By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 16, 2005
Vice President Cheney's chief of staff discussed with New York Times correspondent Judith Miller the fact that the wife of a White House critic worked for the CIA on as many as three occasions before the woman, Valerie Plame, was publicly identified, according to a Times account published today.
During one of the 2003 conversations with I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Miller said, she wrote a version of Plame's name in her notebook.
In a disclosure that could figure in special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's investigation, Miller said she initially refused to testify about her discussions with Libby because she believed he was signaling her that she should not cooperate in the CIA leak investigation unless her account would clear him.
Miller said her lawyer Floyd Abrams told her that Libby's attorney, Joseph A. Tate, had related part of Libby's grand jury testimony and was "pressing about what you would say. When I wouldn't give him an assurance that you would exonerate Libby, if you were to cooperate, he then immediately gave me this, 'Don't go there, or, we don't want you there.' "
Tate strongly denied such a conversation in an e-mail to the Times, calling the account "outrageous" and insisting that "I never once suggested that she should not testify. It was just the opposite." He did not return a phone call from The Washington Post last night.
Miller was jailed for 85 days for refusing to testify about Libby, until she reached an accommodation last month with Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald has been investigating whether any administration officials -- including Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, who testified for a fourth time Friday -- broke the law by disclosing the identity of a covert CIA operative. Lawyers involved in the case have said they believe he is investigating other potential crimes, such as whether there was a conspiracy in the administration to discredit Plame's husband and White House critic, former ambassador Joseph Wilson IV. A grand jury examining the issue expires on Oct. 28.
Libby, though little known to the public, was a major supporter of the Iraq war and wields great influence on foreign policy and other issues within the administration.
In the first on-the-record account of what she told a federal grand jury in two recent appearances, Miller described a meeting on June 23, 2003, with Libby in the Old Executive Office Building. She said her notes leave open the possibility that Libby told her Wilson's wife might work at the CIA. "Wife works at bureau?" the notes say.
This conversation -- for which Miller only recently found her notes -- occurred when Wilson had not yet gone public with his criticism that President Bush had exaggerated evidence that Iraq was seeking weapons of mass destruction.
During that encounter, Miller said in the Times, Libby was angry about reports that Cheney and other senior officials had embraced flimsy evidence about Iraq seeking nuclear material in the African nation of Niger and was concerned about "selective leaking" by the CIA to distance the agency if no illegal Iraqi weapons were found. Libby noted that the CIA had sent a "clandestine guy" -- a reference to Wilson -- to Niger on a fact-finding mission.
On July 8, 2003 -- two days after Wilson published a denunciation of the White House on the weapons issue -- Miller had breakfast with Libby at the St. Regis Hotel. Miller said Libby told her that Wilson's wife worked for a CIA bureau called Winpac, for weapons intelligence, nonproliferation and arms control. Miller said she testified, however, that Libby did not refer to Plame by name or mention her covert status.
Her notebook from that day includes the notation "Valerie Flame," but she says the name appeared in a different section of the notebook from her Libby interview notes and that she believes it came from another source who, Miller maintains, she cannot recall.
That raises the question of whether other administration officials discussed Plame's CIA status with Miller after Libby, by her recollection, was the first to raise it. By the time she and Libby discussed Plame again, by phone on July 12, Miller said, she had talked about Wilson's wife -- her notes from that conversation refer incorrectly to "Victoria Wilson" -- with other unidentified sources. Fitzgerald lost the opportunity to question Miller about these sources by agreeing, as part of the deal that led to her release from jail last month, to ask only about conversations with Libby.
It is not known precisely what Libby has told the grand jury. A source close to the Cheney aide has said that Libby did acknowledge discussing Wilson's wife with Miller but that he never knew Plame's name or her covert status.
The probe was triggered after syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak wrote on July 14, 2003, that "two senior administration officials" had told him that Plame was a CIA operative who had helped arrange her husband's 2002 trip to Niger to investigate whether Iraq had sought to buy weapons-grade uranium there.
Miller says Fitzgerald asked her before the grand jury whether Libby ever indicated that Cheney had approved of Libby's interviews with her or was aware of them. The answer, she said, was no.
