From the steakhouses of the lobbyists to the cloakrooms of the Senate, from book launch parties to news bureaus, the main subject in Washington is who will be indicted and when. As the inquiry of independent counsel Patrick Fitzgerald into the leaking of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity approaches its deadline of Oct. 28, the cast of characters appears for final performances before the grand jury. Trailing clouds of mystery, they disappear into the windowless chamber and emerge illuminating nothing. Fitzgerald’s airtight office, leaking to no reporter, only fuels the fires of rumor by its silence.
Once again, on Tuesday, New York Times reporter Judith Miller was summoned to the prosecutor’s sanctum. Miller was the stovepipe for disinformation from the administration and Ahmad Chalabi (self-proclaimed “hero in error”) directly onto the front page of the Times in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. When former ambassador Joseph Wilson, in his Times Op-Ed of July 6, 2003, “What I Didn’t Find in Niger,” disclosed his CIA mission before the war that debunked the tale that Saddam Hussein had sought enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, he exposed more than the falsity of the president’s claim; his account was also a blow to the credibility of Miller’s stories. Ten months later, the Times published an extraordinary editors note saying that some of its coverage was “not as rigorous as it should have been.” Miller’s identity went unmentioned.
After spending 85 days in prison for contempt of court, protecting the anonymity of the source already revealed for a story she never wrote on Wilson and his wife, Plame, Miller extracted the fig leaf of a letter from that source, Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, who reminded her that he had given her a waiver a year ago. Frantically, she raced out of jail and appeared before the grand jury. If she had not hastily flipped, she might have faced indictment for criminal contempt and obstruction of justice.
The Times, unlike the Washington Post, NBC News and Time magazine, whose reporters all testified in the case, had decided Miller’s fight was an essential defense of freedom of the press. Inevitably, her cause was deflated. Journalists, after all, are citizens, and they must testify if they witness crimes, according to a 1972 Supreme Court decision that the courts were bound to uphold. Miller’s adamantine martyrdom with the full support of the Times obliterated the customary privilege of reporters that had existed solely in deference to the now punctured status of the press. The Post’s lawyers anticipated the result beforehand and counseled cooperation, but the Times decided instead to accept Miller at her word, and her refusal as a principled stand, and to force an issue it was destined to lose.
After her first appearance before the grand jury, Miller suddenly discovered notes of a conversation with Libby, having previously declared that she had no such notes. That conversation about Wilson took place on June 23, 2003, two weeks before Wilson’s Op-Ed was published. Two people I spoke with who visited Miller in prison report that she appeared completely convinced of her stance as press martyr. But rumor-plagued Washington has divided into two camps: Was Miller a self-deluded dupe or a co-conspirator?
The Times, meanwhile, has subordinated its news coverage to her legal defense, withholding reportage on what she has told the grand jury, though the Times promises a full account. Will it include her colleagues’ recollections of how livid she was that the Times published Wilson’s Op-Ed?
Unlike in Watergate, which was largely advanced by the press, this scandal has unfolded despite much of the press corps’ efforts to avoid, demean or restrain the story until very recently. Also unlike in Watergate, major influences in the press have aligned with their sources in the administration, not with the professionals in the government acting as whistle-blowers. (One of Miller’s sources, John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, graciously paid her a visit in jail.) For his part, Bob Woodward, who has written two books describing in detail events from the perspective of the Bush administration, supported the White House version of the Niger incident by charging in July 2004 that “there were reasonable grounds to discredit Wilson.”
Even as Bush’s popularity has crumbled over the past nine months, leading figures of the press have sustained cheerleading for the political brilliance of Karl Rove, arguing that like a superhero he will rescue Bush. Indeed, a number of prominent journalists have received lucrative advances to write books extolling Rove’s genius. Those panegyrics, however, may take unexpected twists in the late chapters. This week Rove is scheduled to testify before the grand jury for the fourth time.
Inside the West Wing the lowering atmosphere of dread is like that of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and Pendulum:” “Down — steadily down it crept.”