Judy Miller's fumbling with the tape recorder. It's not even her tape recorder.
"This is off the record," she's saying, her voice high and nasal. She's groping for a button to stop the tape, to take us behind that cozy curtain called "off the record" where you can dish, spin, vent, manipulate, and all in secret.
Miller's good at it. This is her world.
So here we are last week in a SoHo brasserie called Balthazar, where a parade of Judys appears. Outraged Judy. Saddened Judy. Charming Judy. Wise Judy. Conspiratorial Judy. Judy, the star New York Times reporter turned beleaguered victim of the gossipmongers and some journalists who have made her "sick to death of the regurgitation of lies and easily checkable falsehoods." That's why she's agreed to talk.
But her Treo's vibrating on her hip. It's a friend calling. "My fan club from Paris," she chirps into the phone, in English, before switching to a mix of French and Arabic.
It goes on like this for three hours. She answers questions -- or refuses. She turns the tables, asking about her interviewer's life. She takes calls. She grabs the tape recorder. She waxes eloquent, even in anger. At times, tears well up. There's something frantic about her -- not vulnerable, mind you, for that's the last thing she is.
"Oh. I've got to take this." She's reaching for the phone again. "It's my lawyer."
For weeks, she'd been in severance talks with the Times. And finally, yesterday, she and her employer of 28 years called it quits.
After all, how could she have remained at a newspaper where her boss, Executive Editor Bill Keller, seemed to have called her a liar and added the innuendo of the word "entanglement" to the lexicon of reporter-source relations? Where she's been vilified in print as a "Woman of Mass Destruction"? Where a lot of people think she used her journalism to help the Bush administration's case for war? Where colleagues were outraged to hear accusations that she abused her embedded status with an Army unit searching for those fabled weapons of mass destruction?
Well, Miller had -- before her resignation -- some pointed, mocking words for her many critics.
"I am so powerful and influential that I take over Army divisions? I run the New York Times newsroom single-handedly? And now I take the country to war? Wow! That must be one heck of a reporter. I've heard of pushy broads, but this brings the pushy broad to a new level."
Looking for the Truth
She is celebrated and scorned, both famous and infamous. A dogged reporter, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, author of four books, expert on terrorism, confidante of powerful government sources through several White House administrations -- and yet Miller's credibility came to rest on a single question: Does she tell the truth?
For a reporter, that question is devastating in the asking. But to her critics, it is a question long overdue.
Several of Miller's Times colleagues, interviewed before her resignation, expressed bitterness after years of watching her seem to slip-slide away from sanction for questionable behavior, like being too cozy with a particular point of view, being too close to her sources, all of which she denies.
And so Miller's emergence as a pivotal figure in a high government scandal seems, to her critics, a karmic comeuppance. As Miller's role in the CIA leak probe was revealed, a certain schadenfreude took hold in Times newsrooms both in New York and in Washington, which have been seething over the Miller saga.
In a special prosecutor's quest to find the culprit who leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame, Miller, 57, wound up spending 85 days in jail earlier this year rather than name the source who mentioned Plame's identity to her. She served time, she said, because she did not believe her source had sufficiently waived the confidentiality agreement between them.
It was all for the sake of the First Amendment rights of journalists, she says -- which prompted eyes to roll among some of her colleagues at the Times, who believe she really went to jail because she needed to resuscitate her professional image. Miller had been battered by earlier allegations of bias in support of the Bush administration's contention, since discredited, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. (She became so controversial, in fact, that in late 2003 the Times prohibited her from writing about WMD.)
"Anybody who thinks that I would have gone to jail as a career move doesn't know jail, doesn't know me." (But yes, she says, she did keep a jailhouse journal, just in case she decides to do a book.)
After her release from jail, she revealed to a federal grand jury what I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, then the vice president's chief of staff, had said to her about Plame in three conversations.
Shortly thereafter, on Oct. 28, Libby resigned after the grand jury indicted him for allegedly lying about several Plame-related conversations he'd had with reporters, including Miller.
Miller says she was hurt by Keller's suggestion that there was an "entanglement" between her and Libby.
"I had no personal, social or other relationship with him except as a source," she told the Times.
Now, Miller could become a witness for the prosecution at Libby's trial, which in a way could put her in the dock, too: as the journalist who became a lightning rod for all manner of criticism of the Bush administration, the war, the conduct of journalism.
