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New York Times Story on Leak Raises Questions

An article meant to clarify coverage of the Valerie Plame case has prompted concern over a veteran reporter and the paper's leadership.

October 18, 2005|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

A story published by the New York Times on Sunday to clarify its coverage of the Valerie Plame leak case has instead raised a series of new questions and complaints about veteran reporter Judith Miller and her supervisors in the long-running controversy.

Critics inside the paper and in the wider journalism community said Monday that they found particularly disturbing the revelation that the newspaper's editors seemed unable to control Miller and that the reporter agreed to use a misleading identification to shield the identity of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff.

The Pentagon also raised doubts about Miller's contention that she had a special security clearance that allowed her to report on the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Some critics were particularly harsh, noting that the 57-year-old Miller's work had been questioned before.

Her editors had pulled her off coverage of Iraq and weapons issues in 2003 and later ran an unusual editors' note admitting that they could no longer stand by six stories about weapons of mass destruction, or WMD -- including five that Miller wrote or co-wrote.

"I don't know why she was allowed to do all these things and where the people were who were supposed to manage her," said one Times reporter, who asked not to be named out of concern of antagonizing the paper's editors.

Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review, was even more pointed in a criticism published Monday in the trade publication's online edition.

"Most disturbing is the sense that the Times at times is a ship without a skipper or, better yet, an asylum run by the inmates," Rieder wrote. "Strong leadership and editorial oversight seem hard to come by."

The reactions followed the Times' Sunday story and an accompanying first-person account by Miller about her four hours of testimony before a federal grand jury.

The panel, directed by special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald, is expected to decide by Oct. 28 whether Libby or any other official will be indicted for revealing the identity of Plame, a covert CIA operative. The investigation is focused on determining whether Plame was exposed in retaliation for her husband's attacks on the Bush administration's Iraq policies.

In a memo to his staff Monday, Times Executive Editor Bill Keller praised his paper's 5,000-plus-word account of Miller's reporting about Plame. He called the story a "fine, rigorous piece of journalism."

But the editor proved prescient when he added that "it's too early to hope" that the controversy over Miller's role in the Plame case would go away.

Colleagues noted with concern how Miller and her supervisors frequently came into conflict over the Plame case.

In one instance, Miller denied to the paper's Washington bureau chief that anyone in the Bush administration had discussed Plame with her. (She later publicly acknowledged discussing Plame with Libby.)

In another case, Miller said she had proposed writing a story about Plame -- something that another of her supervisors did not recall. Finally, Keller conceded that Miller had returned to coverage of national security issues, even after he had ordered her off the topic.

Not all of the staffers who gathered to discuss the case in the Times Washington bureau Monday morning criticized Miller. Some said she still deserved support for going to jail to protect the identity of a confidential source.

Miller's attorney, Floyd Abrams, said in an interview that "piling on" by critics ignored Miller's 85 days behind bars, which ended when Libby freed her late last month from a confidentiality agreement and she testified before the grand jury.

"It seems to me one thing to criticize her for certain errors in particular coverage, but it's deeply disturbing to see so many journalists ignore or discount the significant 1st Amendment battle she has just engaged in," Abrams said.

But some of her colleagues and others said her relationship with Libby appeared too cozy.

They noted that Miller told how Libby asked her for an autographed copy of her book on biological weapons. And they were upset that Miller agreed to Libby's request to be identified as "a former Hill staffer" instead of "a senior administration official." Miller wrote no stories about the Plame matter.

Such an identification would have allowed Libby to take potshots at Plame without identifying the true source of the attacks.

New York Times policy states: "The Times is truthful. We do not dissemble about our sources."

Daniel Okrent, public editor of the Times until May, said he would not comment directly on Sunday's report. But he said the paper's policy made the importance of precise attribution clear.

"What obviously this wouldn't have done is tell the reader anything about motivation," Okrent said in an interview. "And identification of anonymous sources is all about telling the readers as much as you can about the motivation of the person speaking."

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