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October 21, 2005

Thanks for the Link, New York Times. Now Please Answer My Question.

It went to spokesperson Catherine Mathis, Oct. 17: Did Judy Miller have special clearances to see classified information? If she did, who knew? Here's my case for why readers deserve an answer. No progress so far.

“Bloggers Discuss the Miller Case,” said the headline at the Times site Tuesday. They certainly do. “The following headlines, published in the past 24 hours, link to posts by bloggers that discuss Judith Miller and The Times.” Wow, nifty new feature. Times tells readers what bloggers are saying about its Miller report. Posts were listed in order of popularity; first on the list for the first few days was (wow again) PressThink’s round up of key moments in the report, plus reactions.

“This couldn’t happen with a better story,” wrote Jeff Jarvis, who called it the Judy feed.

Len Apcar, editor of, says they’ll do more of this now that they’ve brought on Philippe Lourier of The Annotated Times to help aggregate blogs and other content.

This is a good step. The Times is now linking out to those linking in; the Washington Post has been doing likewise with Technorati help. That finally starts to get papers into the conversation, including conversations critical of them.

Thanks, New York Times, for linking to my post, which was critical of the New York Times. This corresponds more to my idea of you: strong enough to point to criticism, open enough to occasionally join the conversation.

Now please answer my question. I sent it just after midnight on Oct. 17 to Times spokesperson Catherine J. Mathis, who has kindly answered other questions I’ve had. I know I’m not the only one asking, and there’s much more going on at the New York Times than a blogger’s question. But I think it’s important. And I know a lot of people at the Times would like to have an answer. This is what I asked her:

Did Judith Miller, as a reporter for the Times in 2003, have any special security clearances that would have allowed her to handle types of classified information off limits to other reporters and editors of the Times? Her first-person account seems to say that Judy Miller herself doesn’t know if she had such clearances. It also says they were asked about in her grand jury testimony. Can the Times clear this up?

1.) Did Judith Miller, as a reporter for the Times in 2003, have any special security clearances that would have allowed her to handle types of classified information off limits to other reporters and editors of the Times?

2.) If so, what did the publisher and executive editor know about such clearances and where they came from?

I received no reply, so I e-mailed midweek asking if there would be a reply. Nothing. I tried again Thursday. Catherine Mathis then wrote back with:


You saw the reference in today’s Times?

Best, Catherine.

I had, so I e-mailed back:

I certainly did.

Are you saying that answers my question?

And are you saying that on this matter—whether she had special clearance to receive classified information—Judy Miller’s answers in today’s paper speak for the New York Times?

Which would be quite amazing. No reply to that, but I didn’t expect one. Mathis (who has been helpful to me in the past) seemed to be saying: I’d like to give you an answer, Jay, but I have none to give. Or I’m not allowed to. Or something.

In Thursday’s Times an article by Katharine Seelye said that Miller’s claim to have special “clearance” was doubted by some journalists and military people. They said it was probably just a “written agreement to see and hear classified information but treat it as off the record unless an ad hoc arrangement was reached with military hosts.” This is what other embedded reporters signed. Seelye talked to Miller about it:

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Ms. Miller said this so-called nondisclosure form was precisely what she had signed, with some modifications, adding that what she had meant to say in her published account was that she had had temporary access to classified information under rules set by her unit.

Her story as of Thursday: she meant to say it was that nondisclosure form everyone signs. But sitting there at her computer, composing the account millions would read, she just couldn’t think of a way to phrase “nondisclosure form,” so she went with “clearance to see secret information” instead. Along with, “Libby might have thought I still had security clearance.”

What the New York Times has not figured out yet is that Judith Miller is an extreme example of the unreliable narrator. She increases our doubt in the story as she tells it.

Over at Romenesko, author and Army Major Bob Bateman (7th Cavalry Regiment) sent a letter to journalists about the confusion he thinks Miller intentionally created with her published account (Oct. 18). (He’s taught history at West Point, and wrote a book about the shooting of civilians at No Gun Ri in the Korean War.) Bateman calls the nondisclosure form “a waiver.”

As a result of signing that waiver hundreds of you embedded with us and were exposed to classified information. But that is not the same as having a “security clearance” as Ms. Miller claims she had during her period here in Iraq.