Building a Reputation
"It's quite conceivable that some people really don't like me," Miller is saying. "That's okay. I don't like everybody. As Bill Safire said, I'm not Miss Congeniality. . . . I suppose people often feel slighted that I don't spend a lot of time schmoozing around the coffee cart, because if I'm talking to my colleagues, I'm not getting the story."
That had been Miller's main mission throughout her journalism career.
Her style is indeed "pushy," as she herself suggested. But would an aggressive, high-decibel male reporter be embroiled in all the controversy in which Miller finds herself? It is a question that some of her friends raise, for they believe that part of the invective swirling around Miller has to do with gender bias.
"A man is tough and hard-driving and a woman is a bitch," says Patricia Cohen, the Times theater editor (and former Washington Post staffer), who is a friend of Miller's.
Others say that Miller's troubles at the Times stemmed in part from poor management decisions about assignments.
For instance, Miller was promoted in the late 1980s to an editing job as deputy Washington bureau chief. And it was a disaster. She ran roughshod over staff so harshly that Max Frankel, then the paper's executive editor, said he "relieved her of that job."
"She was very anxiety-ridden and tough on a lot of people," he says.
(Miller concurs that the promotion was a mistake. "I was ill-suited for it. It's not me. I'm not good at managing other people.")
Frankel said Miller flourished, however, as the Times Cairo bureau chief and then a Paris correspondent.
"Judy made her early reputation as a reporter in the Middle East, where you don't work with many people," Frankel says. "You're out alone. You're running a bureau and you're traveling around and you're getting good interviews and lobbing good stories. And she was appreciated for those things."
Indeed, Miller had a large footprint throughout the Middle East in those years. She was on a first-name basis, for instance, with the late King Hussein of Jordan and once ended up in a tractor alone with Moammar Gaddafi of Libya at the wheel as she attempted to interview him.
Colleagues in the region recall her as hypercompetitive, sometimes disturbingly so.
Youssef M. Ibrahim, who was Middle East regional correspondent for the Times for 10 years beginning in 1986, says Miller tried to steal an interview he'd scheduled in the mid-1980s with Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Egyptian foreign ministry official who would later become United Nations secretary general.
As Ibrahim recalls it, Miller told him she was "intercepting" the Boutros-Ghali interview, that she had seniority, says Ibrahim, who left the Times in 1999.
They shouted at each other, he says. He is not even sure who hung up on whom. In the end, Ibrahim got his interview -- without Miller present.
"I'm glad he has such an exquisite memory," says Miller. "I don't even remember it. But reporters fight over stories. It is not shocking, at the New York Times or any other newspaper."
Adam Clymer, retired political correspondent for the Times, recalls an episode during the 1988 presidential campaign, when Miller was deputy Washington bureau chief.
Then the political editor based in New York, Clymer was awakened just after midnight one morning by a call from Miller, he says. She was demanding that a story about Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis be pulled from the paper.
The story was too soft, she complained -- and said Lee Atwater, the political strategist for Vice President George H.W. Bush, believed it was soft as well. Clymer said he was stunned to realize that Atwater apparently had either seen the story or been told about it before publication. He and Miller argued, he recalls, and he ultimately hung up on her, twice.
To Clymer, it was an indication of what he and others believe is Miller's main problem.
"She had gotten too close to her sources," he says.
But Miller denies the episode happened.
"I doubt I would have said that," she says sardonically, "because it wouldn't have been a winning argument."
Her former colleagues use all manner of adjectives to describe Miller, but there is consensus among some two dozen people interviewed that she is, indeed, a volatile person.
Volcanic might be the better word. She erupts. She is known to holler at newsroom clerks, to berate hotel staff while on the road, several colleagues said.
Even in her social life, she is known as a charming hostess at dinner parties with her husband, publishing icon Jason Epstein, a founder of the New York Review of Books -- except when there's an eruption and they start sniping at each other. The explosions pass quickly, and they return to their charming selves, says Leslie Gelb, an old friend of Miller's and a former Timesman who has dined at the Miller-Epstein home.
Miller attributes her explosiveness to her heritage -- a brew of Russian Jewish (her father's side) and Irish Catholic (her mother's).
"The thing they had in common was they were volatile," she says of Bill Miller and Mary Theresa Connolly.
And both were entertainers who wanted something different for their children.
Bill Miller, who died in 2002, once owned and operated a swank nightclub in the 1940s, called Bill Miller's Riviera, high on a cliff in Fort Lee, N.J., where Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and a young Sammy Davis Jr. played. Later, he was credited with invigorating the lounge acts at several Las Vegas hotels, bringing in Mae West, Louis Prima, Sonny and Cher and -- yes, even Elvis for a long run of sold-out shows.
