Questions for Judith Miller

The New York Times reporter goes before the grand jury today. What took her so long?

Published September 30, 2005 1:04PM (EDT)

Freed from jail yesterday, New York Times reporter Judith Miller is scheduled to testify today before the grand jury investigating the outing of Valerie Plame. The grand jury wants to know about her conversations with Scooter Libby, the vice president's chief of staff. But there's something we'd like to ask Miller, too.

What took you so long?

While it's obviously critically important that reporters honor their commitments to confidential sources, reporters also have a duty to do whatever they can, consistent with those promises, to report the news they know to be true. As Michael Wolff has argued in Vanity Fair and Newsweek's Michael Isikoff suggested this week, both Miller and the Times and Matthew Cooper and Time let down their readers by failing to work harder to report the truth about Plame's outing sooner.

"Our primary obligation is not to protect our sources," Media Nation quotes Isikoff as saying during a talk this week at Harvard. "Our primary obligation is to inform our readers. And I think in the Plame matter there has been a bit of blurring of that fundamental point. Once you make a promise of confidentiality, you've got to keep it. But that doesn't end the conversation. That doesn't end the reporting. You're still a reporter. You can't use that conversation, because it was conducted off the record and you're honor-bound to that. But don't stop your reporting."

While he proclaimed Miller's role in the Plame case a "huge mystery" -- it's less of one now -- Isikoff said that Cooper should have hounded his confidential source, Karl Rove, to go on the record about Plame's identity. Instead, Isikoff said, "it seems like Time stopped reporting." As we've noted before, Time's failure to pursue the story further allowed the White House to have the last word on the subject -- there is "simply no truth" to the suggestion that Rove was involved -- right through the 2004 presidential election. The Los Angeles Times has said that Cooper didn't go back to Rove sooner in part because his lawyers advised against it -- but also because Time's "editors were concerned about becoming part of such an explosive story in an election year."

One might argue that an election year is the most important time for breaking explosive stories. But that's clearly not the mindset that was at work here; indeed, the new revelations about Miller's road to the grand jury room suggest that she did everything but plug her ears and shout "I can't hear you" when confronted with the word that she was free to tell what she knew about Plame's outing.

According to the Washington Post's account, Scooter Libby's lawyer, Joseph Tate, says that he told Miller's lawyer, Floyd Abrams, a year ago that Libby had voluntarily freed Miller to testify about their conversations. When Judge Thomas Hogan sentenced Miller to jail in July, he made the same point: He told the reporter that she was wrong in thinking that her source was still holding her to her confidentiality pledge. In light of Tate's discussion with Abrams and Hogan's words for Miller, Tate told the Post that he was surprised to learn a few weeks ago that it was the long-waived confidentiality pledge to Libby that was keeping Miller in jail and out of the grand jury room.

"We told her lawyers it was not coerced," Tate said. "We are surprised to learn we had anything to do with her incarceration."

Now, there's certainly a self-serving aspect to Tate's account: It's in Libby's interest to make it look like he wanted to cooperate with the investigation all along. But if Tate's story isn't true, you'd think that the Times might counter it. It hasn't. Instead, it provides an account that's substantially similar to the Post's, and it doesn't offer anything to suggest that Tate didn't have the conversation with Abrams that he said he had. What does Abrams says about that conversation? The Times doesn't say. But it does quote sources who say that Miller "did not understand" that Libby's waiver had been "freely given" and that she "did not accept it until she heard it from him directly."

Why didn't she try to "hear it from him directly" a year ago? It's likely that she and her lawyers were concerned that Fitzgerald might view direct communication between Miller and Libby as inappropriate -- a furtherance of a conspiracy, an attempt at witness tampering or the like. But the Post says that Miller's lawyers ultimately asked Fitzgerald if it would be OK if Miller and Libby talked, and he consented.

Why didn't Miller ask for that permission sooner? Why did she go to jail to protect a source whose lawyer claims that he said he didn't need to be protected? Why did Miller and her lawyers decide to reach out to Libby's lawyers a few weeks ago after the Times insisted in its editorials that she wouldn't be changing her mind about testifying? Was Miller concerned that she might face additional charges or more jail time if she continued to refuse to testify? And who are the "other sources" Miller says she won't be discussing during her grand jury appearance today? And why were readers denied the opportunity to know what reporters knew until after George W. Bush was safely back in the White House for a second term? These are the sorts of questions that journalists might want to ask, and it's long past time that they started.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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