October 19, 2005
Out of Jail and in Disrepute

By Debra Saunders

"We have everything to be proud of and nothing to apologize for," New York Times reporter Judith Miller told colleagues preparing a story on Miller's testimony before a federal grand jury probing a White House leak that targeted CIA employee Valerie Plame after her husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, wrote an op-ed piece critical of the Bush administration.

Sorry, but I wouldn't be proud of everything. For one thing, Miller's explanation -- as to why she agreed to testify, after serving 85 days behind bars for refusing to do so -- is fishy, and late in coming. Her source, Veep Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, had released her and other reporters from their confidentiality agreement earlier. Also, Miller should not have agreed to identify Libby as "a former Hill staffer" when he was a White House staffer. She wouldn't be the first journalist to conspire to mislead, but it was wrong.

Then, there's Miller's testimony that she "could not recall" who told her about "Valerie Flame." File that under: Hard to believe.

Her post-jail remarks especially disturb me because I believe Miller has been the journalism profession's unhappy scapegoat on the issue of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

"WMD -- I got it totally wrong," she admitted in the Times Sunday. "The analysts, the experts and the journalists who covered them -- we were all wrong. If your sources are wrong, you are wrong." In this case, Miller was hardly alone in believing Iraq had WMD. In 2002, CIA chief George Tenet had told President Bush that the issue was a "slam dunk."

Some critics talk as if it was an act of aberrant willfulness for Miller to buy what the CIA chief thought to be true. So they have taken out their knitting needles and are calling for her head. They want her fired. They want her investigated. They supported the feds when they jailed Miller for refusing to testify.

They've concocted a convenient rationale about why prosecutors should be allowed to force Miller to testify, in violation of her promise of confidentiality. That is: Confidentiality should only protect whistle-blowers and should not apply to high-up officials.

What they mean is: Promises of confidentiality should not apply to Bushies. Meanwhile, two years into special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation, it is not even remotely clear that a law was broken. The 1982 law requires that the CIA take "affirmative measures" to hide the identity of a covert operative. At this juncture, it is not clear that Plame was covert in 2003 or that Karl Rove or Libby knew she had been. Those distinctions are highly material, even if they are all but ignored by the Bush-haters.

What of The New York Times? The paper was overly slow to report this story -- and top editors look bad for not getting the whole story from Miller sooner. The Times also looked downright silly this year when it redubbed Plame as "Valerie Wilson" -- as it reported that Karl Rove told a reporter Wilson's wife worked for the CIA, without naming her.

Still, the Times was right to stand by the principle that journalists protect a promise of confidentiality. As New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller put it, "I hope that people will remember that this institution stood behind a reporter, and the principle, when it wasn't easy to do that, or popular to do that."

"Popular" is the key word here. The left, and many journalists, enjoy a conceit that, when journalistic controversies erupt, the right will be armed with pitchforks, while the left thoughtfully hashes out the finer distinctions. In this instance, the Bush-hating left has been ready to discard its principles in order to discredit a journalist who wrote stories it doesn't like. If they could jail her for her reporting, they would. And like Miller, they're proud of actions that calmer minds would not wish to broadcast.

Copyright 2005 Creators Syndicate

Debra Saunders

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