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N.Y. Times Editor Tells Staff of Regrets on Miller

October 22, 2005|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

In an unusual mea culpa e-mailed to his staff, New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller said Friday he should have been quicker to correct the newspaper's faulty stories on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and to question reporter Judith Miller's research on CIA operative Valerie Plame.

After strongly backing Miller for more than a year, the Times' top editor made it clear he now mistrusted Miller, the veteran reporter entangled in the federal investigation into the public unveiling of Plame, wife of former diplomat and Iraq war critic Joseph C. Wilson IV.

Keller said it now seemed apparent that Miller had misled the newspaper's Washington bureau chief when she initially denied talking to anyone in the White House about the case. "I missed what should have been significant alarm bells," Keller wrote in the e-mail to his staff.

The newspaper's Washington bureau chief had asked Miller whether she had been privy to any White House leaks and she had denied it, the Times reported a week ago.

"Judy seems to have misled [bureau chief] Phil Taubman about the extent of her involvement," Keller wrote in his e-mail. "This alone should have been enough to make me probe deeper."

The case has captivated Washington because of the possibility that Karl Rove, President Bush's deputy chief of staff and closest advisor, or vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby might be indicted in the unmasking of Plame. Her husband had disputed White House reports that Iraq had tried to obtain uranium for a nuclear weapon; observers speculate that the leak was in some way retaliative.

Also Friday, Associated Press reported that Miller initially did not disclose to prosecutors her first meeting with Libby and that she only produced key notes from the June 23, 2003, interview after prosecutors found a log of the meeting in Washington's Old Executive Office Building.

Miller's notes contained a reference to "Valerie Flame," which Miller insisted did not come from Libby.

With the federal grand jury's term to expire Friday, the results of Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's investigation are thought to be imminent.

Miller's role in the investigation is prominent because she was the only one of several Washington journalists who declined to testify -- going to jail for 85 days in order to protect her confidential source.

In September, she said she received a waiver from Libby to reveal that he was her source and to discuss their interactions.

Miller said she did not recall whether the Cheney aide had named Plame. It can be a federal violation to reveal the identity of a CIA operative.

Support for the controversial Miller had already been tepid inside her newspaper, even before the Times ran a lengthy story last weekend showing Miller's accounts at odds with others, including those of Taubman and Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson.

In his e-mail, Keller said that as soon as Miller was called to testify more than a year ago, he should have "sat her down for a thorough debriefing, and followed up with some reporting of my own."

Keller's e-mail also expressed his regrets about another New York Times controversy: faulty prewar reporting on Iraq, much of it by Miller, contending that Iraq bristled with weapons of mass destruction. A May 2004 editors' note -- a year after Keller took the helm at the paper -- acknowledged those lapses.

His e-mail Friday said: "By waiting a year to own up to our own mistakes, we allowed the anger inside and outside the paper to fester. Worse, we fear, we fostered an impression that the Times put a higher premium on protecting its reporters than on coming clean with its readers."

Keller said he waited so long because he took charge of the Times as it was trying to move beyond the scandal over the fabricated reporting of Jayson Blair and he didn't want to attack predecessors forced out by the Blair scandal.

"The paper had just been through a major trauma ... and needed to regain its equilibrium," Keller wrote.

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