Story location: http://archive.pressthink.org/2005/10/15/mlr_act.html
I give credit to the Times for running the story a few days after they felt the legal clearances were had, for giving readers a look inside at decision-making normally hidden, for airing uncomfortable facts—including internal tensions—and for explaining what happened as well as the editors felt they could. This was a very difficult piece of journalism to do. As language in conveyance of fact, it is superbly edited.
I have a small bit of news to break if you skip down to “After Matter.” My eight-graph view of the case and its mangled press think:
Maybe the biggest mistake the New York Times made was to turn decision-making for the newspaper over to Judith Miller and her “case.” This happened via the magic medium of a First Amendment struggle, the thing that makes the newspaper business more than just a business to the people prominent in it.
Miller’s defiance played to their images of Times greatness, and to their understanding of First Amendment virtue. She always described her case in the language of their principles. They heard their principles talking in the facts of the case. She could shape those facts, and so on.
But her second attorney saw it more clearly. “I don’t want to represent a principle,” Robert Bennett told her. “I want to represent Judy Miller.” He did that. The Times was the one left holding the principles.
Mostly they didn’t apply to a case that was bad on the facts, a loser on the law, quite likely to result in victory for the prosecutor, and quite possibly an ethical swamp or political sewer, since it was about using the press to discredit people without being named. All this would warn a prudent person away. It’s why other news organizations settled.
It never seems to have registered with Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.—Miller’s biggest supporter and the publisher of the newspaper—how different it is to fight for the right to keep things secret, as against the right to publish what had improperly been kept from us. By taking Miller’s secret-keeping “into” itself the Times took on more and more responsibilities not to speak, not to publish, not to report, not to inquire. All this is deadly for a newspaper, and the staff knew it. At the end the readers knew it and they were crying out. Even the armchair critics knew a thing or two.
So did Bill Keller, so did Jill Abramson. But there was nothing they could do. By the time they realized what Miller’s secrets had done to their people and their journalism, Judith Miller—by staging a First Amendment showdown she escaped from—had effectively hijacked the newspaper. Her principles were in the saddle, and rode the Times to disaster, while people of the Times watched. The newspaper never got its Robert Bennett.
And in the end her secret-keeping extended to stiffing the Times on its own story. The newspaper’s international First Amendment hero wouldn’t talk, share notes, or answer any tough questions. Her copy was late for the big weekend package; so late the report didn’t run in 100,000 papers run off for the bulldog edition.
The spookiest thing to me about her first person account was the suggestion that Judy Miller may have—today—security clearances that her bosses (and colleagues) do not have. This could be the reason her treatment is so singular. She said the prosecutor asked her if she still had special clearances when she met with Lewis Libby. She said she didn’t know. Does that sound good?
On to some key moments in the report, The Miller Case: From a Name on a Pad to Jail, and Back. My eye fell on these passages. I explain a little about why.
And when the prosecutor in the case asked her to explain how “Valerie Flame” appeared in the same notebook she used in interviewing Mr. Libby, Ms. Miller said she “didn’t think” she heard it from him. “I said I believed the information came from another source, whom I could not recall,” she wrote on Friday, recounting her testimony for an article that appears today….
Miller cannot recall where the name at the center of the case came from? Wowzer. Sure to be the center of controversy over the next week. Claiming memory loss about the most important fact in the story is weak. Very.
Miller actually subtracts from public knowledge in this part, a feat. She introduces into the narrative a new “source” who must have been around to plant the name on her, and then promptly tells us she cannot remember anything about him. So we know less if we believe her.
Mr. Sulzberger and the paper’s executive editor, Bill Keller, knew few details about Ms. Miller’s conversations with her confidential source other than his name. They did not review Ms. Miller’s notes. Mr. Keller said he learned about the “Valerie Flame” notation only this month. Mr. Sulzberger was told about it by Times reporters on Thursday.
Interviews show that the paper’s leadership, in taking what they considered to be a principled stand, ultimately left the major decisions in the case up to Ms. Miller, an intrepid reporter whom editors found hard to control.
