Sunday, October 16, 2005

Plamegate and American Journalism

Today the New York Times has published an enormous piece on the Judith Miller story, as seen from the paper’s vantage point, and a long piece by Miller herself explaining what she did. Together they are the most appalling commentary that I have ever seen about the state of American journalism—all the more so since the Times editors, much less their reporter, don’t seem to have any understanding of what they have done to their profession.

They are not, to be sure, solely responsible. For many decades, and perhaps for a century, two contradictory impulses have been at war among those who cover the government. The first, which stands for the function of a free press, is to expose the truth about what our government is doing; the second is to take advantage of relationships with high officials to print “inside stories” which may or may not reflect anything more than what that official wants us all to believe. But in the last thirty years the second has increasingly eclipsed the first. Since I am going to be focusing, and very critically, on Ms. Miller, let me begin with two other examples of this trend: the career of Bob Woodward, and the role of Michael Isikoff in the Lewinsky scandal.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein became national figures in 1972-3 by exposing the secrets of the Nixon Administration—secrets willingly leaked to them by lower-level figures in the Nixon campaign, and confirmed, as we know, by Mark Felt. They treated the higher officials of the Nixon Administration as officials should be treated—as adversaries. “Governments,” the late I. F. Stone liked to remark, “are run by liars,” and while that may be a slight exaggeration, the demands of governing almost always tempt those in charge to stretch, or deny, the truth. That, as Woodward and Bernstein eventually helped to prove, was what the Nixon Administration was doing.

Carl Bernstein left daily journalism not long after Watergate, and Bob Woodward’s career gradually took a very different turn. Instead of the intrepid investigator cultivating low-level sources to expose the higher-ups—like Drew Pearson, whose diaries from the years 1946-59 should be required reading for every aspiring journalist—he became the confidante of the powerful. As one after another of his best-sellers appeared, official Washington learned that if they told their stories to Bob Woodward, he would print them—as you told them. Since few wanted their side of the story left out, he got unprecedented access. But since his method favored those who would spend the most time with him and tell the most convincing stories, it will not be for many decades, when documents are opened up, that we can evaluate how much real information his books really provided.

Michael Isikoff became prominent covering the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. As he explained in his own book, he was brought into the conspiracy to trap the President into lying about that relationships under oath and forcing Monica Lewinsky to tell the truth about it before the story broke—a conspiracy involving Linda Tripp, Lucian Goldberg, and lawyers connected to, and in, Ken Starr’s office. This was, as he wrote, an attempt to bring down the President of the United States—but rather than report on it, he decided, in effect, to collaborate in it, because, I would guess, his sources were part of it.

And today, Judith Miller has provided an extensive account (although hardly a complete one) of her relationship with her source Scooter Libby, the Vice President’s Chief of Staff, and one of the key figures in the Administration in general and the decision to go to war in Iraq in particular. Although she does not go into the earlier part of the story at length, it seems clear that Libby fed her a steam of data on Saddam Hussein’s mythical weapons of mass destruction, leading her to write several stories endorsing the Administration’s estimate of the situation during the run-up to the war. (Had the Times held its fire and decided to rely more on sources like Hans Blix and Mohammed El-Baradei, who just won the Nobel Peace Prize, it might have painted quite a different picture.) And thus, in the spring of 2003, as American teams began to conclude that Saddam had not in fact had any weapons, both Libby and the Administration on the one hand, and Judith Miller and her editors on the other, faced a crisis. Libby obviously believed that he could count on Miller to continue to present his side of the story, because it had become her side of the story too. And thus, in a series of conversations, he told her to discount the significance of Joseph Wilson’s mission to Niger and claimed, in particular, that his boss the Vice President hadn’t known anything about it. And, in increasing desperation after Wilson began to leak the story himself, he decided to leak the information that Wilson’s wife was a CIA operative working on weapons.

Miller’s account of her conversations with Libby is remarkable for its ingenuousness. Even now that we know the Administration skewed the available intelligence (as Colin Powell has admitted), that it has put journalists on the payroll to support its policies and paid for phony television news reports, that we know Mr. Libby’s neoconservative allies at the Pentagon created a special office to generate its own intelligence about Iraq, and that the Administration refuses ever to acknowledge any negative information about itself, she doesn't speculate that Libby was trying to spin her, but simply quotes him to the effect that “miscommunication” between the White House and the CIA was responsible for the President’s reference to the uranium from Niger in a public speech. And then, after Novak’s column had revealed Valerie Plame’s identity and a firestorm resulted, it never, apparently, occurred to her to ask whether Libby had been trying to turn her into a co-conspirator in a criminal enterprise, the unmasking of a covert CIA operative.

Miller provides some evidence, by the way, that Libby knew he was flirting with illegality during his meetings with Miller, and not just with respect to Valerie Plame. On July 8, two days after Mr. Wilson went public in his op-ed, they had a two-hour breakfast meeting during which he claimed intelligence reports from 1999 and 2002 had indicated the uranium story was true. But it was also at that meeting that he asked her to refer to him as a “former Hill staffer” instead of a “senior administration official,” suggesting that he didn’t want to use the latter identity while making claims based, presumably, on classified information. Her account of Patrick Fitzgerald’s questioning of her shows that he was very interested in the role of classified information in the whole process.

