely somebody testified to the grand jury that he or she had spoken to Judy."

So Miller was fingered by an administration official back in the summer of 2004, and then she was subpoenaed? Then, one theory goes, she covers for him or her by claiming she was working on a story, hoping to throw the cloak of "reporter's privilege" over the conversation. By not agreeing to testify, Miller -- along with that official -- might thereby have been involved in obstruction of justice. It would require her oral testimony to confirm what games the White House-level official was playing.

Of course, this is just a theory; no one yet knows what actually happened. But since the New York Times was originally subpoenaed, as were Time and The Washington Post, and that subpoena has been dropped, it could be read that Miller was not working on a story, or took no notes --or destroyed them. Otherwise the New York Times would be on the hook for them.

A novel theme emerging in some press coverage of the Plame case raises the possibility of unnamed journalists being participants in a potential crime, and not just witnesses. Carol Leonnig of The Washington Post wrote on July 6: "Sources close to the investigation say there is evidence in some instances that some reporters may have told government officials -- not the other way around --that Wilson was married to Plame, a CIA employee."

Richard Schmitt wrote in the Los Angeles Times of July 9: "It appears clear that one possibility pursued by Fitzgerald is whether a journalist started a chain of conversations about Plame between reporters and White House officials."

This idea was first raised by me in an E&P column of April 7, based on conversations with legal sources, in which I suggested, among other scenarios, that Miller basically was a "carrier," around Washington, of the rumor about Plame's real identity, but not a reporter actively covering a story. She was "both a source for, and a witness to, disclosure by sources of Plame's identity."

She may have just been helping to spin the neo-conservatives' gossip. Her "source" is incidental, as she wrote nothing. No evidence has been presented that she even contemplated writing a story. None of her colleagues at the newspaper that I have spoken to over the past two years have suggested that she was actively working on a story about Plame.

But talking to someone at a high level somehow got her on Fitzgerald's list. She may have both received the information on Plame from a high official, who was trying to smear Wilson, and spread it as a "carrier" to another one. Or maybe she already knew what Plame's job was, as her government beat was WMD.

If this scenario is close to the reality of what happened, her "cover" is likely to be blown if and when the special prosecutor releases the information from those crucial redacted eight pages of court documents that persuaded one judge after another to hold her in contempt in the first place. What's in those pages is obviously key to the whole Miller case.

The New York Times should answer some questions. For example, have they contacted Miller's source[s] and asked for an explicit waiver of confidentiality -- and been denied? If so, would that not appropriately put the pressure back on the White House, where it belongs? Does the Times want her sources to come forward?


William E. Jackson, Jr. ( is a former arms control official and legislative aide in Congress. He has written about the Plame case for E&P for almost two years.

E&P column of April 7

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