Tuesday, October 25, 2005

THE MILLER MATTER The Judith Miller controversy is a sideshow to the Plame saga. But it's an interesting and important sideshow.

But because the story has a number of moving parts, and because early on it got bifurcated by the media into two more or less separate narratives (Miller the First Amendment crusader; Miller the Plame leak figure) it can be easy to loose track of what we now know about Miller's role.

But we know a lot.

And while the elite media has given the story plenty of attention, the focus has been almost exclusively on the details--her encounters with Times editors; her evolving justifications for her behavior; the gaps in her story.

But mainstream reporters haven't dared to engage the most salient, big-picture question her conduct raises: Did Miller lie to Patrick Fitzgerald in an attempt to cover for Lewis Libby?

To see why this is an utterly reasonable question to ask, it's helpful to bring the two separate Miller narratives together, and to review her involvement in the Plame story chronologically, from the beginning of its legal phase.

(The following is based on the Times' lengthy dissection of the case, Judith Miller's personal account of her testimony and this shorter piece by Murray Waas posted on the website of the National Journal.)

1. Fall 2003: The Washington Post reports that "two top White House officials disclosed Plame's identity to at least six Washington journalists." Philip Taubman, Washington bureau chief of The New York Times asks Miller and other reporters whether they were among the six. Miller denies it.

2. August, 2004: Floyd Abrams, Miller's lawyer, tells his client that according to Joseph Tate, Lewis Libby's lawyer, she's free to testify. Tate also relays (via Abrams) that in his grand jury testimony, Libby has denied ever telling Miller the name or undercover status of Valerie Plame Wilson.

According to The Times: "[Miller] concluded that Mr. Tate was sending her a message that Mr. Libby did not want her to testify."

3. July 6, 2005: With the appeals process at an end, Judith Miller is jailed.

4. September 15, 2005: In a "folksy, conversational two-page letter," Libby tells Miller she's been free to testify about their conversations all along.

He also writes: "The public report of every other reporter's testimony makes clear that they did not discuss Ms. Plame's name or identity with me."

5. September 29, 2005: After lawyers advise her that her jail term might be extended beyond the end of the grand jury's term, Miller consents to testify and is released from jail.

6. September 30, 2005: In front of the grand jury, in response to questions about her contact with Libby, Miller testifies to having met with him on July 8, and to having discussed Joseph Wilson and his wife. She testifies to having discussed the same subject on a July 12 phone call with Libby--two days before Robert Novak's column on Plame was published. But in both instances she makes clear that she does not remember Libby having identified Plame by name.

These are the only contacts she mentions.

Asked by prosecutors about a June 23 meeting she may have had with Libby, she testifies that she cannot recall any such meeting.

Presented by prosecutors with White House visitation logs referencing a June 23 meeting, Miller concedes that such a meeting was "possible."

She testifies that she's not certain how the name "Valerie Flame" got into her notebook, but she's pretty sure Libby had nothing to do with it.

7. Early October, 2005: Miller "discovers" notes of the June 23, 2003 meeting which she had testified she couldn't recall.

8. October 12, 2005: With the aid of these notes, she's able to remember (according to the Times account) that on June 23, 2003: "Her assignment was to write an article about the failure to find unconventional weapons in Iraq. [But] Mr. Libby wanted to talk about a diplomat's fact-finding trip in 2002 to the African nation of Niger to determine whether Iraq sought uranium there."

In sum:

Miller lies to her editor to keep Libby's discussion of the Wilsons secret; she refuses to testify until the threat of indefinite incarceration becomes apparent; when she does testify, her original testimony conveniently leaves out the crucial June 23 meeting--the one which Libby also neglected to mention to the grand jury; and while she doesn't remember who provided her with the name "Valerie Flame" she's careful to discount the possibility that it could have been Libby.

Even after prosecutors have made it clear that they know about her the June 23 appointment with Libby, Miller's notes jog her memory in a way that does the least possible damage to him: She maintains that she can't recall him having mentioned Plame's name or her covert status.

Now: Surely, it doesn't take a cynic to note that, except when it puts her in personal legal jeopardy or contradicts what is publicly known, Miller's actions exculpate Libby (to the extent possible) at every step in this process.

And it doesn't take a skeptic to wonder whether Miller's been more interested--all along--in protecting Libby the person than she's been in meeting an impersonal, journalistic obligation not to reveal her sources.

There's no smoking gun, to be sure. But a pattern certainly does seem to exist.

And while the mainstream media has been oddly quiet about this dimension of the story, Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, of all people, comes closest to connecting the dots--in his letter to the Times staff:

If I had known the details of Judy's entanglement with Libby, I'd have been more careful in how the paper articulated its defense.
Keller isn't suggesting Libby and Miller were having an affair. Instead, he's insinuating, however delicately, that Miller may not have been playing it straight; that her allegiance to Libby may have gone beyond the usual loyalty of a reporter to her source.

Of course, there's a word for that kind of loyalty in the context of a criminal probe: It's called perjury.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.