From that day to this, Miller and the Times have hid behind the need for reporters to protect confidential sources. But what actually is behind that need? Reporters need to protect sources, of course, to be able to publish information the public needs to know. I do not see, however, how they can justify it based upon a need to receive disinformation from government sources, and the courts have actually ruled on numerous occasions that the privilege cannot be asserted to conceal evidence of a criminal enterprise. What possible purpose could be served by protecting a misleading source? Wouldn’t we all, indeed, be much better off if confidential sources knew they would be embarrassed before the world if they intentionally furnished inaccurate or misleading information? In today’s longer Times story, editor Bill Keller admits a little embarrassment on this point. “I wish it had been a clear-cut whistleblower case,” he says—surely a candidate for the understatement of the year, since it was actually a case of an attempt to discredit a whistleblower. Fortunately for the country, our legal system is relentless, and Patrick Fitzgerald, to judge from his actions, has not been fooled. He has seen the whole story for what it was—an attempt by the Administration to discredit a critic by suggesting that he was motivated by nepotism (a rather absurd accusation in any case), even at the cost of breaking the law by broadcasting to the world that his wife, whose name would surely not be difficult to establish, had worked as a CIA covert operative.

That, however, is not all. Ms. Miller has also provided us with an interesting tale of communications between Libby, Libby’s attorney, her attorney and herself over the last two years. To begin with, the Times story seems to indicate, although without actually saying so, that Mr. Libby was one of several White House staffers who around December 2003 signed waivers of confidentiality encouraging reporters to testify. (The story says he was one of those “asked” to do so; it doesn’t say definitely that he did.) But Ms. Miller didn’t accept this as permission to talk. Meanwhile, Floyd Abrams, Ms. Miller’s lawyer (whom the Times had retained for her), was meeting with Mr. Libby’s lawyer, Joseph Tate. Abrams reported the results of those conversations to the Times senior management. Tate, he said, encouraged Miller to testify, but added that Libby had already testified that he had never identified Valerie Plame or referred to her as an undercover operative. According to Abrams, when he refused to tell Tate what Miller would say if she testified, or to assure him that she would exonerate Libby. When Abrams refused to do so, Abrams says, Tate replied, “Don’t go there, or, we don’t want you there.” Tate violently denies this. One cannot help noting the parallel between this attempt to make sure the witness would follow the script and the Bush Administration’s whole approach to “news events” like town meetings or conversations with soldiers in Iraq, in which every step is taken to insure that the President only hears exactly what he wants to hear.

Both Ms. Miller and the Administration faced something of a crisis in the last couple of months, apparently, because some thought that Patrick Fitzgerald might empanel a new grand jury when the current one had to adjourn this month, and she might be in jail for another 18 months. While still in jail she received a letter from Mr. Libby encouraging her to testify. “Your reporting, and you, are missed,” he said. “The public report of every other reporter’s testimony makes clear that they did not discuss Ms. Plame’s name or identity with me,” Mr. Libby added. Miller’s notes make clear that Mr. Libby told her, roughly, who Wilson’s wife was and where she worked. And the letter concluded, equivocally, “Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them.” She declined to speculate, when Mr. Fitzgerald asked her before the Grand Jury what this might mean, as to whether Mr. Libby was asking if she wanted to be the only reporter showing different colors.

Ms. Miller’s story today shows pride in something else—that she persuaded Mr. Fitzgerald, or so she says, not to ask her about any source except Mr. Libby. Any other Administration official who tried to use her to discredit Joseph Wilson and/or reveal Valerie Plame’s identity is safe from her. But we now come to the climax of the story—the name “Valerie Flame” Here it is necessary to reproduce, for non-commercial use only, exactly what Ms. Miller said in today’s Times.

“I testified in Washington twice - most recently last Wednesday after finding a notebook in my office at The Times that contained my first interview with Mr. Libby. Mr. Fitzgerald told the grand jury that I was testifying as a witness and not as a subject or target of his inquiry.

“This account is based on what I remember of my meetings with Mr. Fitzgerald and my testimony before the grand jury. I testified for almost four hours, much of that time taken by Mr. Fitzgerald asking me to decipher and explain my notes of my interviews with Mr. Libby, which I had provided to him.

“I was not permitted to take notes of what I told the grand jury, and my interview notes on Mr. Libby are sketchy in places. It is also difficult, more than two years later, to parse the meaning and context of phrases, of underlining and of parentheses. On one page of my interview notes, for example, I wrote the name ‘Valerie Flame.’ Yet, as I told Mr. Fitzgerald, I simply could not recall where that came from, when I wrote it or why the name was misspelled.”