Understandable mix-up between similar things? No way, according to Bateman:

Of course, as a “expert” on such issues as biological and chemical warfare, Ms. Miller must surely know the extreme difference between signing a DoD Public Affairs waiver and actually having a Security Clearance. (By the way, does anybody know if she contends it was a clearance for “Classified”, “Secret”, or “Top Secret”?)

We don’t, but the word most commonly used when Miller boasted about it was “secret.” (See this document, sec. 1.3 Classification Levels.) Bateman, writing from Baghdad, gives reporters on the home front a hint:

Now I am comfortably sure that if there was a security investigation of Ms. Miller (which is, naturally, a requirement to gain a security clearance) the results of that investigation would be classified, or at a minimum restricted under the Privacy Act. But, as some of you here taught me when I was researching No Gun Ri, the fact that an investigation was (or was not) conducted might well be an element of public information.

One big difference between signing the nondisclosure form and gaining security “clearance” is that clearance—the real kind—requires a labor-intensive background check, which Bateman calls “a security investigation.” Therefore one way to establish whether Miller had a (real) clearance would be to find out whether a background check was done. Her employer might know, which is one reason I directed my questions to her employer.

Bateman says there may be ways to get the information, if it exists. (See this page for what he may mean. Also Kathy Gill’s page.) Of course it’s possible that Miller, princess of the realm in national security reporting, was just puffing up permissions and restrictions that weren’t substantially different from every other embedded correspondent. From Katharine Seelye’s story (Oct. 20):

When asked if she had ever left the impression with sources, including Mr. Libby, that she had access to classified information after leaving her assignment in Iraq, Ms. Miller said she could not recall. “I don’t remember if I ever told him I was disembedded,” she said. “I might not have.” But she added, “I never misled anybody.”

Oh yeah? On Oct. 18, MSNBC ran this report from correspondent Jim Miklaszewski:

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.

No one from the White House commented. On September 23, 2003, William Jackson wrote a column for Editor & Publisher about Miller claiming special “security clearances” during the hunt for unconventional weapons in Iraq earlier that year.

Team leader Navy Cdr. David Beckett of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, in a brief phone conversation, sarcastically dismissed the idea of her “supposedly having some sort of clearance.” However, Colonel McPhee, the overall task force commander, is known to have said that Miller was “cleared at the secret level.” Regardless, it was generally believed and commonly said in the field that Miller was cleared for information classified “secret.” Either she pulled off a hoax, or a very unusual clearance for a journalist was granted by some Pentagon authority.

One or the other; both seem bad to me. Jackson found out more:

Barton Gellman of the Washington Post spent one day on the scene with Miller, accompanying a nuclear survey team at the Tuwaitha site at the beginning of May. Some of the soldiers asked whether Gellman had a “secret” clearance, “as Judy did.”

“I said I had no such clearance, but did have the commander’s permission to be there,” Gellman told me. “The team leader, Navy Cdr. Beckett, did talk to me” but Gellman was asked to step away from a conversation about a classified matter. “I heard Judy tell him, ‘I’m cleared for that, but he isn’t.’”

Hmmm. Back then her story was: “I’m cleared for that, he isn’t.” Thursday in the Times the story was: Miller signed the same form other reporters would have signed— “with some modifications.” Whatever that means. I’ve said it before: At the New York Times all Judy Miller news comes in code. The silences speak more clearly than the sentences. And that hasn’t changed with the publication of the Tellsome Report on Oct. 16. It’s still Kremlinology for readers of the (scant) coverage.

These are the moves of a writer trying to prevent the onset of clarity. Her prose is code, she talks only in code; and the heart of her unbelievable story is a kind of code dance with insider Lewis Libby. Information, according to the science of it, is a measure of uncertainty reduced. But have you noticed yet that whenever Judy Miller is quoted on the Miller case our uncertainty is increased? (See Murray Waas’s latest on Miller’s weaseling with the prosecutor.)

Here’s a report from the summer of 2003 by Charles Layton in American Journalism Review. We have many sightings of this type.