Connolly had been a dancer in a club owned by Lou Walters (the father of Barbara Walters of ABC News), who introduced her to Bill Miller. The two married, and Judy Miller's childhood took her from Englewood, N.J., to Miami Beach to Vegas to Hollywood, where she studied drama at Hollywood High.
Judy Miller arrived in the nation's capital in 1972, at the age of 24, fresh from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, where she received a master's in economics, after her bachelor's degree from Barnard College. She had no prospects, just a hunger to be a journalist, she says, and quickly began reporting for National Public Radio and the Progressive.
That magazine hired her in 1973 as its Washington correspondent. Miller threw herself fully into the Washington milieu. She was ambitious. She was drawn to powerful people and powerful stories.
She developed a reputation as a strong reporter, and the Times, in the throes of a class action gender discrimination suit, hired Miller in 1977.
Gelb, then a national security writer at the Times, remembers Miller for her "frantic pursuit of stories," he says. "It was kind of endearingly frantic. She was just so driven to go get good stories, and she was working all the time."
She also was fully in the mix of the Washington social scene. Her relationships took on the aspect of legend, stirring controversy and gossip because of her romantic affairs with public officials.
Miller is outraged when asked about it.
"What male reporter would be asked about whom he went out with 25 years ago?" (Well, actually, lots, if the dates were public officials.)
First, she lived with Wisconsin Democrat Rep. Les Aspin. Their relationship was well known. They entertained friends together. (Aspin died of a stroke in 1995.)
Then, her relationship with Richard Burt, a Times colleague, turned controversial when he left the paper and joined the State Department. Burt declined to speak on the record for this article. News articles of that period say Burt's relationship with Miller was questioned during his Senate confirmation hearings as an assistant secretary of state in 1982 and, in 1989, as a chief U.S. arms control negotiator. Some senators wanted to know whether Burt had passed classified information to Miller during their relationship. Burt denied it.
Miller says neither Congress nor the State Department were her beats during those relationships. But they raised red flags nonetheless for Bill Kovach, who became the Times Washington bureau chief in 1979.
"There were regular stories about Judy Miller's tendency to get too close to sources and develop personal relationships," says Kovach, founding chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, a media ethics group. Any public official, to his thinking, is a potential source, which is why close relations with them should be shunned.
Kovach talked to Miller about respecting ethical boundaries, he says. He'd asked editors to watch her articles, to check for bias, and found them to be clear. Miller says she does not recall the conversation with Kovach.
In those days, as part of his training in a business he would one day run, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. also worked in the Times Washington bureau. In fact, he was part of the social set of young reporters that included Miller. Sulzberger and his wife shared a summer house on the Eastern Shore with Miller and a beau from the bureau, according to "The Trust," the 1999 book about the Sulzberger family.
Those days were long ago. But there is an abiding perception among some at the Times that Sulzberger, now the Times publisher, has been Miller's behind-the-scenes protector all these years.
Miller herself would not comment on that idea; Sulzberger's office did not respond to a reporter's inquiry.
"I never saw any evidence that he did protect her, but I am very much aware of editors believing they couldn't do much about her because they thought he was protecting her," Clymer says.
'Do You Know Judy Miller?'
As a Times reporter, Miller's reputation both preceded and lingered after her -- as a colleague discovered one day in 2001 when he was reporting at the Afghan foreign ministry in Kabul.
Officials there didn't speak great English, and there was much back and forth, until the reporter uttered the words "New York Times," which the officials understood. They started shouting at the reporter, "Do you know Judy Miller? Do you know Judy Miller?"
Turns out, these officials had been on the receiving end of Miller's aggressive reporting when she traveled in Afghanistan in search of al Qaeda training camps.
"This Judy Miller! She was so pushy and she was demanding and pressing us to take her to those al Qaeda camps but we couldn't go and she told us we were covering up" and on and on, the Afghanis yelled at Miller's amused colleague that day. And he was duly impressed. (He requested anonymity to avoid being drawn into the controversy.)
Even before the 9/11 terror attacks, Miller had been searching for terrorist training camps, for the three-part January 2001 series on al Qaeda, reported with Craig Pyes and written with Stephen Engelberg, that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize. And she has written books on the Holocaust, on Saddam Hussein, on the rise of radical Islam and on bioterror in her best-selling 2001 book "Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War," written with Engelberg and William Broad, another Times colleague.
People who have worked with her hold her work style in high regard, though they also are aware of her shortcomings in basic human relations.
