A federal judge found New York Times reporter Judith Miller in contempt of court yesterday and ordered her jailed for as long as 18 months for refusing to answer questions before a grand jury investigating the leak of a covert CIA operative's identity to the news media.
Miller told U.S. District Chief Judge Thomas F. Hogan at a hearing yesterday that she would not answer questions from special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald about her conversations with confidential sources. Hogan said Miller had no special right as a reporter to defy a subpoena in a criminal investigation, but agreed she could remain free on bond while the Times appealed his decision.
In an impromptu news conference after the hearing, Miller said Hogan's ruling -- and several other similar decisions in his court in recent months -- will weaken reporters' ability to obtain crucial information for the public about their government.
"It's really frightening when journalists can be put in jail for doing their job effectively," Miller said. "This is about all journalists and about all government officials who provide information on the promise of confidentiality. Without that, they won't come forward, and the public won't be informed."
Miller is the latest in a series of reporters to be subpoenaed to testify by Fitzgerald about whether they had conversations with senior administration officials in 2003 about former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV's trip to the African nation of Niger. Wilson was sent there by the CIA to determine whether Iraq had tried to obtain uranium to use to make weapons of mass destruction.
Fitzgerald's investigation centers on whether a government official knowingly revealed the name of Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, a covert CIA operative, to syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak. Intentional disclosure of such information by an official authorized to have it could be a felony.
The investigation began after Novak raised doubts in a July 14, 2003, column about Wilson's accusations that the administration was "twisting" intelligence, including his report that he found no proof of Iraq seeking uranium in Niger, to build a case for going to war in Iraq. Novak wrote that two officials had explained that Wilson was recommended for the mission by his wife.
Miller did reporting on the Plame story but never wrote about it.
Hogan said he was satisfied that Fitzgerald had exhausted other avenues of determining important information and that questioning journalists was a last resort rather than a "fishing expedition." He said journalists' promise to protect their sources is outweighed by the government's duty to investigate a serious crime. In a 1972 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment does not protect reporters called before a criminal grand jury.
"We have a classic confrontation between conflicting interests," Hogan said.
Hogan issued a contempt and confinement order to Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper in early August. Cooper subsequently gave a deposition to prosecutors about his conversation with a single anonymous source -- I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff -- after Libby waived Cooper's obligation to keep their conversations on the topic confidential. But Fitzgerald later issued another subpoena to Cooper about information from other sources.
Libby has also freed Miller to talk with prosecutors, according to a representative of the Times, but the newspaper is refusing to try to avoid a repeat of Cooper's circumstances, said Times attorney Floyd Abrams.
Fitzgerald has also questioned NBC's Tim Russert and two reporters at The Washington Post, Glenn Kessler and Walter Pincus. Novak and his attorney have declined to comment on whether he has been questioned or subpoenaed.
New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, who accompanied Miller to court, said he was disturbed that administration officials had been asked by their superiors in this case to sign waivers of confidentiality agreements with reporters.
"This is going to become all the rage in corporate and government circles," he said. "It's really spooky."