“This car had her hand on the wheel because she was the one at risk,” Mr. Sulzberger said.
Like I said, it became Judy Miller’s newspaper. Her decision-making, I said on CNN, was driving the newspaper’s. Mr. Sulzberger is the publisher; the Times is a public company. Isn’t his hand supposed to be on the wheel for the newspaper as a public trust?
This car had her hand on the wheel… I know what he meant. It was her call on whether to “end” the case by testifying. But it was his call when the Times declared her case a First Amendment struggle and matter of high journalistic principle. Because the particular high principle invoked by Miller—protecting a reporter’s sources—in this case tied their hands for later stages of the fight their strategy brought on. They turned over the wheel to Judy Miller; her games of telepathy with Libby became the case “logic.”
Just ask yourself when you re-read the Times report, who was actually in charge of these events?
“We have everything to be proud of and nothing to apologize for,” Ms. Miller said in the interview Friday.
Ms. Miller seems incapable of self-doubt. Is this the person you want driving the car in a game of chicken with a federal prosecutor?
Asked what she regretted about The Times’s handling of the matter, Jill Abramson, a managing editor, said: “The entire thing.”…
In two interviews, Ms. Miller generally would not discuss her interactions with editors, elaborate on the written account of her grand jury testimony or allow reporters to review her notes
I called this The Hypothesis: “Judy Miller would not, in any material way, cooperate with the team of Times reporters.” (See Armchair Critic Speculates, Oct. 12.) Seems like she didn’t. What principle of confidentiality extends to “interactions with editors?” I am not aware of one the Times would uphold.
And how’s this for corporate candor? The Washington Post reported today: “Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis said yesterday that Miller is now cooperating with fellow reporters on the story.” Odd definition of cooperating. (See “After Matter” for an update on it.)
This, I think, is what will finally sever Judy Miller from the Times: Ms. Miller generally would not discuss… Not forgivable in the newsroom’s moral code. Your colleagues are trying to finally tell the truth and get it right— and you won’t help? (Editor & Publisher’s Greg Mitchell agrees and calls for Miller to be fired.)
Ms. Miller said in an interview that she “made a strong recommendation to my editor” that a story be pursued. “I was told no,” she said. She would not identify the editor.
Ms. Abramson, the Washington bureau chief at the time, said Ms. Miller never made any such recommendation.
So she won’t even identify the editor, and Jill Abramson says no way, it never happened? Second wowzer.
In the fall of 2003, after The Washington Post reported that “two top White House officials disclosed Plame’s identity to at least six Washington journalists,” Philip Taubman, Ms. Abramson’s successor as Washington bureau chief, asked Ms. Miller and other Times reporters whether they were among the six. Ms. Miller denied it…
Was she lying? Times reporters will have vivid opinions on that. Lying to an editor is an immediate firing offense. It has to be, if the newsroom is going to function. One of many reasons Miller will not be returning to the newsroom.
The Times said it believes that attempts by prosecutors to force reporters to reveal confidential information must be resisted. Otherwise, it argues, the public would be deprived of important information about the government and other powerful institutions.
The fact that Ms. Miller’s judgment had been questioned in the past did not affect its stance. “The default position in a case like that is you support the reporter,” Mr. Keller said.
It was in these early days that Mr. Keller and Mr. Sulzberger learned Mr. Libby’s identity. Neither man asked Ms. Miller detailed questions about her conversations with Mr. Libby
A striking feature of the entire story: the men in charge didn’t know some of the key facts because they didn’t ask. Normally this would be bad. But it was okay not to know because Judy was making the calls. She knew.
Mr. Abrams told Ms. Miller and the group that Mr. Tate said she was free to testify. Mr. Abrams said Mr. Tate also passed along some information about Mr. Libby’s grand jury testimony: that he had not told Ms. Miller the name or undercover status of Mr. Wilson’s wife.
The most confusing part of the article is this. From what it says, I can see no reason Abrams or the Times had for not accepting Tate’s “she was free to testify,” except Miller’s subjective feeling about it, and the fact that she didn’t get the call she felt she would get.
