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Reporter confronts her source

Judith Miller, jailed in 2005 for protecting Libby, testifies about three talks with Cheney's former aide.

January 31, 2007|Richard B. Schmitt and Greg Miller | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Testifying against a source she once went to jail to protect, former New York Times reporter Judith Miller said Tuesday that she had three discussions with former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby in which he told her that the wife of a Bush administration critic worked for the CIA.

Miller described one meeting with Libby that occurred a full two weeks before the time that Libby has told investigators he first learned about CIA operative Valerie Plame from another journalist.

The hourlong appearance by Miller -- who spent 85 days in jail rather than reveal her conversations with Libby to a federal grand jury two years ago -- was a blow to his defense.

Vice President Dick Cheney's onetime chief of staff is charged with lying about his conversations with Miller and two other prominent journalists in an effort to obstruct a federal investigation into how the identity of Plame became public. She is expected to be followed to the stand by former Time magazine White House correspondent Matthew Cooper and Tim Russert, the moderator of the NBC News program "Meet the Press."

The spectacle of reporters from three major news organizations becoming government witnesses in a criminal prosecution has been a source of dread for media advocates concerned that the legal precedent -- and glare of publicity -- could make it harder for reporters to gather and report the news from confidential sources.

And Miller, 59, was often on the defensive during a hard-edged cross-examination.

She is one of the trial's most compelling figures because of her high-profile role covering Iraq's alleged weapons programs, her extensive contacts with Libby, and the time she spent in an Alexandria, Va., jail for refusing to reveal his identity as her source.

Miller left the New York Times in 2005 and now works as a freelance journalist.

Her jailing became a media event but also raised questions about how far journalists should go in protecting their sources; essentially, she was refusing to blow Libby's cover -- even though Libby was blowing the cover of a CIA operative in their conversations together.

During Miller's stay in jail, Libby sent her a famously florid letter, urging her to cooperate with the investigation and resume her life. "Out west, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning," Libby wrote. "They turn in clusters because their roots connect them. Come back to work -- and life."

While Miller was on the stand, Libby spent much of the time directing a steady gaze her way, while she seemed intent on avoiding eye contact.

Miller, known for her combativeness as a reporter, displayed a different persona Tuesday: At one point she asked her attorney to bring her a handkerchief, which she used frequently to dab under her nose and around her eyes.

During her testimony, Miller described how she got to know Libby while co-authoring a book on germ warfare. She said that after she returned from Iraq in June 2003 to become a reporter in the New York Times' Washington bureau, she sought Libby out as a source for stories about why weapons of mass destruction were not found in Iraq.

Miller, who wrote numerous stories that proved to be wrong about Iraq's pursuit of banned weapons, talked about how stunned she was by the public anger after the Bush administration's assertions began to crumble. The anger, she said, "was directed everywhere, but especially at the administration, the media and me."

Around that time, newspapers were beginning to report about a CIA-sponsored trip that a then-anonymous former envoy -- Plame's husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV -- had taken to Niger in 2002 to assess claims that Iraq was seeking weapons-grade uranium.

Wilson wrote about his trip in a July 6, 2003, op-ed article in the New York Times that accused President Bush of misleading the public about the Iraqi interest in Africa in his January 2003 State of the Union address.

Plame was identified as a CIA officer eight days later in print by syndicated columnist Robert Novak, which triggered the probe into whether anyone had broken federal laws that make it a crime to reveal the identity of a covert agent.

On Tuesday, Miller recounted meeting Libby at his office on June 23, 2003, where she found him "really unhappy and irritated" by accusations that the White House had manipulated intelligence to make the case for war with Iraq.

"Mr. Libby appeared to me to be agitated and frustrated and angry," Miller said. "He is a very low-key and controlled guy. But he seemed annoyed." Miller said he seemed concerned that the CIA was engaged in "a perverted war of leaks" to distance itself from Iraqi intelligence claims.

She also recalled that Libby told her Wilson's wife worked for the "bureau" -- a reference she said she found puzzling because the term commonly refers to the FBI, not the CIA.

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