Thursday, October 20, 2005

Agent Judy?

I confess that I felt some sympathy for New York Times reporter Judith Miller when she went to jail. At the time, all I knew was that she had information concerning C.I.A. operative Valerie Plame and didn’t publish it. Pressed for the name of her source, Miller refused to talk and went to the slammer for contempt of court. She became a champion of the free press. For her principled stance, she received an award two days ago from the Society of Professional Journalists. She called for a federal law to shield reporters from judicial sanctions.

But her appearance there was controversial. The American Society of Journalists and Authors had planned on giving Miller its Conscience in Media Award. But the A.S.J.A. changed its mind. It is no longer clear exactly what principle she was defending when she defied the court. In a way, it’s no longer clear exactly who she was working for.

After all, Miller wasn’t protecting a whistleblower exposing government misdeeds. Miller was protecting Irving Lewis (Scooter) Libby, Dick Cheney’s chief of staff. Allegedly, Libby was part of an effort to retaliate against a whistleblower. Two days after Miller’s third conversation with Libby, the Plame leak surfaced in a column by right-winger Robert Novak.

Ostensibly, Miller went to jail to protect the principle of reporter-source confidentiality. But as it turned out, Libby had already given her permission to reveal his name. So why did Miller essentially lock herself up for 85 days?

If there is one place you can be confident your mail will be monitored, it’s jail. While Miller was incarcerated, Libby wrote to her, telling her that no other journalists have identified him as a source. In surprisingly poetic language, he urged her to leave jail and return to life. He wrote about the fall leaves. Aspens, he wrote, turn in clusters because their roots connect them.

Before the U.S. launched its attack on Iraq, Miller wrote a series of articles supporting the notion that Saddam Hussein had proscribed weapons and was seeking material for nuclear weapons. (The search for evidence of Iraqi uranium purchases involved Joseph Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame.) After the invasion, Miller was embedded with a unit looking for weapons in Iraq. Her accounts featured loud claims and quiet disclaimers. Pre- and post-invasion searches found no chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. On Sunday, October 16, The New York Times ran a 5,800-word account of the Miller saga — including information about dissent within the Times over the handling of Miller. The New York Times has admitted that several of her stories were wrong and has criticized itself for failing to scrutinized them more carefully.

The fault, unfortunately, runs deeper than that.

After the invasion, while Miller was filing stories about weapons that were never found, she had security clearance. At least, that’s what she says. The C.I.A. and the Defense Intelligence Agency deny her claim. The C.I.A. and the D.I.A., however, would deny connections to Miller whether or not she worked for them. In any case, they aren’t the only intelligence entities in the federal government.

If Miller’s claim is true, she may have had access to classified information which she could not reveal and which refuted the accounts she was writing. Worse, Miller might have been granted clearance precisely so she could be used as a conduit — so Libby could tell Miller about Plame without violating espionage laws.

Since Miller’s release from prison, her memory has become hazy. Although the name “Valerie Flame” [sic] appears in the notebook she kept on Libby, Miller can’t recall now who told her about Plame or if she was told that Plame was a covert agent. The Times article ended on an uncertain note:

The Times incurred millions of dollars in legal fees in Ms. Miller’s case. It limited its own ability to cover aspects of one of the biggest scandals of the day. Even as the paper asked for the public’s support, it was unable to answer its questions. (Emphasis added.)

When Plame was “outed,” so were her employers. The company she worked for was exposed as a likely intelligence front, necessarily casting suspicions about the possible intelligence connections of other employees. Ordinarily, intelligence agencies prepare a net damage assessment when an operation is “blown.” Viewed from that perspective, Randi Rhodes, at Air America radio, has reported what may be the most telling detail of all. According to Rhodes, no damage assessment followed the Plame leak.