Miller: refusal to name names `is not about me'

July 08, 2005|By Linell Smith and Dan Thanh Dang | Linell Smith and Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

New York Times reporter Judith Miller recently tried to inject some perspective into the notion of going to jail to protect an anonymous source.

"This is not about me. It's not about The New York Times or Time [magazine] or Matt Cooper," she told Gabe Pressman, a New York television journalist.

"It's about the public's right to know. Do you want to hear from authorized government spokesmen, authorized corporate spokesmen alone, or do you want to hear what's really going on inside an organization? We can't operate without confidential sources."

On Wednesday, Miller's continuing refusal to divulge an unnamed source to a federal grand jury examining the Valerie Plame case caused a judge to send her to the federal Alexandria Detention Center in Virginia for a stay that may be as long as four months.

Fellow Times reporter Jim Risen was in the courtroom when she was sentenced.

"Her lawyer told the judge `Judy will never talk.' I know that for a fact, too," he says. "A lot of reporters will say to a source `Oh, don't worry, I'll never talk.' She's now proven, the hard way, that you can trust her."

In perhaps the strangest twist in her career, the 57-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist may become most famous for going to jail over a story she never wrote.

In recent years, her reporting has brought public controversy as well as praise. Assigned to cover national security and terror for The Times, Miller weathered a storm of criticism last year over her stories about Iraq's purported weapons of mass destruction, articles that preceded the U.S. invasion in 2003. The weapons were never found and the information of Ahmad Chalabi, one of her sources, was later discredited.

In 2001, Miller and Risen worked together on several stories in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series about terrorism and its aftermath. Some of Miller's stories about Muslim terrorists ran months before al-Qaida's attacks. Others examined why government officials in the United States and abroad had failed to recognize the threat.

"Judy is really expert at just digging in and getting people to talk who don't talk to other reporters. ... I think her greatest skill is getting very senior people in the government to trust her and to talk with her about sensitive things," Risen says.

Times columnist William Safire calls her "a dogged, relentless and fair-minded reporter" who now "sets an example for journalists around the country."

But that comes at a cost, says David Barstow, a Times reporter who sits next to her. Although Miller is typically described as hard-edged and thick-skinned, he has seen her tears on days when court rulings go against her.

"This is not a role that she relishes. There have been times she's felt really alone and isolated."

Miller's husband, Jason Epstein, said yesterday he has spoken to her "a couple of times" since she went to jail.

"She sounds very much like herself, very much in charge of things," said the 76-year-old former Random House editor. "She sounds a little disoriented. But she's a strong woman. She's not easily frightened. She'll find her way in a couple days."

Any chance she might divulge her source?

"I've known her for a long time," Epstein said. "She does not change her mind."

Born in New York in 1948, Miller is the daughter of the late Bill Miller, an entertainment impresario and former nightclub owner who danced professionally in vaudeville until he became an agent at age 30.

After his New Jersey nightclub closed in 1953 to make way for the Palisades Parkway, Miller served as entertainment director of hotels in Las Vegas.

Growing up, Judith Miller lived in Miami and Los Angeles, where she graduated from Hollywood High School. In 1969, she earned a degree in economics from Barnard College, and later earned a master's degree from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Before joining The Times in 1977, Miller worked as Washington bureau chief of The Progressive magazine and also contributed to the New Republic and National Public Radio.

Miller has said she fell into journalism at the "heady time" when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were exposing Watergate.

"I thought it was a way of doing something good, that was public-spirited, that exposing wrongdoing was a good thing to do," she told Pressman, the TV newsman. "I was surrounded by journalists when I first came to Washington and they were fascinating and interesting. ... [But] I've never had a moment's regret about that choice."

It appears she's never slowed down, either.

In 1983, she became the first woman named chief of The Times' Cairo bureau, and later served as a correspondent in Paris. In the late 1980s, she was the Times' Washington bureau news editor and deputy bureau chief, then was named special correspondent for the Persian Gulf crisis in 1990. Later, she wrote for the Times Magazine.

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