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.
Weirdly, the Times’ own full-page article on October 16 about the Miller mess didn’t address how or why her key notebook had been suddenly discovered, or whom her source for Plame’s name might have been, if not Libby. But the piece was no whitewash. It rather shockingly depicts the infamous Judy Miller that media and political types have chattered about for decades, a supremely well-connected prima donna loathed by many of her colleagues, a loose cannon who recklessly disregards conventional boundaries—between fact and propaganda, friend and subject, friend and source, friend and boss, boyfriend and subject and source. (See Franklin Foer’s “The Source of the Trouble.”) And the Times piece portrays her as anti-collegial and pursuing a personal agenda to the bitter end: She gave two interviews to Times reporters but “generally would not discuss her interactions with editors, elaborate on the written account of her grand-jury testimony or allow reporters to review her notes.”
As soon as he became the paper’s editor in 2003, according to the article, Bill Keller pulled her off the Iraq and WMD beats, yet he says that “she kept kind of drifting on her own back into the national-security realm.” That fall, when the Times’ Washington bureau chief asked Miller if she was one of the journalists to whom White House officials had leaked Plame’s identity, she said no, not really. Miller claims that she had suggested early on that the Times do a story about the affair; managing editor Jill Abramson says that’s not true. The article discloses that the Washington bureau produced a story this summer about Libby and other Cheney aides’ role in the case—awkward—that got spiked. Abramson says she regrets “the entire thing”; Keller says he regrets his paper had to make a do-or-die First Amendment stand on someone with such “public baggage”; but their publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., says he had no regrets at all about the paper’s dozen pro-Judy editorials.
Poor Keller sincerely tried to do the right thing by backing the right of his reporter—even this compromised reporter—to honor her confidentiality agreements with sources. But the disconnect between the iffy, impure particulars of this case and the officially righteous Times line was always a problem and has now become more so.
And Miller’s martyred St. Judy of Journalism pose is galling. After Time reporter Matt Cooper decided in June to accept Rove’s gang-waiver of confidentiality at face value, Miller (and Keller and Sulzberger) seemed to relish the opportunity to portray Cooper and Time as corporatized pussies, traitors to the First Amendment cause. “If she is not willing to testify after 41 days [in jail],” Sulzberger’s editorial page declared, trying to tough-talk the prosecutor into giving up and letting her go free, “then she is not willing to testify.” Principled Judy … brave Judy … steadfast Judy … until two weeks later, when she caved—“I owed it to myself”—and ordered her lawyer to arrange for a personalized waiver from Libby.
And in her Times story about herself last week, she twists the facts so that she appears entirely principled and noble, saying only that Libby’s “letter and telephone call came last month”—miraculously came, she says, neglecting to mention that she had solicited them. She also brags of getting the prosecutor to agree that she would have to testify about none of her sources except Libby—a bit of a con, since she now says that while she can’t remember from whom she did learn Valerie Plame Wilson’s name, she’s sure it wasn’t Libby. (Her protectiveness toward him seems oddly extreme, well past professional square-dealing: For instance, she ventured to the prosecutor, if Libby did leak classified material to her, well, maybe he thought her special super-duper battlefield security clearance still applied in D.C.)
To recap: During the last two years, as Miller’s legal jeopardy made it impossible for her paper to report an important story without fear or favor, she has variously ignored and badly misled her editors. So now they simply can’t let her keep writing for the Times, certainly not about “threats to our country,” as she defined her beat last week in the paper. She’s got to go, and one way or the other surely will.
She’s no Jayson Blair, but the debacle into which she’s dragged the Times seems worse. Blair was a greenhorn psycho, a freak accident that happened to the paper. Miller is a Pulitzer Prize winner who’s been there 28 years, a bona fide member of the Hamptons-Manhattan-D.C. media elite, an old friend and former country-house roommate of Sulzberger’s. And her regrettable behavior aside, alas, there really is an important principle at stake—which is why last week, the day before she testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of a federal shield law, the Society of Professional Journalists gave her its First Amendment Award and a standing ovation. Her removal or containment will need to be finessed.
Unfortunately for Sulzberger, he can’t get at the root of this mess the way he did the previous one, by firing Howell Raines. It was Raines whose good intentions as executive editor (affirmative action, balls-out aggressiveness) enabled Blair to scam the paper as successfully as he did. And it was Raines, as Miller’s boss from 9/11 through the Iraqi Mission Accomplished moment, who enabled and encouraged her scoop-crazy excesses. As someone at the Times who has never disliked Raines or Miller explained it to me, “Howell untied her leash.”
The present crisis is an extension of the first crisis in another way as well. Blair resigned on May 1, 2003; Raines left on June 5, and it wasn’t until July that Keller succeeded him. One of Miller’s handlers, the investigations editor, had left the Times; another nominal boss, Abramson, then the Washington bureau chief, was at the center of the uprising against Raines. In other words, during the very period when free-ranging Judy Miller desperately needed adult supervision—when she was publishing another half-dozen exciting stories about the discovery of Iraqi WMDs, when she was having all her conversations with Libby et al. about Plame and Wilson—her senior management was entirely consumed by the Raines-Blair horror show.
The symmetry of Plamegate’s simultaneous damage to both lobes of the Establishment has a novelistic irony—the neoconservative Bush administration and the flagship of old-line liberalism are suffering disproportionately from the same, fundamentally trivial piece of Washington business-as-usual. What’s more, Arthur Sulzberger is sort of the George W. Bush of media. Both are the preppy baby-boom sons of distinguished, understated preppy fathers, Punch and Poppy, from whom they inherited their given names and positions of power. Both are big outdoor-exercise buffs, both are insecure but cocky, both have a bratty streak, both are prone to inappropriate jocularity. And each presides from within an insular management bubble.
Bush is also steadfastly loyal; if he won’t fire Donald Rumsfeld or (until they’re indicted) Rove or Libby, it’s a very good bet he’ll stick by his sorry pal Harriet Miers. Sulzberger seems slipperier, yuppier. Until the moment he told Raines to put on his Panama hat and get out, he supported him 100 percent. So even though he treated her to a massage and manicure and martini the night she left jail, we shouldn’t be surprised when his unwavering support of his sorry pal Judy Miller suddenly … ends.
This time, however, if he were determined once again to get rid of the most responsible senior executive, it would have to be the guy who hired Raines and encouraged his booyah, hoo-ha, no-brakes style. Whose tacit personal imprimatur Miller has always exploited. Who went way beyond the call of duty in casting a problematic reporter as the embodiment of press freedom. Who let Miller’s highly subjective readings of Libby’s legal scheming drive the legal strategy of the world’s greatest newspaper.
But Sulzberger is not going to fire himself. Indeed, he affects a kind of la-di-dah disregard for the whole horrible bungle. If Miller and the Times were going to cut a deal with the prosecutor in the end anyway, why didn’t they do it a year ago and spare their colleagues and the company and government all the agita and expense? “Maybe a deal was possible earlier. If so,” he says, with one excuuuuuse-me shrug trashing his argument that it had been all about defending a crystal-clear principle, “shame on us.”