By Miller's account, Fitzgerald asked during her testimony "whether I thought Mr. Libby had tried to shape my testimony" through a letter he sent while she was in an Alexandria jail. In the letter, Libby urged Miller to accept his waiver of the confidentiality she had promised him after initially rejecting such an offer as not fully voluntary.
"The public report of every other reporter's testimony makes clear that they did not discuss Ms. Plame's name or identity with me," Libby wrote. Miller said she testified that the wording surprised her "because it might be perceived as an effort by Mr. Libby to suggest that I, too, would say we had not discussed Ms. Plame's identity. Yet my notes suggested that we had discussed her job."
Times Executive Editor Bill Keller was quoted as saying: "Judy believed Libby was afraid of her testimony. She thought Libby had reason to be afraid of her testimony."
In retrospect, Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. told the paper, "Maybe a deal was possible earlier. . . . If so, shame on us. I tend to think not."
The article and accompanying first-person piece by Miller, posted online yesterday and published in today's editions, contain conflicting accounts of why Miller never wrote a story about the outing of Plame. Miller told her newspaper that she "made a strong recommendation to my editor" that a story be pursued but "was told no." She would not identify the editor. Managing Editor Jill Abramson, the Washington bureau chief at the time, said Miller never made any such recommendation.
Another possible conflict between Miller and the Times involves a Post report in fall 2003 that "two top White House officials disclosed Plame's identity to at least six Washington journalists." Philip Taubman, who succeeded Abramson as Washington bureau chief, said he asked Miller whether she was among the six, which she denied. Miller told him the subject of Wilson and his wife had come up in casual conversation with government officials, Taubman said, and "she had not been at the receiving end of a concerted effort, a deliberate organized effort to put out information."
One journalistic issue involves what Miller describes as her agreement to modify her description of Libby as a "senior administration official" when it came to information about Libby. Miller said she agreed to describe Libby only as a "former Hill staffer," which is technically accurate because he once worked on Capitol Hill.
The publication follows weeks of criticism of the Times for failing to tell the full story of its reporter's involvement. Keller said in a statement that "no other reporter drawn into this investigation has provided such a detailed report. We're relieved that we can finally put this story in the hands of our readers, who will draw their own conclusions." Times editors would not comment further, a spokeswoman said.
Miller, a Pulitzer Prize winner, says she went to see Libby in June 2003 as part of a team effort to examine why no illegal weapons were found in Iraq. Libby, she said, wanted to talk about Wilson's mission to Niger.
In agreeing to testify, Miller acknowledged in the Times account, she was worried about the prospect of spending many more months in jail. She said she decided to accept Libby's waiver after receiving his letter and asking him in a phone conversation: "Do you really want me to testify? Are you sure you really want me to testify?" Libby's reply was something like "absolutely," Miller said.
Miller's attorney Abrams and Times Co. lawyer George Freeman told the paper they worried that Miller's decision to testify would prompt observers to say the newspaper had caved in.
One unusual aspect of the Times account is that it acknowledges what a controversial figure Miller, 57, has been at the paper. One former editor, Douglas Frantz, said Miller once called herself "Miss Run Amok" and said it meant "I can do whatever I want."
Her reputation suffered a "blow," the Times acknowledged, after some of her stories on whether Saddam Hussein harbored illegal weapons did not pan out. "I told her there was unease, discomfort, unhappiness over some of the coverage," said Roger Cohen, the foreign editor at the time. Miller conceded that "I got it totally wrong" but blamed the misinformation on her sources.
Miller would not allow the Times reporters to review her notes and would not discuss her interactions with editors, the article said.
To a remarkable degree, Miller was calling the shots on dealing with Fitzgerald's inquiry. Keller and Sulzberger both told the paper that they did not press Miller for details of her conversations with Libby or ask to see her notes while battling Fitzgerald's subpoena in the courts.
Even after other news organizations disclosed that Libby was Miller's source, Times editors did not publish his name, discouraged some story suggestions by reporters and killed an article about Libby's role in the high-profile case.
The case, which cost the Times millions of dollars in legal fees, so constrained its coverage that the paper did not name Libby as Miller's source until well after other news organizations did. Keller said he largely ceded supervision of the story to managing editor Abramson because "it was just too awkward" for him while enmeshed in meetings about the paper's defense of Miller.
Asked what she regretted about the Times' handling of the matter, Abramson told the paper: "The entire thing."