“Judy believed Libby was afraid of her testimony,” Mr. Keller said, noting that he did not know the basis for the fear. “She thought Libby had reason to be afraid of her testimony.”
Ms. Miller and the paper decided at that point not to pursue additional negotiations with Mr. Tate.
The two sides did not talk for a year.
Amazing, especially: he did not know the basis for the fear. This is what the Times staff was afraid of. Had the paper—and the newsroom bosses—taken too great a risk? Maybe Keller didn’t know things he would have to know to guard against it.
Asked in the interview whether he had any regrets about the editorials, given the outcome of the case, Mr. Sulzberger said no.
“I felt strongly that, one, Judy deserved the support of the paper in this cause - and the editorial page is the right place for such support, not the news pages,” Mr. Sulzberger said. “And secondly, that this issue of a federal shield law is really important to the nation.”
As I have written, it is sad to me that this stance is repeated, and occupied as some kind of high ground, when it has been admitted by Keller that Miller’s case would not have been covered by a national shield law. How can she be a symbol of it?
And when Sulzberger says “the editorial page is the right place for such support, not the news pages…” I must say I draw a blank. The news pages weren’t supporting Miller? Where did he get that? The news pages of the New York Times were edited for many months under the principle: don’t report anything that would anger the prosecutor or affect Miller’s case. That’s “support.” And the Times report documents this, including the stories that weren’t published and the reporters who did them, and the discouraging “message” the Washington bureau took from it, and so on. If Sulzberger believes the news pages didn’t support Miller, that’s alarming.
A few weeks later on Capitol Hill, in November 2004, Ms. Miller bumped into Robert S. Bennett, the prominent Washington criminal lawyer who represented President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and who is known for his blunt style and deal-making skills.
Ms. Miller recalled Mr. Bennett saying while he signed on to her case: “I don’t want to represent a principle. I want to represent Judy Miller.”
Every day, she checked outdated copies of The Times for a news article about her case. Most days she was disappointed.
She didn’t know why there weren’t any news articles about her case? By their own account, the editors were holding back in deference to her.
Finally, it says so much about this case, about the information underworld of confidential sources, how little the Times own rules mattered to her, and how far gone Miller herself is when, in her account accompanying the Times article, she says:
Mr. Fitzgerald asked about a notation I made on the first page of my notes about this July 8 meeting, “Former Hill staffer.”
My recollection, I told him, was that Mr. Libby wanted to modify our prior understanding that I would attribute information from him to a “senior administration official.” When the subject turned to Mr. Wilson, Mr. Libby requested that he be identified only as a “former Hill staffer.” I agreed to the new ground rules because I knew that Mr. Libby had once worked on Capitol Hill.
Telling. (Let Josh Marshall explain why.) The new description for Libby is wholly misleading to readers—amounting to a lie, a misdirection play—but Miller is fine with it because it’s technically true.
My bit of news is
TIMES STANDS BY CLAIM: MILLER COOPERATED.
Meaning I e-mailed New York Times spokesperson Catherine J. Mathis with a question:
The Washington Post said you told them Judith Miller was cooperating with reporters. The Times report says: “In two interviews, Ms. Miller generally would not discuss her interactions with editors, elaborate on the written account of her grand jury testimony or allow reporters to review her notes.” That says she didn’t really cooperate.
So my question is: did you want to elaborate or revise your statement? Or is the Times statement [still]: “Judy Miller cooperated with this report?”
Her reply: “While Judy put limits on what she would discuss, the fact that she did sit for interviews and wrote her own account of her testimony certainly represents cooperation.”
Represents to whom? I guarantee you Times journalists did not see her “limits” as reasonable or as cooperation. Susie Madrak, a journalist who blogs as Suburban Guerilla: “Well, the Times spokeswoman ‘misspoke,’ since Judy wouldn’t answer questions nor show her fellow reporters her notes.”