Miller is a "24/7 operation," the kind of reporter who "would call at 10 in the evening wanting to tell you about an exciting interview she just had," says Engelberg, now managing editor at the Oregonian in Portland.
"She cultivates sources really assiduously," says Claudia Payne, a close Miller friend and also an editor on the al Qaeda series. "She has an incredible sense of decorum. Sources get greeting cards. They get little trinkets" like Times keychains and the like.
Miller says that after winning the Pulitzer, an editor (she won't say who) told her to "run amok," to bring in more great stories, more prize-winning stories.
That's what gave her the idea to call herself "Miss Run Amok." She says she meant it facetiously. She was quoted in the Times as telling a colleague the title meant "I can do whatever I want." She disputes that statement.
And she did it, this running amok, at the center of a major story of our time.
She was among the key journalists writing of the danger of Iraq's WMD in several articles that quoted Bush administration officials and made the case, now discredited, for the United States' war in Iraq. To be fair, Iraq's possession of WMD was the conventional wisdom of the pre-war period. The Washington Post was among the newspapers reporting that story.
But Miller's work stood out. She relied on a collection of Iraqi defectors whose information proved faulty and whose credibility in many cases was suspect. And during the war, when other newspeople and experts began realizing that the lack of evidence of Iraq's WMD was likely an indicator that there was no WMD, Miller held out longer and continued to write from the field as if they would be found any day.
In early 2003, as the war began, Miller was embedded with one of the U.S. Army teams whose sole task was to find a WMD. The unit was called Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, and Miller played a strangely involved role in it, according to Washington Post reports of that time.
She appeared to act as a liaison of sorts between the Army and Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, one of the exiles she had known for several years, and whose veracity on Iraq's weapons turned out to be suspect.
Several military personnel involved with the weapons hunt told The Washington Post two years ago that they felt Miller had virtually hijacked the team.
She was so invested in Alpha's progress that she wrote a threatening note to military public affairs officials to protest the team's redeployment orders.
"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," she wrote. The team was not redeployed.
A Sense of Mission
There is something about Miller -- something that seems like a crusade, a personal mission, against terror.
To her critics, she's an ideologue. She's often criticized as a neoconservative, because she seems to have bought a policy line from particular sources because of an ideological kinship.
Some point to Miller's relationship just after Sept. 11, 2001, with Benador Associates, a conservative speaker's bureau whose roster at that time included neoconservatives such as Richard Perle, a Reagan-era defense official. Miller says she was connected to Benador only briefly, and her one potential speaking engagement ultimately fell through.
As further evidence that Miller toes a particular line, some point to Laurie Mylroie, Miller's co-author in the 1990 book "Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf." Mylroie, a policy pundit, has argued that Iraq was connected to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and to the attacks of 2001.
Miller, when asked about this, says she does not agree with those theories.
"I am not a neoconservative," Miller says adamantly. She calls herself a centrist.
If she relied on any sources too strongly while covering WMD and the war, she says, it was because she had no reason to distrust them, because they had never lied to her or been wrong. She is talking, she says, about people in the Clinton administration as well as the current Bush administration.
But in her reporting, there was something else on which Miller relied as much, if not more: her personal belief in the danger that Saddam Hussein posed to the world.
It was personal, for she had been detained for a day by Hussein's security forces back in the 1980s, she says. And it was personal because, as she writes in her 1996 book on Islam, "God Has Ninety-Nine Names," an Iraqi source once told her "that I was on a very short list of writers who are considered the regime's 'eternal enemies.' "
No, she says, she wasn't just being fed information by sources.
"I had my own independent knowledge of Saddam Hussein. I was on record in 'Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf,' talking about this horrible regime and its use of chemical weapons against its own people. . . . I feared there was nothing he wouldn't do if he had access to such weapons. I was genuinely fearful of what he might do to American forces, to American installations in the Middle East and, if there was an al Qaeda link -- and I didn't know that and I never wrote that -- what he might do in the United States. My own reporting on Iraq made me fearful of Saddam Hussein."
And so fighting him, fighting his terror, became a passion. Fighting chemical and biological threats became a passion. Fighting al Qaeda became a passion.
As she speaks of 9/11's galvanizing impact, her voice rises.
"I hope to God that I'm wrong. I hope to God that not another American ever dies in a terrorist attack. But I would take no comfort. I would be heartsick to have to say I told you so.
"But I will make no apologies for my continuous commitment, my desire to pursue stories about threats to our country," she says emphatically, almost frantically, her crusading eyes brimming with tears.