By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Security blanket

I’ve been nibbling around the edges of the Judith Miller saga – make that the Judith Miller scandal – because I keep thinking another shoe is going to drop. And it may. Perhaps special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s report, which could come sometime after the Oct. 28 expiration of the grand-jury investigation into the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame, will shed more light on precisely what Miller was up to in her conversations with Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

But it’s clear that the New York Times, our most important daily newspaper, is broken in some profound way. American Journalism Review editor Rem Rieder traces it back to the Times-assisted railroading of Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee in the late 1990s. I’d go back even farther, to the Times’ endless credulous reports on the so-called Clinton scandals, none of which ever panned out (except for the legally irrelevant Monica Lewinsky matter), but which weakened Bill Clinton’s presidency considerably.

On “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” last night, former Timesman Alex Jones, director of the Kennedy School’s Joan Shorenstein Center and the co-author of a massive biography of the Sulzbergers, who founded the modern Times and continue to own it, had this to say:

JONES: Judy Miller’s credibility and the New York Times’ credibility are the same thing right now in my opinion, and until Judy Miller’s credibility is vetted and until the questions that have been raised and sort of – that have come tumbling out of this exploration of Judy Miller’s relationship not just with Scooter Libby but with the White House, with the administration, her role in the work-up to the Iraq war, all of these things are now part of the story, part of the story because the New York Times did the reporting it did on Sunday but also because Judy Miller has refused within the New York Times to be completely accountable because, for instance, in the case of Sunday’s articles, she declined to provide the reporters at the New York Times with an opportunity to examine those notebooks which were a critical part of her testimony.

Yes, Jones changed directions several times in mid-thought, but you get the idea. And he’s right: Miller’s credibility and the Times’ credibility are the same thing right now. And that’s not good for the Times.

I want to focus on one aspect of Miller’s first-person account that was published on Sunday – the revelation, if you can call it that, that she had security clearance while she was reporting from Iraq in the weeks after the fall of Baghdad:

MILLER: In my grand jury testimony, Mr. Fitzgerald repeatedly turned to the subject of how Mr. Libby handled classified information with me. He asked, for example, whether I had discussed my security status with Mr. Libby. During the Iraq war, the Pentagon had given me clearance to see secret information as part of my assignment “embedded” with a special military unit hunting for unconventional weapons.

Mr. Fitzgerald asked if I had discussed classified information with Mr. Libby. I said I believed so, but could not be sure. He asked how Mr. Libby treated classified information. I said, Very carefully.

Mr. Fitzgerald asked me to examine a series of documents. Though I could not identify them with certainty, I said that some seemed familiar, and that they might be excerpts from the National Intelligence Estimate of Iraq’s weapons. Mr. Fitzgerald asked whether Mr. Libby had shown any of the documents to me. I said no, I didn’t think so. I thought I remembered him at one point reading from a piece of paper he pulled from his pocket.

I told Mr. Fitzgerald that Mr. Libby might have thought I still had security clearance, given my special embedded status in Iraq. At the same time, I told the grand jury I thought that at our July 8 meeting I might have expressed frustration to Mr. Libby that I was not permitted to discuss with editors some of the more sensitive information about Iraq.

Mr. Fitzgerald asked me if I knew whether I was cleared to discuss classified information at the time of my meetings with Mr. Libby. I said I did not know.

Now, this is being treated as news by many media observers. In a widely quoted e-mail to Romenesko, retired CBS News correspondent Bill Lynch calls it an “enormous journalism scandal hidden” in Miller’s piece. But though Lynch is surely right that it’s a scandal, we have in fact known about it since June 2004, as I pointed out in a follow-up e-mail.

The revelation came in Franklin Foer’s extraordinarily tough profile of Miller in New York magazine. Miller at that time was in trouble over a previous, related scandal: her credulous reporting on Iraq’s alleged weapons capabilities and ties to Al Qaeda in the months leading up to the war. Foer describes Miller in Iraq in the spring of 2003:

FOER: … Miller had helped negotiate her own embedding agreement with the Pentagon – an agreement so sensitive that, according to one Times editor, [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld himself signed off on it. Although she never fully acknowledged the specific terms of that arrangement in her articles, they were as stringent as any conditions imposed on any reporter in Iraq….

As Miller covered MET Alpha, it became increasingly clear that she had ceased to respect the boundaries between being an observer and a participant. And as an embedded reporter she went even further, several sources say. While traveling with MET Alpha, according to [Eugene] Pomeroy [a military source Foer relied on] and one other witness, she wore a military uniform.

