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Miller Time

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 31, 2007 11:16 AM

The last person Judith Miller probably wanted to see yesterday was me.

So as fate would have it, when I got to the federal courthouse yesterday morning for the Scooter Libby trial, I saw superlawyer Robert Bennett in the corridor and said hello, realizing a split-second later that Miller, his client, was walking alongside him. She quickly looked away.

And when her testimony ended and I emerged from the press room, who was walking toward me? I greeted Bennett again. Miller made no eye contact.

For the record, I have nothing against her. I admire her doggedness, especially in going to jail when it would have been easier to cut a deal, and feel some sympathy for what she got caught up in.

At the same time, I've always been amazed by what a lightning rod she is, not just for outside critics of her Iraq reporting but for many of her former colleagues at the New York Times.

What bothered me most was her refusal to answer questions when I was reporting stories involving her, only to complain afterward about what I had written. I expect that kind of behavior from stonewalling politicians, not journalists.

In 2003, I reported on Miller's spat with the Times's Baghdad bureau chief, who scolded her for writing about Iraqi exile leader Ahmad Chalabi after being notified that someone else would handle the assignment. "I've been covering Chalabi for about 10 years, and have done most of the stories about him for our paper, including the long takeout we recently did on him. He has provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper," Miller wrote in an e-mail.

Months later, I wrote about Miller's unusually forceful role while embedded with an Army unit looking for WMD. When the unit, Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, was ordered to withdraw, Miller wrote to two public affairs officers: "I see no reason for me to waste time (or MET Alpha, for that matter) in Talil. . . . I intend to write about this decision in the NY Times to send a successful team back home just as progress on WMD is being made."

Miller later challenged the pullback order with Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, then commander of the 101st Airborne, and on his advice to a subordinate, the withdrawal order was rescinded. Petraeus, you may recall, has just been put in charge of the Iraq war effort.

During this period, Miller filed such stories as "U.S. Aides Say Iraqi Truck Could be a Germ-War Lab," "Radioactive Material Found at a Test Site Near Baghdad" and "U.S. Analysts Link Iraqi Labs to Germ Arms." Some of her prewar stories, which turned out to be wrong, helped the Bush administration build its case against Saddam Hussein.

Well, all right, lots of journalists got the WMD story wrong, and I always felt that Miller attracted more than her share of abuse. When the Pulitzer Prize winner was facing jail for refusing to testify in the Libby case, I led one story by saying: "Judith Miller has her share of detractors in the news business, but almost everyone who takes notes for a living is rooting for her now."

That, of course, was before her messy breakup at the Times, where editor Bill Keller later concluded that Miller "seems to have misled" the paper about the extent of her involvement with Libby. Miller vigorously disputed this.

All of which is to say that while I may not be her favorite reporter, I was extremely interested in how she would handle her testimony under duress. Here's my report:

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 Eisenhower 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 co-authored. 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.

Here's how Miller's former newspaper called it:

"It was only after Mr. Fitzgerald briskly concluded his questioning, and Ms. Miller found herself facing a caustic cross-examination from one of Mr. Libby's defense lawyers, that her composure slowly withered. Under the questioning by the lawyer, William H. Jeffress Jr., who attacked her memory and credibility, she began to sigh frequently and grow testy in her responses."

National Review Editor Rich Lowry says the trial "could ruin Libby's life and Patrick Fitzgerald's reputation, and it already feels like a kind of relic. The rationale for Libby's trial steadily has evaporated since his indictment more than a year ago, but it still goes on. Fitzgerald has proved himself the most clich├ęd of Washington types -- the out-of-control special prosecutor. Such is human nature that almost no one has the strength to resist losing all sense of proportion once he has been loosed on the world as a special prosecutor, free to pursue any supposed violation of the law -- no matter how peripheral -- to the ends of the earth."

Fitzgerald's theory "that war-mongering, Bush-administration neocons were so furious that Joseph Wilson had written a July 2003 New York Times op-ed retrospectively criticizing their case for war that they embarked on a campaign of vengeance" later evaporated, says Lowry. "Unfortunately for this theory, the original leaker of Plame's identity was former Secretary of State Colin Powell's aide Richard Armitage. He was an internal enemy of the neocons, and he told columnist Bob Novak about Plame for innocent reasons."