Bill Keller is quoted in the Wall Street Journal’s story on the report (Oct. 17): “Knowing everything I know today about this case, I might have done some things differently, but I don’t feel the least bit apologetic about standing up for a reporter’s right to do the job.”
See Keller’s note to staff from Asia, where he’s visiting bureaus.
Best post I have read on Miller, post-report, is Next Time, Try Monster.com by Jane Hamsher at firedoglake. She thinks Miller wants to land at the Wall Street Journal, and gave a “pitch” interview to their reporters. Read why it didn’t work.
Tom Rosenstiel in Howard Kurtz’s “reactions” story, Oct. 17: “It is still not clear entirely what principle Miller felt she was protecting that also allowed her to testify.” Agreed.
Kurtz’s Media Notes column is better for your range-of-reactions needs. Listen to how how he starts:
The Judy Miller story is so hot right now that I want to get right to the blogosphere reaction, and will make you scroll down to read my print column…
Farhad Manjpoo in Salon: Judy Miller and the damage done. Cogent and it answers questions instead of just posing them. I recommend it, and warn you I am in it.
Ditto for FishbowlNY’s wrap-up. Also see Fishbowl DC’s Miller post. (Both Oct. 17)
Kathy Gill, a “guide” at About.com for US Politics, has a nicely thorough round up of bloggers reactions. About is owned by the Times.
Mickey Kaus is asking good questions. Jeff Jarvis has a good round-up of reactions. He’d have more to say but he’s a consultant to the Times. Also see Joe Gandelman, as you always should when these things break.
It’s one thing to be gamed by a punk like Jayson Blair who lied so outrageously that you’d have to be as nuts as him to think he was making it all up. It’s another to be gamed by a senior Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. That requires a systemic flaw.
And that requires David—a philosopher—to think about it, and tell us what the flaw might be.
Halley Suitt, keeping it real: “And as for metaphors of who was running the show, the Times publisher suggests Judy Miller was in the driver’s seat at the paper, but c’mon guys, can’t we call it what it was … she seemed to have the boys by the balls.”
James Wolcott: “You’re sitting there having breakfast at the St. Regis with Scooter Aspen, buttering each other’s toast, and somehow the name ‘Valerie Flame’ pops up in your notebook without you knowing how it got there! It’s your handwriting, sure enough, but rack your brain much as you will, you just can’t remember which little birdie tweeted that name into your ear.”
Dan Gillmor: “This is a sad day for the Times and for journalism.”
Mark Jurkowitz, Boston Phoenix: “Plenty to suggest that the Times has paid a major price for again failing in its oversight of a strong-willed reporter who had generated internal skepticism about work habits and work product. And that sounds all too familiar.”
Steve Lovelady at CJR Daily: “The Times Gives Us a Modified, Limited Hangout.”
Historian David Kaiser: “the Times seems to have forgotten not only the purpose of protecting confidential sources, but also the reason we have a free press at all.”
“Then she starts to get a little crazy and reckless,” writes Jane Hamsher. “She sticks it to her lawyer, which is not really the best idea when he’s the only thing standing between you and a ten year stretch in chick prison…”
Mickey Kaus explains why Sulzberger’s stand on “principle” has actually made it harder for journalists.
KAUS: It’s now clear confinement wasn’t pointless. It worked for the prosecutor exactly as intended. After a couple of months of sleeping on “two thin mats on a concrete slab,” Miller decided, in her words, “I owed it to myself” to check and see if just maybe Libby really meant to release her from her promise of confidentiality. And sure enough - you know what? - it turns out he did! The message sent to every prosecutor in the country is “Don’t believe journalists who say they will never testify. A bit of hard time and they just might find a reason to change their minds. Judy Miller did.”
SPECIAL SECTION: Judy Miller And Her Security Status
Q. Does Judy Miller have security clearances enabling her to deal in classified information, preventing her editors from knowing what she knows, even if they knew to ask?
