Miller case's legacy unclear

Reporter's efforts to protect source leave behind some questions, regrets

October 16, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In a notebook belonging to Judith Miller, a reporter for The New York Times, amid notations about Iraq and nuclear weapons, appear two small words: "Valerie Flame."

Miller should have written Valerie Plame. That name is at the core of a federal grand jury investigation that has reached deep into the White House. At issue is whether Bush administration officials leaked the identity of Plame, an undercover CIA operative, to reporters as part of an effort to blunt criticism of the president's justification for the war in Iraq.

Miller spent 85 days in jail for refusing to testify and reveal her confidential source, then relented. On Sept. 30, she told the grand jury that her source was I. Lewis Libby, the vice president's chief of staff. But she said he did not reveal Plame's name.

When the prosecutor in the case asked her to explain how "Valerie Flame" appeared in the same notebook she used in interviewing Libby, 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 in a first-person account.

Whether Miller's testimony will prove valuable to the prosecution remains unclear, as do its ramifications for press freedom. Yet an examination of Miller's decision not to testify, and then to do so, offers fresh information about her role in the investigation and how The New York Times turned her case into a cause.

The grand jury investigation centers on whether administration officials leaked the identity of Plame, whose husband, a former diplomat named Joseph C. Wilson IV, became a public critic of the Iraq war in July 2003. But Miller said Libby first raised questions about the diplomat in an interview with her that June, an account suggesting that Wilson was on the White House's radar before he went public with his criticisms.

Once Miller was issued a subpoena in August 2004 to testify about her conversations with Libby, she and The Times vowed to fight it. Behind the scenes, however, her lawyer made inquiries to see if Libby would release her from their confidentiality agreement. Miller said she decided not to testify in part because she thought that Libby's lawyer might be signaling to keep her quiet unless she would exonerate his client. The lawyer denies it, and Libby did not respond to requests for an interview.

As Miller, 57, remained resolute and moved closer to going to jail for her silence, the leadership of The Times stood behind her.

But publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and the paper's executive editor, Bill Keller, knew few details about Miller's conversations with her confidential source other than his name. They did not review Miller's notes. Keller said he learned about the "Valerie Flame" notation only this month. Sulzberger was told about it by Times reporters Thursday.

Interviews show that the paper's leaders, in taking what they considered to be a principled stand, left the major decisions in the case up to Miller.

"This car had her hand on the wheel because she was the one at risk," Sulzberger said.

Once Miller was jailed, her lawyers were in open conflict about whether she should stay there. She had refused to reopen communications with Libby for a year, saying she did not want to pressure a source into waiving his confidentiality. But in the end, saying "I owed it to myself" after two months of jail, she had her lawyer reach out to Libby. This time, hearing directly from her source, she accepted his permission and was set free.

Neither The Times nor its cause has emerged unbruised. Three courts, including the Supreme Court, declined to back Miller. Critics said The Times was protecting not a whistle-blower but an administration campaign intended to squelch dissent. The Times' coverage of itself was under assault: While the editorial page had crusaded on Miller's behalf, the news department had more than once been scooped on the story, including news of Miller's release from jail.

Asked what she regretted about The Times' handling of the matter, Jill Abramson, a managing editor, said: "The entire thing."

Talks with Libby

On June 23, 2003, Miller visited Libby at the Old Executive Office Building in Washington. Libby was the vice president's top aide and had played an important role in shaping the argument for going to war in Iraq. He was "a good-faith source who was usually straight with me," Miller said in an interview.

Her assignment was to write an article about the failure to find unconventional weapons in Iraq. She said Libby wanted to talk about a diplomat's fact-finding trip in 2002 to the African nation of Niger to determine whether Iraq sought uranium there. The diplomat was Wilson, and his wife worked for the CIA.

Wilson had already become known among Washington insiders as a fierce Bush critic. He would go public the next month, accusing the White House in an opinion article in The Times of twisting intelligence to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.

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