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 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.
The purpose of the leak of Plame’s name and occupation — she was a covert agent working in the area of anti-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction — was to paint her as an anti-Bush co-conspirator with her husband, so as to discredit his information on the Bush uranium claim.
Also working against Times reporter Miller is her past reporting on weapons of mass destruction, which generally hewed to the White House line that Iraq was actively engaged in producing and building up stockpiles of these arms — and thus presented a “grave and gathering danger” to America’s security. When that story fell apart — the president’s own weapons investigator reported after the invasion of Iraq that no such weapons could be found — Miller refused to acknowledge any error on her part, saying in essence that she had merely reported what officials were talking about in high places and had told her. She said then that this was what her job as a reporter was supposed to be. Later she softened some of these responses but never gave a clear accounting of her work nor fully acknowledged that she, wittingly or unwittingly, had misled the public. Anti-war critics have accused her of assisting the administration’s push toward war.
In the days since her release from jail, she has, in my opinion, not helped herself or her paper. She has given interviews only to TV personalities who will gush over her. At this writing, there have been two such appearances, with Lou Dobbs on CNN and with ABC’s Barbara Walters on Good Morning America.
Both hosts melted on camera. Walters introduced her guest thusly: “I’ve known Judith as a friend and a journalist for years. I visited her in jail.” Later, Walters, in an awe-filled voice, said: “You were in jail longer than any other journalist.” Miller quickly corrected her, “Twice as long as any other journalist.” (Watch the video.)
Miller keeps saying that she is not seeking to be a hero or a martyr. Unfortunately, her demeanor — the little we have seen of it — belies this claim. This perception on my part may be a generational thing, but I was taught that a reporter does not go forth patting himself on the back for doing his job.
Also, I have always thought that keeping a professional distance between you and your sources was an important part of the journalist’s code. At times, Miller’s distance seems miniscule. It was reported that, while in jail, she was visited twice by John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton, a hawk on the Iraq war, also made weapons of mass destruction one of his special issues. This issue seems to link many of the people in this convoluted story. All the connections lead back to the Iraq war.
Miller also received a letter in jail from Libby, the Cheney source she was protecting until he gave her personal permission to give testimony about their conversations. Dated September 15, Libby’s release frees her from her grant of confidentiality and urges her to go before the grand jury, saying that he “would be better off if you testified.”
Two things about the letter struck me as strange.
One is the tone — that of personal friend or buddy, not professional contact. The other off-key note is that much of the letter is devoted to laying out a kind of blueprint of the case Libby has made to the prosecutor — namely that he “did not discuss Ms. Plame’s name or identity” with any reporter. Could this have been a map to guide Miller’s own testimony-to-come?
Novak has never disguised the fact that he is a “player” in the nation’s capital. Is Judith Miller also a “player” in Washington’s games, or is she a reporter? Miller needs to address these questions.
Even her supporters are asking for answers. On September 30, one of her most stalwart admirers, Lucy Dalglish, director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, was asked during an online chat hosted by The Washington Post: “So what are the three biggest mysteries/questions that YOU would like Judy Miller to explain?” At the top of her list, Dalglish put this question: “Was Scooter Libby your source for information about Valerie Plame, or were you HIS source?”
About the tone of the Libby letter to Miller, here is how it ends:
“You went into jail in the summer. It is fall now. You will have stories to cover — Iraqi elections and suicide bombers, biological threats and the Iranian nuclear program. Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them. Come back to work — and life. Until then, you will remain in my thoughts and prayers. With admiration, Scooter Libby.”
We reporters are always insisting on full disclosure and transparency from the people and institutions we write about. Now, with the press under scrutiny and in some quarters under attack, it has become necessary for reporters to do their own disclosing.
Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting the Village Voice and our advertisers.