Joe at Americablog is disgusted by D.C. journalists:

"The Libby trial has been fascinating and disturbing on many levels. Ari Fleischer and Cathie Martin have re-confirmed that practically the entire Washington press corps had been leaked the name of an undercover CIA operative for partisan political reasons. This was back in 2003. Yet, that entire Washington press corps dutifully reported the repeated denials from the White House -- including those from Bush -- about the leak. And, this same press corps helped push the 2004 campaign spin that Bush and Cheney would keep us safe and were stronger on national security. And, they also reported on the White House outrage over other leaks that would hurt national security. No wonder the White House had such disdain for the media. They were playing the press all the time -- and the press let it happen. The press corps should be ashamed. They enabled the Bush war machine, too. They were almost as bad as the Republicans on the Hill -- never asking questions, just doing what they were told. Pathetic."

Practically the entire Washington press corps? No one leaked it to me, and I'm feeling mightily left out.

Arianna Huffington is rather irritated at Ari Fleischer's testimony that he punted at one briefing about Libby and the leak:

"Does anyone in the press corps -- not to mention the planet -- not know that Tony Snow is still up there 'punting,' day in and day out? Why, then, do they still play the game? Why don't they call the punting what we all know it is: deliberate deception -- even . . . gasp . . . lying?

"The media's willingness to take punt after punt, and allow the administration to 'control' its 'message,' is part of what got us into this historically disastrous debacle, and what's still allowing Bush to punt this entire war down to the next president.

"It would be a lot harder for the administration to play games with the lives of other people's children if the press refused to play along."

Perhaps she is unaware that Clinton White House spokesmen also punted at briefings--and that journalists often point out when they're not getting straight answers?

Big media news: Dean Baquet, dumped by the L.A. Times for refusing to carry out Tribune-mandated budget cuts, is rejoining the New York Times as Washington bureau chief. I talk to the key players here.

Joe Klein defends David Broder over a WashPost column in which he criticized Hillary Clinton for speechifying instead of questioning the new Iraq war commander at a Senate hearing:

"I know it's become common practice to slag David Broder in the blogosphere. But let me say this in David's defense: he is not an armchair pundit. Even now, at the age of 236, or thereabouts, he goes out and really does his homework, riding the buses and hitting the living rooms of voters in the crucial states. If you've ever wondered why people like me revere Broder, it's his work ethic--and not just his kindness, civility, judiciousness and institutional memory. And given Broder's civility, it is really noteworthy when he hauls off and delivers a column like this about Hillary Clinton.

"I know that most of the media attention has been devoted to whether or not she told a joke on Bill and how she was received by Iowa voters, But I'm with Broder: her failure to ask General Petraeus a single question was a big mistake--especially given her level of knowledge about military matters and, especially, counterinsurgency. There were some terrific, pointed questions for her to ask, and I'm disappointed she didn't. That she chose to deliver a non-earth-shattering statement, rather than ask questions, had the feel of a strategy that had been game-planned by Hillaryland. In a way, I'm far more interested in the sort of questions she'll ask as president--especially after Incurious George--than in canned statements about the war."

Talking Point Memo's Greg Sargent strongly disagrees:

"At the hearing that Broder wrote about, lots and lots and lots of very important stuff was discussed. Different substantive points of view were offered about the single most important policy decision facing us right now. Clinton -- like many other Senators -- had lots of things to say about this very important decision.

"Yet Broder -- who inhabits some of the most powerful opinion-making real estate on the planet right now -- devoted an entire column about this hearing to nothing but a minor question of theatrics. Even assuming that this criticism of Clinton's performance is valid, this failing on her part is dwarfed in importance, to put it mildly, by some of the other rather pressing and complex issues that were discussed.

"What's more, Klein -- who likes to think of himself as a Man of Substance -- surely noticed that Broder didn't devote a single word of his column to analyzing what was actually being said about these issues by Hillary and others at the hearing."

Slate has launched an Obama Messiah Watch for fawning press coverage.

Here's the kicker to Alessandra Stanley's review of Sean Hannity and his new Fox program, "Hannity's America":

"The Bunny Ranch visit was the last straw. While Mr. Hannity, who attended Roman Catholic parochial school, interviews scantily clad prostitutes, ostensibly urging them to quit and go to law school, the camera slowly moves from prostitute to prostitute, lasciviously lingering over the one with the largest, most exposed breasts.

" 'Is it all about the money?' he asks one young woman. 'Yes,' she replies patiently. 'Any job is about the money.' "

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