When Colonel Richard McPhee ordered MET Alpha to pull back from a search mission and regroup in the town of Talil, Miller disagreed vehemently with the decision – and let her opinions be loudly known. The Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz reprinted a note in which she told public-affairs officers that she would write negatively about his decision if McPhee didn’t back down. What’s more, Kurtz reported that Miller complained to her friend Major General David Petraeus. Even though McPhe’’s unit fell outside the general’s line of command, Petraeus’s rank gave his recommendation serious heft. According to Kurtz, in an account that was later denied, “McPhee rescinded his withdrawal order after Petraeus advised him to do so.”

Miller guarded her exclusive access with ferocity. When the Washington Post‘s Barton Gellman overlapped in the unit for a day, Miller instructed its members that they couldn’t talk with him. According to Pomeroy, “She told people that she had clearance to be there and Bart didn’t.” (One other witness confirms this account.)

Now, go back and read Miller’s account of what she told the grand jury about her conversations with Libby. Libby may have thought she still had security clearance. Did she? She didn’t know.

I’m not the first person to make this observation – unfortunately, I’ve lost track of where I picked it up – but it is possible that Miller went to jail not only because she was protecting a source, but because she was also afraid of the legal consequences if she disclosed classified information she had received as a result of having security clearance. And it’s possible that Libby wasn’t breaking the law in disclosing that Bush-administration critic Joseph Wilson’s wife was a CIA operative because he was giving the information to someone with clearance to be told such things.

And it’s possible that all this was playing out with publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and executive editor Bill Keller being unaware of this bizarre twist. Yes, according to the unnamed Times editor with whom Foer spoke, people at the Times were aware that Miller had negotiated an unusually sensitive agreement with the Pentagon. But were they aware that she may have had security clearance? And given that they should have been alerted to that possibility when they read Foer’s story, did they think about the implications later that summer, when Fitzgerald first started threatening Miller with jail if she refused to testify? Did they think about it some more during all those months when they gave her their support?

So many questions. And as Alex Jones says, the Times doesn’t have any hope of regaining its credibility until we have answers to all of them.

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6 Comments

  1. Steve

    Josh Marshall asks yet another question touching on the Times’ credibility – “After the original fiasco of her WMD reporting and her on-going role in the Plame story, how did Judith Miller end up covering the UN ‘oil-for-food’ scandal for a year?”On another angle of this business – I am a bit skeptical about this whole “security clearance” business. I am wondering if it’s not a “real” clearance, just a clause in the embedding agreement Miller and the Pentagon worked out. It seems exceedingly odd for a *reporter* to have a security clearance – isn’t it against the interest of BOTH the reporter AND the government? It’s a reporter’s job to uncover facts and it’s the purpose of security classification to keep facts hidden.In any case, even if Miller had a regular secret clearance, why would Plame’s undercover status be something Miller was cleared to know? (Clearances are typically limited to some area of knowledge that are relevant to the reason for the clearance. If Miller had a secret clearance for reasons of her Iraq embedded assignment, I don’t see how Plame’s status came under that assignment.)

  2. Anonymous

    I think the severe criticism of Miller for not showing her notes to reporters for further publication is misguided. Going to jail to resist the compelled disclosure of confidential notes and sources and then agreeing to testify when a coy source finally is cornered into unequivocally consenting to being identified should not make all of her journalistic work product fair game for review and publication by others. This is very different than being required to show your notes to an editor.

  3. mike_b1

    I have to ask: who does Miller work for? The Times, or her source? If it’s the former — and in my opinion it is — she’s obligated to turn over whatever she wrote as they are company property. And the company can then do whatever the hell it pleases with them. She should have done that Day 1 and washed her hands of the whole mess.

  4. Anonymous

    Aren’t you stretching the evidence too far in your column, and your Romenesko e-mail, on the clearance? First, does the earlier story say she had a security clearance? No, it says she had clearance to be with that unit. Are those one and the same? I don’t know. Your letter assumes that they are. But this may be the first time that we know that she had a security clearance.Second, is the clearance really surprising? She was with a secret unit, not troops fighting in a trench. Could one possibly be embedded with such a unit without clearance to see secret information?Third, several critics have construed from her statement that she still had security clearance after returning from Iraq. But where does she say that? She says that Libby might have thought she had, but that doesn’t make it so.

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