Reporter's Account Hurts Libby Defense
Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller yesterday helped the prosecutor who landed her in jail and forced her into the witness chair, providing potentially damaging information about the confidential administration source she tried to shield, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
Deliberately and sometimes defensively offering her account in Libby's perjury trial, Miller told the jury that "a very irritated and angry" Libby told her in a confidential conversation on June 23, 2003, that the wife of a prominent critic of the Iraq war worked at the CIA. Libby had told investigators he believed he first learned that information from another journalist nearly three weeks later -- the assertion at the core of the charges against him.
Miller testified that Libby, then the chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, shared this information as they talked alone in his office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and that he complained that the CIA and a former ambassador were unfairly trying to blame the White House for using faulty intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq. He then mentioned that the wife of the ambassador, Joseph C. Wilson IV, worked at a bureau of the CIA.
Miller's testimony showcased a new legal reality for the news media -- the fragility of reporters' general working assumption that they can protect the identities of confidential sources. Miller, who spent 85 days in jail trying to avoid disclosing the details of her conversations with Libby to Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, was the first of several prominent reporters both sides expect to call to the witness stand. For some of the reporters, Libby was a confidential source they never expected to reveal.
Libby is charged with lying to FBI agents and a grand jury and with obstructing justice in the investigation of who leaked undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame's name to the media. He is not charged with the leak itself. Fitzgerald has said Plame's name was leaked by administration officials trying to discredit Wilson's assertions that there was no proof that Iraq was attempting to buy uranium in Niger for its nuclear weapons program.
Libby has pleaded not guilty, contending that he did not remember conversations he had with reporters about Plame amid the crush of his work on national security issues.
Libby told investigators he first learned Plame's name in a July 10, 2003, telephone conversation with NBC's Tim Russert. Miller testified yesterday that Libby discussed the topic with her twice before that date: on June 23 and on July 8, when Libby invited Miller to a breakfast meeting at the St. Regis Hotel.
Miller, who left the New York Times in 2005 and is now a freelance journalist, is the seventh prosecution witness to testify that Libby either knew about Plame's CIA role or was sharing that information in the weeks before her identity was revealed in a syndicated column by Robert D. Novak on July 14.
Miller said that in her dealings with Libby, he typically wanted to be described as a senior administration official or not mentioned at all. But on July 8, she said, he made a proposal for sharing information that he had never suggested to her.
"The ground rules changed," she said. "Mr. Libby said for the purpose of this conversation he wanted not to be described as a senior administration official. I think he said something like 'former Hill staffer.' " That is significant because it could help prosecutors show that Libby's motives were not purely to correct inaccuracies in Wilson's statements to the media.
Miller, who lost her battle with the prosecutor in 2005, yesterday also faced harsh questions from defense attorneys for Libby, who had opened his door to her and had praised her reporting on the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Defense attorney William Jeffress Jr. attacked Miller's memory, quizzing her on why anyone should believe that she correctly remembered details of the June 23 conversation with Libby but had not been able to recall that it occurred when she first testified before the grand jury in the fall of 2005.
Miller said that, after that session, Fitzgerald urged her to find any notes she might have for the June 2003 time period. She found some that night in a shopping bag under her desk and recalled the meeting after she refreshed her memory by reading them.
Jeffress suggested it was implausible that she now remembered her June conversation with Libby after first telling the grand jury: " I don't know if I met with him. I remember meeting with Jennie [Libby's assistant]."
"Well then, today, Ms. Miller, you testified to his demeanor," Jeffress said. "You testified to very particular things he said during that meeting."
Growing irritated herself, Miller pointedly explained that her notes indicated that Libby mentioned that Wilson's wife worked at "the bureau" and that she remembered being initially confused about whether he meant the FBI or the CIA.
"Sir, having reviewed my notes, I have a distinct memory of it," she said.
Jeffress also played part of a videotaped interview that Miller gave to a television station explaining her memory lapse.
"People say, 'How could she have forgotten?' " Miller said on the clip. "It's really easy to forget details on a story you're not writing. I had not written about uranium in Niger. I had not written about Niger. I had not written about uranium. It didn't mean anything to me."
In a flashback to pretrial battles, court proceedings were halted temporarily late in the afternoon when Jeffress asked Miller to name any other sources from whom she recalled learning about Wilson or Plame. Miller won her release from jail by agreeing to testify after Libby personally released her from their confidentiality agreement and after Fitzgerald agreed to confine his questions to her discussions with Libby.
Miller's attorney, Robert S. Bennett, said Miller would object to broad questions from Jeffress about any other sources who gave her information about Wilson. He said there would be no relevance to the trial because "there are no other sources she can recollect dealing with [concerning] Mr. Wilson and Ms. Plame."
Fitzgerald argued that the defense was trying to "go fishing far afield," but Jeffress countered that the defense should be allowed to ask the questions in an attempt to damage Miller's credibility. U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton said he would rule on the matter this morning, but the judge indicated sympathy for journalists' interest in not disclosing sources, suggesting they should be asked only about any that are central to the case.
Staff researchers Julie Tate and Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.