In the weeks leading up to the war, Miller pulled off a journalistic coup that took her competitors by surprise. She talked her way into getting a secret clearance from the Pentagon and then being embedded with the 75th Exploitation Task Force in Iraq, whose teams were specially trained and equipped to look for germ, chemical and nuclear-related materials. In March, when Bob Drogin of the Los Angeles Times began seeing Miller’s stories about the activities of this special unit, he realized that “she was in a great position to get the initial confirmation in the field” when Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction were found, as everyone assumed they would be.

Who put her into that “great” position, and what were the terms of the deal? That’s a piece of the puzzle. What are the chances that Fitzgerald doesn’t have that piece in hand? Very low. (See this from Jane Hamsher on how thorough he is.) We already know from Miller and others that Fitzgerald is asking about classified information and her status legally to receive it.

Miller in her account: “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.” Not permitted because she had “clearance” and they did not? Seems she is saying that. I mentioned the confusion in my note to Mathis, asking (pleading) “Can the Times clear this up?”

In another letter to Romenesko—you see, a lot of people are interested in this—Bill Lynch, a retired CBS News correspondent, said:

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.

I agree about the scandal, if it turns out she did have some official clearance from on high. (The White House Iraq Group is one possibility. Donald Rumsfeld another. Or both.) Lynch thinks out loud:

One must assume that Ms. Miller was required to sign a standard and legally binding agreement that she would never divulge classified information to which she became privy, without risk of criminal prosecution. And she apparently plans to adhere to the letter of that self-censorship deal; witness her dilemma at being unable to share classified information with her editors.

Yeah, witness it. While “clearance” (not a wholly precise term, I realize) would allow Miller to see and discuss certain kinds of classified information, clearance would also require her to keep mum under threat of criminal prosecution. Lynch calls it a “binding obligation to withhold key facts the government deems secret, even when that information might contradict the reportable ‘facts.’”

John Hanrahan at Nieman Watchdog on the trail of the same questions:

Q. Do any other reporters for the Times or for any other news media outlets have security clearances as Miller reported she obtained as an embedded reporter in Iraq in 2003. (Typically, the process to obtain a security clearance takes considerable time to complete and is not routinely granted to anyone on the spur of the moment.) Did she in fact have such a clearance? How does the Times justify this apparent compromising of a reporter’s independence and even-handedness? Why would any newspaper want its national security reporter to be in a position of receiving classified information she can’t use and which the reporter then self-censors in order to avoid violating any secrecy regulations? Doesn’t being “part of the team” with a security clearance make it even more likely the reporter will emphasize what the administration wants reported?

Clearance is a terrible trade off: the reporter gets to know, but can’t tell the world unless the government says it’s okay, and if you slip up or don’t ask they can throw you in jail. What kind of journalist would count that an advantage?

I can think of one kind: a reporter who, working closely with sources inside government, had already agreed to submit all her copy to those officials for their approval anyway. Thinking it over, said reporter might say to rapidly rationalizing self: They’re making me pay the costs (in censorship.) I should get more of the benefits (in classified data.) Clearance at a higher level lets me see more of what they find. How can I push to publish the best stuff if I don’t know what they have?

And somewhere along in this line of reasoning “clearance” starts sounding good. Lynch on the bad:

It is not hard to imagine a defense lawyer being granted a security clearance to defend, say, an “enemy combatant.” When the lawyer gets access to classified information in the case, he discovers it is full of false or exculpatory information. But, because he’s signed the secrecy oath, there’s not a damn thing he can do except whine on the courthouse steps that his client is innocent but he can’t say why. A journalist should never be put in an equivalent position, but this is precisely what Ms. Miller has opened herself to.

His client is innocent but he can’t say why. Compare that to Miller: “I was not permitted to discuss with editors some of the more sensitive information about Iraq.” Similar, right? Still, we need to know: Was she just puffing herself up, boasting, trying to pull rank—all are in character—or was there something to her claims (many people heard them) that she had special clearance from officials near or at the top of the Pentagon?

Jack Shafer of Slate actually did a column about this in April, 2003. He was struck by a passage in one of Miller’s articles that seems even more striking to me today. It ran in the Times under Miller’s byline on April 21, 2003 (and you can read it.) Miller’s report said, in essence, that an Iraqi scientist had been found who knew a lot about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. This also appeared:

Under the terms of her accreditation to report on the activities of MET Alpha, this reporter was not permitted to interview the scientist or visit his home. Nor was she permitted to write about the discovery of the scientist for three days, and the copy was then submitted for a check by military officials.

