Journalist Forced to Reveal Her Methods
Ex-New York Times Reporter Struggles In Libby Questioning

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Judith Miller slept on the floor of an Alexandria jail for 85 days to avoid taking the hot seat she found herself in yesterday.

She lost a battle of wills with a special prosecutor, surrendered her job at the New York Times and became an unwanted symbol of journalistic coziness with the Bush administration and media missteps in covering an unpopular war.

In taking the stand in U.S. District Court against her once-secret source, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Miller found herself answering questions about the very methods that she has spent a professional lifetime concealing. Rather than pointing out flaws in the accounts of public officials, she found herself struggling to explain a spotty memory and to justify why she wrote nothing about the sensitive -- and, as it turned out, classified -- information she had been handed. Once an independent operator who called herself "Miss Run Amok," she disputed what her many critics said was obvious: that Vice President Cheney's former top aide had been trying to manipulate her.

Throughout the afternoon, an unspoken question hung in the air: What do journalists give up when they agree to protect high officials in exchange for juicy information?

In a steady but slightly nervous voice, Miller described how her relationship with Libby began: with a bit of flattery. In their first meeting in the Old Executive Office Building, Miller recalled Libby saying that "he liked my reporting on weapons of mass destruction and terrorism." Libby's only quibble was that he had never received an inscribed copy of "Germs," a book on bioterrorism that she coauthored. Miller said she apologized for the oversight.

Gazing through rimless glasses at prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, Miller, 59, described one of the most common transactions in journalism: how the contours of the reporter-source relationship are defined.

When she "expressed a desire" for regular conversations, Libby said "he would prefer not to see his name in print," Miller said. "We could continue meeting as long as I would identify him as an administration official or senior administration official." She readily agreed.

When Miller returned from a post-invasion trip to Iraq in 2003 -- where she wrote stories about the U.S. military's hunt for illegal weapons -- she said she was surprised that some of the public anger about the lack of WMD was directed at her. There was anger, too, at the Times, which later acknowledged serious flaws in some of her reporting and where the top editor eventually said he felt misled by Miller.

She seemed unenthusiastic about her former employer when asked whether she read newspapers upon her return -- especially the New York Times. "Not particularly," she said. "You usually read the competition before you read your own."

At a meeting in Libby's office in June 2003, Libby seemed "agitated and frustrated and angry," not to mention "annoyed," Miller said. He was concerned that the CIA, through a "perverted war of leaks," was distancing itself from its prewar intelligence about Saddam Hussein's illegal weapons.

So Libby would combat these leaks by leaking to Miller, she explained in a tone that indicated this was the most natural thing in the world. Miller said he told her that the wife of Joseph C. Wilson IV, the former ambassador who was challenging the administration's account that Iraq had tried to buy enriched uranium in Africa, worked for "the bureau" -- prompting Miller to put a question mark in her notes until she realized that Libby meant the CIA.

During a two-hour meal at the St. Regis hotel the following month, Miller said, Libby changed the ground rules and went "on deeper background," asking to be identified only as a "former Hill staffer."

Miller recalled that in a phone conversation from her home in Sag Harbor, N.Y., she told him she did not plan to write a story about Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, and "didn't think the New York Times was interested in pursuing it."

Why not? That has been one of the tale's lingering mysteries. Miller said she recommended to her boss, Jill Abramson, now the Times's managing editor, that the paper go after the Plame story, but "she seemed very distracted that day" and just said "mmm-hmm." Abramson has denied that Miller made such a recommendation.

They may have shared secrets, but Miller and Libby were not exactly friends. When she ran into Libby in the summer of 2003 in Jackson Hole, Wyo., she did not recognize him -- because, she said, he was wearing glasses, a cowboy hat and boots, a black T-shirt and jeans. But once she was incarcerated in 2005, Libby began to convince Miller that he would not hold her to her vow of secrecy. He wrote a poetic letter reminding her that "the aspens will already be turning" while she languished in jail.

After the Plame controversy blew up, Miller posted a letter on her Web site in response to a stinging piece by Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who said that Miller was not "credible" and had written "bogus" stories about nonexistent weapons. Recalling that yesterday, Miller said she told editors that "I did not think I had been a target" of a concerted White House leak campaign.

Miller turned hesitant under cross-examination, stumbling over her words and repeatedly gesturing with her right hand. She admitted that she had forgotten her June 2003 meeting with Libby until she found the missing notes of their conversation.

A frequent television guest, Miller got tripped up by one of her appearances. She stared at a monitor, transfixed and tight-lipped, as a program from last January showed her saying words that she had failed to fully recall a moment earlier: "It's really easy to forget details about a story you're not writing. . . . It was not important at the time."

The videotape provided another reminder of why reporters much prefer asking questions to answering them.

The day ended with legal wrangling about whether Miller could be asked to name other confidential sources. The issue, like the ambiguity of reporters' delicate dance with their informants, was not resolved.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company