The Times finally delivers on Judy Miller, but major questions remain

Good news: The Times comes clean. Bad news: Miller cant remember key details -- and management didnt ask for them.

Published October 16, 2005 2:04AM (EDT)

This afternoon the New York Times published the long-awaited account of how its controversial reporter Judith Miller became entangled with the grand jury investigating the 2003 leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity. The Times' reported account of the saga was accompanied by a personal account written by Miller herself. Together, the two pieces run close to 10,000 words; a spokeswoman for the paper called the package the most thorough account any reporter involved in this case has provided so far.

The Times is right that these accounts brim with fascinating details, and few of them cast Miller, the paper, or, more important, Bush administration officials in a very good light. But what's most striking about the two reports is what's missing -- any information on who told Miller Valerie Plame's name. Miller's notes clearly show that someone disclosed to her that Joseph Wilson, the former diplomat who began questioning the Bush administration's WMD evidence in the summer of 2003, was married to a CIA employee named Valerie Plame. The names "Valerie Flame" and "Victoria Wilson" appear in notebooks Miller used during interviews she conducted with I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff. But Miller says that she told Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor investigating the leak, that Libby was not her source for Plame's identity, and that she cannot recall who the source was.

"It is also difficult, more than two years later, to parse the meaning and context of phrases, of underlining and of parentheses" contained in the notebooks, Miller writes. "As I told Mr. Fitzgerald, I simply could not recall where ["Valerie Flame"] came from, when I wrote it or why the name was misspelled."

Miller recounts three interviews she conducted with Libby around the time Wilson began questioning the accuracy of the administration's claim that Saddam Hussein once sought uranium from Niger. The first of these interviews occurred on June 23, 2003, a few weeks before Wilson published his account of his trip to Africa, while the second and third took place in the days after Wilson went public. In these interviews, Libby, whom Miller calls "a good-faith source who was usually straight with me," defended Cheney from charges that he'd cooked up pre-war intelligence, and attempted to smear Wilson and his wife, whom Libby told Miller worked at the CIA.

Miller appears to have gone out of her way to help Libby bring this anti-Wilson view to the public. At one point, Libby asked her to attribute any information that he gave her on Wilson to a "former Hill staffer." But if Libby told her anything about the White House, she was to identify Libby as a "senior administration official." Miller says she recognized why Libby wanted this arrangement: "I assumed Mr. Libby did not want the White House to be seen as attacking Mr. Wilson." Amazingly, she agreed to the arrangement -- a move that clearly violates a cardinal rule of journalistic ethics (correctly identifying your sources and their motives), and calls into question the high-minded rhetoric Miller has been spouting for more than a year.

There is, indeed, much here to disappoint people who've long defended Miller as a martyr to press freedoms. Miller operated with unusual autonomy at the paper, essentially doing whatever she wanted on whatever story she chose, and keeping her editors in the dark about her actions. Though Miller told Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Bill Keller, the paper's publisher and executive editor, respectively, that her source was Libby, she gave them no indication of what he'd said to her. The paper reports: "They did not review Ms. Miller's notes. Mr. Keller said he learned about the 'Valerie Flame' notation only this month. Mr. Sulzberger was told about it by Times reporters on Thursday."

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

There is much more to digest in these two reports, and Salon will be doing so in the coming hours. For now, though, it's this statement from Sulzberger that we find most telling. The Times' reports make clear that Miller's hands weren't entirely clean in this affair; while she was not -- as some of her fiercest critics suggest -- the source of Plame's identity, she was certainly willing to curry favor with Wilson's critics in a way that does not speak well of her journalistic ethics.

That higher-ups at the Times were willing to let Miller dictate how the paper should handle its run-in with the prosecutor -- and, consequently, to let her affect how the paper covered Washington's biggest scandal in years -- suggests a profound misstep. The decision may ultimately have damaged the paper's reputation more deeply than the Jayson Blair affair.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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