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Questions for the Times and Judith Miller

ASK THIS | October 19, 2005

The newspaper of record needs to set the record straight on its own involvement in the Plame investigation – and the run-up to war in Iraq.

By John Hanrahan


Reporters following up on The New York Times’s October 16, 2005 coverage of Judith Miller’s ongoing legal saga should ask Miller and relevant Times editors to address a number of points that either weren’t reported in that newspaper’s two articles or that need clarification or elaboration. Reporters -- both from the Times and from other news organizations -- should also explore possible conflicts between some points in Miller’s own account in that day’s Times and the front-page article by Don Van Natta Jr., Adam Liptak and Clifford J. Levy.


Such questions are necessary to establish a more meaningful chronology, as well as an understanding of Miller’s interaction with White House aide I. Lewis Libby and other Bush administration officials involved in the grand jury investigation of the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity. They are also necessary for a fuller understanding of how the nation’s most prestigious newspaper misreported the run-up and immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In its news coverage of this most important story of the early 21st century, the Times and Miller in particular became, in the eyes of many critics, a conveyor belt for Bush administration misinformation on the nonexistent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD).


These questions will also address speculation in some publications and by Web bloggers and guests on radio and television talk shows that Miller might have crossed the line from reporter to Bush administration flack in her reporting on the WMD issue. Consequently, she might have had a vested interest in squelching criticism of Bush’s invasion-justifying WMD claims and of her articles that were based on those claims.


Here are some of the questions that Miller and other Times editors and officials should be asked in order to shed more light on Miller’s involvement in the Plame leak affair and her role in shaping the Times’s much-criticized coverage of the WMD issue.


Q. When did Valerie Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson, submit to The New York Times his op-ed piece that shot down a key Bush administration claim that Iraq had tried to purchase enriched uranium for nuclear weapons in Niger? (The Wilson article, headlined “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” was published in the Times on July 6, 2003-- two weeks after Miller and Libby, by Miller’s account, first discussed Wilson’s performance in his fact-finding trip to Niger.)


Q. When did Miller learn that the Times had in-house a draft of Wilson’s op-ed piece? Did anyone at the Times make Miller aware of the Wilson article before it was published (as a possible “editorial courtesy,” given her extensive experience covering issues addressed in Wilson’s piece)? That is, was she told the general contents of the piece in advance of publication? Or did she possibly read the piece before publication? What was Miller’s reaction when she read the piece (either beforehand or at the time of publication)? Did she make her views of the Wilson piece known to others at the Times? (Was she “ livid” that the Times had run the Wilson piece, as reported recently by Salon.com columnist and former Clinton administration aide Sidney Blumenthal?)


Q. Did Miller talk to Times columnist Nicholas Kristof about his May 6, 2003, column that cited information from an unnamed former U.S. ambassador to an African nation but did not name him? That column said this unnamed source (Wilson) had been sent to Niger to explore the Bush administration’s enriched uranium claim and found it “unequivocally wrong.” Kristof also wrote that documents used to support that claim “had been forged.” If Miller did talk to Kristof, did she learn anything as to who his source might be? Did she make any contacts with Bush administration officials after Kristof’s column appeared, or was her June 23, 2003, conversation with Libby the first time she had any discussion with anyone in the Bush administration about Wilson and Plame? In other words, when and from whom did Miller first learn that Wilson was the former diplomat who debunked the enriched uranium claim? [Editor's note: Kristof says he didn't talk to Miller about Wilson. See his comment appended to this item; or, for those with Times Select, Click here.]


Q. When did Miller or her attorney disclose to prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald that she had a June 23, 2003, conversation with Libby? The New York Observer Web site reported on Oct. 7, 2005 -- before Miller’s second grand jury appearance -- that Miller had turned over to prosecutors a second set of theretofore unreported notes from a pre-July 2003 contact with Libby. The Observer’s Gabriel Sherman reported: “The existence of the new batch of notes appeared to surprise the prosecutor, according to a lawyer familiar with the case.” Miller writes in her piece: “I testified in Washington twice - most recently last Wednesday after finding a notebook in my office at The Times that contained my first interview with Mr. Libby.” Had she entirely forgotten that meeting? Had she looked for her notes before? Why did she not find them before? What led her to look again? Where exactly did she find them?


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?


Q. Did Miller actually suggest that the Times publish an article about Plame and Wilson, based on what she heard from Libby and other unnamed sources? Miller said in her piece that she had testified to the grand jury “that I recalled recommending to editors” – plural – “that we pursue the story,” but doesn’t name them in her article. In the article written by Van Natta, et al., for which Miller was interviewed separately, Miller said she “made a strong recommendation to my editor” – singular -- “that an article be pursued.” But, she said, “I was told no.” She would not identify that editor to her paper’s reporters. Curiously, Jill Abramson, the Times Washington bureau chief at the time, told Van Natta, et al. that Miller “never made any such recommendation.”


