Punchin' Judy

Photos by John HoThe day before The New York Times ran its long-awaited 5,000-word story explaining—as best it could—the Paper of Record's actions in the Valerie Plame case, its disgraced reporter/First Amendment hero (take your pick) Judith Miller was at Cal State Fullerton giving an award to Deep Throat.

How did that not get more play?

Throat couldn't be there—he's 92, and while not “ailing,” isn't as mobile as he once was—but Miller was, and her legendary attorney Floyd Abrams, and Throat's grandson, Nick Jones.

It was nice!

Except for Miller.

On the afternoon of Saturday, Oct. 15, in a drab meeting room in the Titan Student Union before a crowd of dozens, most past middle age, Abrams delivered the keynote address at the California First Amendment Coalition's 10th annual Open Government Assembly. Having represented both Miller and Time magazine's Matt Cooper in their negotiations with Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald (who may or may not be handing down indictments as early as Wednesday, to a rogues list that may or may not include Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney and Miller herself), Abrams spoke long and in low tones about state shield laws, many of them absolute, that protect journalists from having to reveal their sources.

“The argument,” he said, playing Devil's Advocate to explain the Left's howling criticisms of Miller, “is Mark Felt [Deep Throat] did good. He leaked the information and it helped the public. . . . This leak,” he said, referring to Miller's, “is a 'bad' leak and therefore should not be protected. The usual way a journalist has to deal with 'bad' leaks is to not publish them. And Judith Miller didn't publish anything.”

He noted that many on the Left see Miller as a Bush White House hornblower. He warned us that “we can't let this become a political matter. A lot of the response to Judith Miller is a reaction to her reporting on Iraq, to personal animus.” He was, he said, saddened by it.

But if there was personal animus before, the next day—Sunday, when the Times' account and her own odd one both published—it went nuclear.

Parsing Miller's writing on the subject of administration sources who leaked the identity of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame to at least six reporters in an apparent bid to smear her husband, who actually blew the whistle on the administration's phony Niger-uranium claims, it's breathtaking how much she's still keeping secret in the name of the people's right to know.

She acknowledged after 85 days in jail that Scooter Libby had spoken to her about Plame, but she didn't believe he was the source for the words “Valerie Flame” she'd written in her notebook. (Many of the principals in this saga seem to believe, or at least maintain they believe, that the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982 would remain unbroken if an actual first and last name—plus middle initial—wasn't bandied about.) And she just couldn't remember who that second “Flame” source might have been—even though Bob Novak's use of the name (and middle initial) in two columns a short time later had Washington all a-tempest—and meanwhile, she had received assurances from Fitzgerald she wouldn't be asked about anyone but Libby. She believed Libby was trying to influence her to testify untruthfully—but believed he really wanted her to testify (even though she would be contradicting his testimony), once she'd spent three months in the can. And she believed, most of all, that “we [The New York Times] have everything to be proud of, and nothing to apologize for.”

Tell that to her editors, to whom she lied when they asked her point-blank if she had been one of the reporters administration officials had called about Plame. She still hasn't allowed them to look at her notes. And tell that to every judge in the country, who's just been handed proof that if you lock a reporter up long enough, she will burn her sources, and then hail herself as a First Amendment hero once she breaks out.
Deep Throat's grandson
meets media.

“People who become whistleblowers are not automatically saints,” Miller said pointedly Saturday in a speech before bestowing Mark Felt's award on his handsome grandson. “And we should not insist that they be so. What counts is the truth and significance of what is being made known.”

We are increasingly criminalizing the dispersal of information, she continued, when “often such information is vital to the public.”

But probably not in this case.

The rest of her speech was devoted to the injustice of having had to spend 85 days in jail to protect Libby, and she seemed pretty pissed and more than a little self-congratulatory. She looked good, though. Much younger than 57, and very smiley until someone wanted to ask her anything. As she zoomed quickly out of the hall, she said shortly to a disheveled citizen-reporter type, “I really don't want to be interviewed right now.”

Her story the next day in the Times would (sort of) speak for itself. In a bizarre section, it revealed the cloak-and-dagger quality of the whole affair. In releasing her from her voice of silence, Libby wrote a letter to Miller—a letter that intrigued the federal prosecutor.

“Mr. Fitzgerald also focused on the letter's closing lines,” Miller wrote.

“'Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning,' Mr. Libby wrote. 'They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them.'

“How did I interpret that? Mr. Fitzgerald asked.

“In answer, I told the grand jury about my last encounter with Mr. Libby. It came in August 2003, shortly after I attended a conference on national security issues held in Aspen, Colo. After the conference, I traveled to Jackson Hole, Wyo. At a rodeo one afternoon, a man in jeans, a cowboy hat and sunglasses approached me. He asked me how the Aspen conference had gone. I had no idea who he was.

“'Judy,' he said. 'It's Scooter Libby.'”

It's so fabulous, it seems like it could have happened to Bob Burkett. (I, for one, still believe Rove gave Burkett the fake-but-accurate Texas Air National Guard files he forwarded to Dan Rather in the case that would end Rather's career, which would explain the difference between me and The New York Times.)
“I just flew in from New York
and boy is my story tired.”

Whatever one thinks of Scooter Libby, Karl Rove, Bob Novak or Miller herself, it's easy, as a reporter, to be swayed by Abrams. It feels wrong—overly partisan, perhaps, or reactionary—to disagree with him about the sanctity of sources. If one is trying to be ethically consistent, one would remind oneself that good and bad are highly subjective these days, and it's possible that for those who think the CIA was wrong to work to undermine the White House's case for the war in Iraq, then the White House's leak would be a good one! The ethically conscientious person wouldn't hold First Amendment privileges only for his side (i.e., bringing down the Nixon White House), but for those who disagree with him (i.e., Karl Rove) as well. Yay for leaks! Information wants to be free!

But Valerie Plame worked on tracking loose nukes and other WMD in dozens of countries around the world, and her cover—and that of everyone she'd ever worked with at her phony brass plate company—was blown for the most petty personal animus. The consistent person will remember that the administration has said the media has blood on its hands for even writing about events at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, and has refused to make public more photos and video, even in the face of a federal judge's order, while administration apologists refer to the Plame affair as “silly,” “unimportant” and “overblown.” Anyone who's taken Con Law will remember that the First Amendment doesn't apply to printing the sailing dates of ships; the case for a national security exemption to First Amendment rights could probably without much sweat extend to naming undercover operatives tracking weapons of mass destruction. Information only wants to be free when there's an administration critic to castrate, national security be damned.


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