Those officials asked that details of what chemicals were uncovered be deleted. They said they feared that such information could jeopardize the scientist’s safety by identifying the part of the weapons program where he worked.

Which everyone thought was strange at the time. Now it’s a little more explicable. An editor at the Times felt compelled to explain the extraordinary level of censorship the newspaper had accepted as part of Judy Miller’s agreement with… whomever.

Accepted in exchange for what? We don’t know. But the answer would seem to be: extrordinary journalistic access, deep inside the war-justifying, evidence-finding machine. The Shafer column is called “Deep Miller: Did the New York Times just change the rules of journalism?”

I’ve read a lot of news stories in my time, and a fair chunk of the reporting from Iraq, but terms of accreditation to report is a new piece of journalistic jargon to me. Is it Miller’s way of saying she’s an embed, and as an embed she’s agreed not to divulge any information that may harm the “operational security” of an ongoing military action?

Or is Miller implying that she struck a more complex ad hoc deal with MET Alpha? (I think she is.) It’s quite a deal when you read the story closely. She agreed not to interview the scientist, visit his home, divulge his identity, write about the MET Alpha for three days, or disclose the composition of the chemicals. And, most pungently, she consented to pre-publication review—oh, hell, let’s call it censorship!—of her story by military officials.

Why would the Times agree to a deal like that? I don’t know that it would. I don’t know that it did. (That’s why I asked Mathis my question.) But imagine the “bait” is an unusually close, extraordinarily dramatic Judy Miller look at international truth capture during the all-out hunt for Saddam’s weapons, which might include the discovery of nuke-making machinery. Starts to become realer. Shafer:

Did the “military officials” who checked her story require her to redact parts of the story, or did she do so on her own accord? Were any other “terms of accreditation” imposed on Miller? Other levels of censorship? Are other Times reporters filing dispatches under similar “terms of accreditation”? When and where were the terms of accreditation negotiated? Where are they stated?

Good questions all. His antennae went up for a reason. The Times in April 2003 was still trying to keep its contract with readers. It signaled to us that it had some special deal going on with this reporter, unusual enough to require formal explanation in the paper: “Under the terms of her accreditation to report on the activities of MET Alpha, this reporter was not permitted…”

It’s another example of the shimmer, as I called it in an earlier post. (After Joan Didion: “images that shimmer around the edges.”)

Finally, in Franklin Foer’s lengthy and informative profile of Miller in New York magazine, he tracks down Eugene Pomeroy, a public affairs officer for MET Alpha: “According to Pomeroy, as well as an editor at the Times, Miller had helped negotiate her own embedding agreement with the Pentagon—an agreement so sensitive that, according to one Times editor, Rumsfeld himself signed off on it.” Oh, really? A Times editor, huh?

That’s my tour through some of the reasons I have for wanting an answer to my two-part question. (I also sent it to Barney Calame, the public editor of the Times.) Plus the reason former Times-man and Sulzberger family biographer Alex Jones gave on the PBS Newshour: “Judy Miller’s credibility and the New York Times’ credibility are the same thing right now in my opinion.”

1.) Did Judith Miller, as a reporter for the Times in 2003, have any special security clearances that would have allowed her to handle types of classified information off limits to other reporters and editors of the Times?

2.) If so, what did the publisher and executive editor know about such clearances and where they came from?

Mathis has replied with: Jay, did you see the newspaper? That’s just the trouble. I did.

Since the Times won’t give me any real information, the kind that reduces uncertainty, I can only guess. Let’s take a leap from what we know, and speculate: Judy Miller did have special clearances, higher than reporters get when embedded, that allowed her to see classified information as part of a deal, but she and some people at the Times feel the deal would look terrible in light of what we know today.

Well, you get the point. It would explain a lot.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

UPDATE, Oct. 22, significant news for my post: Times public editor Barney Calame tried to get an answer to the same question: what about these “clearances” Judith Miller said she had? He reports that he couldn’t nail it down. “Couldn’t” by the deadline for his column, he means. He will keep asking.

That tells me there’s a story there. It also tells me the Times knows it has to answer, most likely in a news story about Miller, possibly through the public editor.

Previously at PressThink:

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 21, 2005 2:00 AM