How apt that Steve Martin is being awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor this week of all weeks, in Washington, D.C., of all places. Because as I try to make sense of the rank, messy legal and ethical murk enveloping Times reporter Judith Miller and her paper and a pair of top White House aides, I am reminded of Martin’s old routine about the foolproof way to escape any legal trouble.
“What do I say to the tax man when he comes to my door and says, ‘You have never paid taxes’? Two simple words: ‘I forgot.’ How many times do we let ourselves get into terrible situations because we don’t say ‘I forgot’? Let’s say you’re on trial for armed robbery. You say to the judge, ‘I forgot armed robbery was illegal.’ Let’s suppose he says back to you, ‘You have committed a foul crime . . . and you say, “I forgot”?’ Two simple words: ‘Excuuuuuse me!’ ”
What was farce the first time has reappeared as tragedy.
Okay, maybe tragicomedy.
Two weeks ago, in his last of several testimonies to the federal grand jury investigating the leak of a covert CIA agent’s name, Karl Rove finally talked about a relevant conversation he’d had with a Time reporter in 2003, a conversation he said that he had (Whoops!) forgotten to tell investigators about earlier. And if Rove maybe might’ve could’ve possibly made any other “misstatements” to the president or the FBI or prosecutors, his lawyer said, the cause was just “faulty memories.” I forgot.
Similarly, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, was interviewed by Miller at the Old Executive Office Building weeks before the CIA agent was outed in 2003, yet until just the other day, Libby seemed to have (Whoops!) forgotten about that conversation.
But it’s Miller herself whose apologias strike every note of the Steve Martin super-asshole character—the insane dissembling, the extravagant self-regard and self-righteousness. A year after she was subpoenaed, she has now suddenly remembered (Whoops! Sorry!) that she had some notes from that earlier conversation with Libby—and the same mysteriously reappearing notebook also contained Valerie Plame Wilson’s (slightly misspelled) name. Eureka! Uhhh . . . no. According to Miller’s account last week in the Times of her grand-jury testimony, “I simply could not recall where that came from.” I forgot. And in the accompanying article about her mess, she even ventured an excuuuuuse-me punch line: “WMD,” she conceded airily. “I got it totally wrong.”
Soon the other shoe will drop, or not—the grand jury’s term ends on Friday, so we will know any day whether Patrick Fitzgerald, the untouchable special prosecutor, has decided to indict Libby or Rove or anyone else.
If you were wise or lucky enough to have ignored the convoluted details of the case until now, a quick Dummy’s Guide. In the months leading up to the war, Miller wrote a series of articles suggesting that the Bush administration’s most urgent case for invasion—that the Iraqis were pursuing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons—was correct. Indeed, because her vivid, terrifying pieces appeared in the liberal Times, she arguably bears more responsibility than any other American outside government for nudging public opinion in favor of war. A month into the invasion, embedded with a WMD-hunting team, she published a front-page article purporting to quote an Iraqi scientist that Saddam did have a biological-and-chemical arsenal but destroyed it right before the war, and she claimed the next day on the PBS NewsHour that her Army squad had found “something more than a smoking gun . . . a silver bullet.”
If only. Two months later, with no real WMD evidence unearthed in Iraq, she was back in Washington, conducting the first of several interviews with Cheney’s man Scooter Libby about Joseph Wilson, the former U.S. chargé d’affaires in Baghdad, and his wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, an undercover agent of the CIA branch in charge of monitoring WMDs. Two weeks later, Wilson published a Times op-ed piece arguing that the administration had exaggerated the Iraqi nuclear threat. Then his wife was identified as a CIA agent by the syndicated columnist Robert Novak, who attributed his information to White House officials apparently out to discredit her husband by casting him as part of a CIA scheme to shirk blame for bad prewar WMD intelligence.
By the year’s end, Fitzgerald had been appointed to investigate the leaks. Libby and Rove signed waivers granting all reporters to whom they’d spoken about Mr. or Mrs. Wilson permission to talk. But Miller refused to testify, professing to disbelieve the sincerity of Libby’s gang-waiver, and so she spent most of the summer in jail.