Q. So, who was this editor -- or who were these editors? Was it one editor -- or more? Why won’t Miller name the editor to her own Times colleagues? Surely, there is no issue of grand jury secrecy or national security involved in such a simple request? Can Van Natta, et al. question every single relevant editor at the Times during the June-July 2003 period to see if Miller ever offered them a Plame-Wilson story? This is an important credibility issue, and also gets to the issue of whether the Times had by then lost faith in Miller’s ability to report fairly on Bush administration WMD claims. Either she asked an editor or editors to run a story, or she didn’t.


Q. Because Miller wrote in her article that she told prosecutors she could not recall who had given her Valerie Plame’s name and could not recall the names of other people with whom she had discussed the Plame-Wilson connection, she should be asked how such an experienced reporter could not remember the names of people who might have given her important information about such a highly sensitive news story? To refuse on the grounds of protecting one’s sources is one thing, but not remembering who gave the key information would certainly raise red flags for a jury. As David McCumber, managing editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer told Editor & Publisher: “It is strange that a reporter of her credentials and experience would not be able to remember where that name came from in her notebook.”


Q. What about Miller's apparent flouting of Times policy on describing confidential sources? Miller, in her article, said she told Fitzgerald that a notation in her notes of her July 8, 2003 meeting with Libby -- “Former Hill staffer” -- referred to Libby. She wrote that Libby had previously agreed to let her quote him as a “senior administration official,” but that he wanted to change that to “former Hill staffer.” Miller said she agreed to this request because “Libby had once worked on Capitol Hill.” She said she had told Fitzgerald she assumed Libby had requested the change because he “did not want the White House to be seen as attacking Mr. Wilson.” In Miller’s defense, she did not write a Plame-Wilson story and so did not describe Libby as a former Hill aide in print in this instance. However, her agreement to do so raises the question of whether she had previously fudged descriptions of administration sources in her articles.


Q. How can Times executive editor Bill Keller and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. let Miller refuse to answer certain of the Times own reporters’ questions? As Van Natta, et al. reported in their October 16 article: “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.” How do Miller, Keller, Sulzberger, et al. justify allowing Miller to withhold such information from the Times’s own reporters and, thus, from their readers?


Q. Why did Keller and Sulzberger, as the Times reported, know “few details about Ms. Miller’s conversations with her confidential source other than his name” and why did they not review any of her notes? Thus far, the Times has not told us.


Q. Why did the paper’s leaders, as the Times reported, “ultimately [leave] the major decisions in the case up to Ms. Miller?” Sulzberger was quoted in the Times article as saying, “This car had her hand on the wheel because she was the one at risk.” This seems a less than complete answer, since it’s hard to envision any other major news organization in the country leaving it up to its reporter to control the course of the most serious government-press confrontation in recent years.


Q. Who was setting policy on news coverage of WMD issues at the Times in the run-up to the Iraq invasion? Did Miller likewise have “her hand on the wheel” in determining the news coverage of WMD issues? The article by Van Natta, et al. -- with its reference to the name Miller facetiously gave herself (“Miss Run Amok,”  because “I can do whatever I want”) --  strongly suggests that it was Miller, not some higher-ranking editor who called the shots.


Miller’s lack of candor in what she would and would not share with Times reporters and editors and the public contrasts markedly with the Times’s extensive coverage of the Jayson Blair affair. That Times scandal involved plagiarism and falsified stories -- serious matters, indeed, but not as serious in their consequences as articles providing an administration’s false and misleading rationales for launching a preemeptive invasion.


When I wrote on this Web site in May 2004 about U.S. press coverage prior to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, I asked a question regarding one of Miller’s more controversial WMD articles: “How in the world did this ever get by the Times editors?”


After reading Miller’s and the Times team’s articles of October 16, 2005, the question is still relevant. So is former Times reporter, editor and columnist Sydney H. Schanberg’s observation in his October 18, 2005, Village Voice column that the issue now “is how the Times will repair and strengthen the checks and balances in its newsroom, so that a single reporter or clique cannot run amok -- and take the paper along for the self-destructive ride.”



Sulzberger, others under fire
The American Prospect asks experts if heads should roll at The New York Times, and if so, whose?

Keller assumes some blame
Times editor wishes he had made different decisions, says Judy Miller seems to have misled colleagues on the extent of her leak involvement.

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