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Reporter's Strength May Also Be Her Weakness

With friends in high places, the New York Times' Judith Miller has sources galore -- but she may have trusted them too much.

October 23, 2005|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

Among the string of prominent and powerful Washingtonians who traipsed through the Alexandria Detention Center to visit New York Times reporter Judith Miller this summer was former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig.

Danzig, who is now a Defense Department bioterrorism consultant, had come to the lockup to offer the embattled journalist comfort and support. Yet he came away from the 30-minute conversation feeling as energized and impressed as he had in many previous meetings with the star reporter.

Danzig described the chat, via phones through a plexiglass divider, as "wonderful." He said it reminded him of many other encounters over a decade with his friend Miller.

"I always used her as a source of information," he said, "almost as much as she used me."

Danzig's words and the jailhouse pilgrimages of a slew of other heavy hitters -- including U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton, retired Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and former White House counter-terrorism chief Richard A. Clarke -- give a hint of how Miller maintained her prominence for nearly 30 years at one of America's best newspapers.

Many in Washington's power elite saw in Miller a kindred spirit: someone passionate about international relations and terrorism, always ready to argue out the latest threat assessment or to gossip about Middle Eastern potentates she knew on a first-name basis.

The tireless 57-year-old reporter helped Washington politicians and diplomats quench their passion for information.

And they returned the favor -- offering morsels that she then turned into front-page exclusives.

But Miller's perch in the American press has grown increasingly shaky in recent days, with attacks from outside and within the New York Times. One media commentator said Miller should be fired for "journalistic malpractice" for her work in the Valerie Plame leak case. And New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller signaled waning support for the reporter he had recently hailed as a 1st Amendment champion, sending a note to his staff Friday that questioned Miller's truthfulness.

A few remain solidly with her, including the California First Amendment Coalition, which chastised journalists for abandoning a woman who went to jail for 85 days to protect a confidential source (vice presidential Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby). One friend said Miller had fallen victim to a typical Washington "feeding frenzy," in which the victim's best qualities are forgotten in a rush to judgment.

Her fate at the newspaper may be determined when Keller returns from a two-week trip to visit Times correspondents in the Far East.

It has been a major comedown for the woman who helped lead her newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting, with stories before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that described the danger of Al Qaeda.

A number of colleagues believe that, as with many dynamic people, Miller's strength was her weakness. She could land big sources with the best of them. But she didn't always work as hard to corroborate tips funneled her way, they said. Or as Maureen Dowd, the paper's acerbic columnist, wrote Saturday in a broadside against Miller: "Investigative reporting is not stenography."

The Times conceded such a problem in an unusual editors' note in May 2004 that said the newspaper had inadequately vetted a series of stories, mostly written by Miller (although the note did not name her), on weapons of mass destruction purportedly stockpiled by Iraq.

Times top editors found her difficult to control, her ability to ingratiate herself with those in charge extending inside the Times newsroom and hampering efforts to rein in her zealous -- or overzealous -- reporting.

After the prize-winning Al Qaeda series, then-Executive Editor Howell Raines (later forced out by the scandal over fabrications by reporter Jayson Blair) reportedly urged Miller to "go win [another] Pulitzer."

That directive made her even bolder, colleagues said.

Douglas Frantz, then Miller's boss as investigative editor -- and more recently a Los Angeles Times reporter who this month was named an L.A. Times managing editor -- said he and then-Foreign Editor Roger Cohen were undercut when their doubts led them to delay publishing several of Miller's stories on weapons of mass destruction.

After Miller complained, the New York Times' then-Managing Editor Gerald Boyd instructed the lower-ranking editors to get out of the star reporter's way, according to Frantz.

"Judy Miller is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter," Frantz recalled Boyd telling him, "and your job is to get her stories into the paper."

Frantz said that despite that admonition, he blocked a Miller story about claims of 1,000 weapons sites in Iraq and also a profile of exile leader Ahmad Chalabi, a source of many of the overblown weapons reports.

Boyd could not be reached for comment.

Miller's career at the Times has long been characterized by hard work, a zeal for issues and, especially, an ability to gain access to those in power.

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