New York Times reporter Judith Miller answered questions yesterday about a previously undisclosed conversation she had with Vice President Cheney's chief of staff in June 2003 and is scheduled to testify before a grand jury today to answer more questions in the investigation of how a covert CIA operative's identity was leaked to reporters.
Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who has indicated he is nearing a decision about whether to charge anyone in the case, questioned Miller about notes she said she discovered last week involving a June 23, 2003, conversation with Cheney's top aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, according to a source familiar with Miller's account.
According to the source, the notes reveal that the two discussed Bush administration critic and former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV about three weeks before the name of Wilson's wife, covert CIA operative Valerie Plame, appeared in a syndicated column written by Robert D. Novak.
The publication of Plame's identity ultimately led to Fitzgerald's investigation of whether Plame's name was illegally leaked by administration officials in retaliation for Wilson's public criticism of the administration.
One source close to Miller said it appears that the notes were Fitzgerald's first indication that Miller and Libby had spoken in June.
Last year, Fitzgerald subpoenaed Miller's notes for discussions she had with Libby from July 6 to July 13 but included no mention of June, the source said. Previously, Fitzgerald was focused on a July 8 breakfast meeting Miller had with Libby and a phone call they had on July 12 or 13. Miller was questioned by the grand jury last month after spending 85 days in jail for initially refusing to testify about her conversations with Libby.
Libby's attorney, Joseph Tate, did not return calls yesterday seeking a comment on the implications of the notes and the conversation with Miller. Fitzgerald's office declined to comment, but New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller said in an e-mail to the newspaper's staff that Miller would appear before the grand jury today, delaying the newspaper's promised report about her evidence in the probe because she faces the threat of contempt of court until she finishes testifying.
"Judy has talked to our reporters already about her legal battle, but the story is incomplete until we know as much as we can about the substance of her evidence, and she is under legal advice not to discuss that until her testimony is completed. This may be frustrating to our armchair critics," Keller wrote.
Numerous lawyers involved in the 22-month investigation said they are bracing for Fitzgerald to bring criminal charges against administration officials. They speculated, based on his questions, that he may be focused on charges of false statements, obstruction of justice or violations of the Espionage Act involving the release of classified government information to unauthorized persons. The grand jury's term is to expire Oct. 28.
"This is not a guy who would walk away with nothing," said one lawyer involved in the case.
Libby and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove have both testified that they mentioned Wilson's wife to reporters during the summer of 2003 but did not reveal her name or her covert status, according to sources.
After Miller testified before the grand jury Sept. 30, a source close to Miller said, Fitzgerald and her attorney urged her to go back through her old notes and turn over any that involved Libby or would be relevant to the case, the source said.
A June 2003 conversation about Wilson between Miller and Libby occurred at a time of growing White House concern about the former ambassador after a May 6 column in the New York Times and a June 12 article in The Washington Post. Without using Wilson's name, the reports drew attention to a CIA-sponsored mission that found no evidence for a Bush administration claim used to justify war with Iraq: that Iraq was trying to purchase uranium in Niger for use in developing nuclear weapons. The CIA had sent Wilson to Niger to investigate the claim.
Some legal sources are focused on their clients' exposure under the broad language of the Espionage Act. They say a prosecutor could argue that any official or private citizen committed a felony by transferring classified information about Plame to reporters.
But veteran defense lawyer Plato Cacheris, who represents a former Pentagon policy analyst who pleaded guilty last week to violating that portion of the act in a separate case, said using it for contacts with reporters would be "stretching it to something the statute didn't intend."
Staff writer Jim VandeHei contributed to this report.