A. From Judith Miller’s My Four Hours Testifying in the Federal Grand Jury Room come these passages suggesting she may:
… Mr. Fitzgerald repeatedly turned to the subject of how Mr. Libby handled classified information with me. He asked, for example, whether I had discussed my security status with Mr. Libby. During the Iraq war, the Pentagon had given me clearance to see secret information as part of my assignment “embedded” with a special military unit hunting for unconventional weapons.
Mr. Fitzgerald asked if I had discussed classified information with Mr. Libby. I said I believed so, but could not be sure. He asked how Mr. Libby treated classified information. I said, Very carefully.
Mr. Fitzgerald asked whether Mr. Libby had shown any of the documents to me. I said no, I didn’t think so. I thought I remembered him at one point reading from a piece of paper he pulled from his pocket.
I told Mr. Fitzgerald that Mr. Libby might have thought I still had security clearance, given my special embedded status in Iraq. At the same time, I told the grand jury I thought that at our July 8 meeting I might have expressed frustration to Mr. Libby that I was not permitted to discuss with editors some of the more sensitive information about Iraq.
Mr. Fitzgerald asked me if I knew whether I was cleared to discuss classified information at the time of my meetings with Mr. Libby. I said I did not know.
She did not know? I wrote this at PressThink on Oct. 13:
Jack Shafer in a column on the risk of criminalizing relations with sources writes: “National-security reporters—none of whom have clearances—receive classified information for a living.” How does he know that there aren’t any reporters with security clearences? It would be a good way of favoring a favorite, says I. Surely such arrangements would be secret if they existed. In fact, I could see a journalist fighting pretty hard to keep that kind of secret.
Military and media blogger Sisyphus (Tim Schmoyer) has some good background on Miller’s “security clearance” during the hunt for WMD’s. Interesting portrait of Miller in the field. TPM Cafe is asking questions about this too.
I say it’s either 1.) a big nothing—Miller’s exagerrated description of clearances other embedded reporters had during the war, a kind of puffing up—or 2.) a very big deal if she had “special” clearances post-embed that came into play during her talks with Libby. Reporters I have talked to said that would be shocking and troubling, if true. 1) seems more likely, 2.) would explain a lot.
Read William Jackson’s September 2003 column (just put back online by E & P) about Judith Miller… “It appeared that she was, once again, the ‘drop’ of choice for a politically-motivated leaker.” It has a portrait of Judy Miller operating in Iraq, where she claimed to have “secret” clearence to see things other reporters could not. (Judy calls this kind of behavior “having sharp elbows.”)
An e-mail message to me from her PAO sergeant escort regarding a three-week trip with META in April stated: “She did not have a SECRET clearance.” She was “high maintenance and came to the field badly prepared. The problem I had with her was that whenever other members of the press showed up, which they did as embeds from other units or as unilaterals, she would insist that I get rid of them and that the 75th’s story was her story, exclusively. She didn’t seem to have any idea that the Army needed as much coverage of the 75th’s mission as possible and that excluding everyone else was detrimental to the credibility of what the 75th was trying to accomplish.
Bill Lynch, retired CBS News correspondent, in a letter to Romenesko:
There is one enormous journalism scandal hidden in Judith Miller’s Oct. 16th first person article about the (perhaps lesser) CIA leak scandal. And that is Ms. Miller’s revelation that she was granted a DoD security clearance while embedded with the WMD search team in Iraq in 2003.
Read the rest; it’s interesting.
Franklin Foer’s New York magazine profile of Miller also has background on this. The Source of the Trouble, it’s called.
About.com has good background on military security clearances.
NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski checked it out (Oct. 17):
WASHINGTON — Officials from the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon say they have no idea what New York Times reporter Judith Miller was talking about when she claimed to have been given a “security clearance” while she was embedded with a U.S. Army unit in Iraq in 2003.
There’s more if you are interested. Also see historian Bob Bateman’s letter to Romenesko.
This is a very good compendium of facts and links to articles about Judith Miller. And here’s an index of everything that’s appeared at Romenesko about Miller, Libby, Plame, Fitzgerald, Cooper, Novak, etc.