As a historian who makes his living interpreting documents, it seems to me reasonable to assume, absent any other explanation which only Ms. Miller could provide, that if the name “Valerie Flame” appears on a page of her notes of a conversation with Mr. Libby, then Mr. Libby gave it to her. This is, obviously, the smoking gun with respect to the question of whether Mr. Libby revealed the identity of a covert CIA operative; but she, a reporter, is refusing to fire it, taking refuge in a memory lapse.

Exactly what should be done about this is a difficult question, it seems to me, for Ms. Miller’s bosses. It reminds me a bit of President Truman’s relief of General MacArthur in April 1951. Truman took that step only after MacArthur committed several acts of public insubordination revealing that he did not know, or did not care, what his Commander-in-Chief’s policies were. But he might also have relieved him four or five months earlier, when the General, ordering a headlong advance of his forces to the Yalu River, discounted the evidence of Chinese intervention and allowed his troops to be surrounded, forcing them into a catastrophic retreat down the peninsula and throwing away everything that had up until that moment been gained. He might have been fired, in short, for simple military incompetence.

Confronted with her own notes of the critical conversation in the biggest story she has ever had, Judith Miller claims that she doesn’t remember how the key name got there. That seems to me to cast considerable doubt on her abilities as a reporter. It is not my place to suggest that she be fired, but she seems to need either a long rest or a new assignment, maybe to the sports desk or the police desk, where she can relearn the principles of her craft involving the recording and handling of basic facts. Meanwhile, she is apparently negotiating a book deal. Early reports said she had already secured a half-million dollar advance, but today’s paper says no agreement has been reached.

Certainly this whole case does present some difficult features. The courts have generally taken the position that merely revealing information stamped secret or top secret is not a crime unless the government can show that the release actually damaged national security. The law on revealing CIA identities assumes that such revelations do damage it, and that is not an unreasonable assumption. But whether Scooter Libby deserves to be punished merely for discussing classified intelligence estimates with a reporter is, to me, not at all obvious.

But meanwhile, the Times seems to have forgotten not only the purpose of protecting confidential sources, but also the reason we have a free press at all. And that was eloquently stated for the ages by Hugo Black, great man and great justice that he was, in his very last opinion of a distinguished career in the summer of 1971.

“In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government's power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly. In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam War, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do.”

That opinion, of course, was written to stop the government from preventing the publication of the Pentagon Papers. One of the plaintiffs in the case, as noted by Justice Black, was the New York Times.


Anonymous said...

Good analysis. You are right to mention Mike Isikoff and Bob Woodward.

Another Isikoff motive was his pending book deal. He knew that the bigger the scandal, the bigger the book sales. So he agreed in effect to become a player in the Starr investigation. More troubling, he made TV appearances praising Starr's integrity, all the while receiving illegal grand jury leaks from Starr's office. His relationship with Starr had turned into a quid pro quo relationship.

Woodward is an even more complicated example. He has been living off his Watergate reputation for 30 years. Nobody is asking what story he has broken since then. He keeps writing these insiderdom formula books where he portrays his sources favorably and trashes those who did not cooperate with him. Recent example of this is his book Bush at War. Even though he wrote it in the run up to the Iraq war it doesn't appear that he questioned anyone about the rationale for the war. Instead he simply took dictation from his powerful sources. In the book he brags about his access to high level sources including Bush. But what did this access get him? Not much. He got lots of trivia but his sources did not give him anything that mattered.

Kathy said...

Excellent commentary, David. Thank you.

I've linked to you in my blogosphere recap on this story.

Another ethical issue which your essay does not (yet) address is the Pentagon's graning Miller's a security clearance. In my opinion, this makes her even less likely to engage in critical analysis of government action. It puts her on the "inside" not the "outside" -- another example of "relationships" trumping truth-telling.

E85 Communications said...

The only problem with the analysis is that Libby's version of Wilson's trip was more accurate that what Wilson was leaking to Pincus and Kristof. In that case, Miller is correct in maintaining that Libby shouldn't be burned as a source.

As most folks covering this issue do, especially from Left of center, is ignore the fact that the bi-Partisan Senate Committee has demonstrated that it was Wilson that was knowingly spreading disinformation about his trip to Niger... so anyone who exposes this information as a source is worthy of source protection...

Anonymous said...

OK, I gotta disagree- the problem with the NYT is not that it doesn't uphold high standards, it is that it doesn't uphold low standards. You read a story in the NYT and it's either undependable, as there are no identified sources, or it's not news, just a general roundup of info you would find in the almanac.

It's the intellectual equivalent of what comes out of a rock crusher- there are no diamonds there.

And predictable! When you've learned the playbook for U.S. aggression, you can predict the stories that will appear in the NYT. When the Bushies cranked up the airraids in the no-fly zone and tried to prevent peace negotiations, you did not need a crystal ball to know that soon we would be forced to "defend ourselves" by invading.

The problem for the NYT is that it's a disposable interactive coffee-table ornament, not a newspaper. A story without a source is just a rumor, and printing it in Times New Roman doesn't make it any more interesting.

serial catowner