Full Disclosure

Time for Miller to come clean

The press's role in the leak of a CIA operative's identity has made clear that if ever there was a time for transparency by the journalism community, this is it. The case is clouded in secrecy and murk, including the part about the press's involvement. At least two of the reporters involved, protecting sources, have failed to give anything resembling a complete account of their information-gathering.

I am not suggesting in any way that they name confidential sources who are not already known, but if they or their employers are to claim credibility, a full disclosure of their roles is crucial. The public needs to be given details of, among other things, how they conducted their reporting, what their conversations with their sources consisted of, what questions the special federal prosecutor investigating the case posed to them, and what their responses were. They should also bring forward any testimony they gave to the prosecutor's grand jury. Once a person testifies, he or she can make the testimony public.

The leak happened in July 2003. The prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, has been running his investigation for nearly two years and seems to be wrapping it up now. What began as a dirty political trick by the White House to silence criticism of the Iraq war has now swollen, because of the ensuing cover-up, into a threat to the Bush administration's legitimacy.

The inglorious Judith Miller
photo: Naum Kazhdam
The inglorious Judith Miller

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  • The journalist who first published CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson's name more than two years ago, columnist Robert Novak, cited as his sources two senior administration officials" — unnamed. Novak, a partisan conservative who has regularly been a conduit for Republican leaks, has refused to explain his role but says he will do so as soon as the prosecutor's case is concluded. As I wrote in an earlier column: "Two years is a long time for a reporter to hide the truth."

    Another controversial journalist, New York Times reporter Judith Miller, was found guilty of civil contempt by the federal judge in the case for refusing to identify her sources or testify before the grand jury. Finally, last week, after 85 days in a federal jail, she worked out a deal with the prosecutor and testified about one of her sources — I. Lewis Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Richard Cheney. She also turned over some of her notes, which she was allowed to edit in advance. She has refused as yet to discuss the details of her involvement, but says this will all come out in the soon-to-appear New York Times account of the story. Oddly, though weapons of mass destruction are one of her key fields of interest and she seems to have done substantial reporting on the criticism by Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson, of the Bush administration, she never published a story about it. So far, she has not explained why.

    Since her release, Miller has gone on television to defend her actions, but has not cleared up any of the mysteries. In these appearances, she has said repeatedly that if sources' identities were not protected, many of them would not come forward and tell reporters what shenanigans the government and major corporations were really up to, and the public would suffer. "The public's right to know" is at stake, she says again and again. And she's right. That's why I believe, since she is a major part of the story, that she now has to take the uncommon step of telling us her whole story. She has to do it for the public she says she is responsible to, for her colleagues, and for the Times, whose reputation is also at stake here.

    The American press has been under siege in recent years — mostly from the right, which accuses journalists of being overwhelmingly liberal and determinedly hostile to the Bush administration. More and more court decisions have reversed journalists' traditional privileges — such as protection, under the freedom-of-the-press language of the First Amendment, from having to testify or turn over notes, except in extraordinary cases.

    Miller cited those privileges in her refusal to cooperate with the prosecutor. She says she did it to protect the confidentiality of her sources. Virtually everyone in the journalism world believes in the need for confidentiality to enable whistleblower sources to come forward anonymously and expose wrongdoing — without fear of retaliation. But many have expressed doubts about Miller's reporting methods and her relationships with her sources.

    One of the warts on this case — and therefore on Novak's and Miller's silence — is the fact that the sources this time, as is frequently the case with high-placed Washington leakers, were not civic-minded whistleblowers. They were major administration wheeler-dealers trying to smear Wilson, a former U.S. diplomat with service in Africa, who had challenged the Bush claim that the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq had gone to Africa seeking to purchase uranium yellowcake, needed for nuclear weapons. This was a key part of the weapons-of-mass-destruction rationale that Bush employed to lead the country into war against Iraq in 2003. Nearly all the Bush arguments for war turned out to be false, hyped, or hollow. The claim about the yellowcake, for instance, was based on forged documents.

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