< Former New York Times Staffer Judith Miller


Friday, November 11, 2005

BOB GARFIELD: Leak investigations do indeed take their toll. Nobody knows that more than Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter jailed for contempt of court in the Valerie Plame leak investigation. She spent 85 days behind bars before getting the waiver she wanted from senior White House official Scooter Libby, whom she then identified as her hitherto anonymous source in the Plame affair. Adding insult to injury, Miller left jail only to be vilified for her pre-war stories about supposed Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, for her "Bigfoot" behavior at the Times, and for her professional conduct as a reporter. Much of the criticism stemmed from her own 3,000 word October article describing her conversations with Libby, who has since been indicted in the leak probe. The fallout culminated Wednesday with the announcement, following contentious negotiations, of her retirement from the New York Times. In a wide-ranging interview, which we excerpt here, Miller told us she did nothing improper in the leak affair. On the contrary, she maintains, she is a champion of journalistic principle.

JUDITH MILLER: Some people still felt that, you know, under no condition should I have testified. But you know what? I never felt that way. I never felt that our right not to testify was absolute. I always felt that there were exceptions to the privilege that we were claiming. Every journalist, in the absence of a federal shield law, has to decide what constitute a voluntary and explicit [CHUCKLES] waiver. And my standards, you know, I'm - I'm difficult. Everybody says that. My standards were just very high.

BOB GARFIELD: By your own retelling, in the New York Times, you said that you agreed in the conversations with Scooter Libby that you would identify him not as a "high White House official" but in fact as a "former [Capitol] Hill staffer," a technical truth. Now, it never showed up in the newspaper but you made an agreement with him to identify him that way.

JUDITH MILLER: No, I did not.

BOB GARFIELD: Am I correct?

JUDITH MILLER: No, you are wrong. I never agreed to identify Scooter Libby in print by that attribution. I only - I agreed to listen to what he had to say under that attribution. If I had ever used that information, I would have gone back to him, as I have done with other sources, and said, "You know, this attribution simply won't fly. Let's talk about an attribution which reflects who you really are but doesn't identify you."

BOB GARFIELD: You said to him, "Yes, I will listen to your story as a former Capitol Hill staffer," and then you let him tell you what he had to tell you. Correct?

JUDITH MILLER: Absolutely.

BOB GARFIELD: And then had you decided to print, then you would go back and try to get him to change the terms of the - [OVERTALK]

JUDITH MILLER: Not try to get him. He would either change the attribution or I wouldn't use the information, or I would go to somebody else for the information and get it confirmed, hopefully on the record, which is what happens all the time in Washington national security reporting.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, then forgive, please, the "do you still beat your wife" question, but if you had no intention of using that attribution that you negotiated, then why have the negotiation to begin with? I mean - [OVERTALK]

JUDITH MILLER: 'Cause I was interested in listening to what the man had to say.

BOB GARFIELD: So one promise you make to your source is so important that you'll go to jail to honor it but another is just a trick to get information.

JUDITH MILLER: No, it's not a trick. It's called reporting. [OVERTALK]

BOB GARFIELD: Doesn't that take the air out of your claim to be acting on principle?

JUDITH MILLER: Excuse me. You want to argue with me, fine. But that's the way that I conducted this interview and the way things unfolded. There was no story, so we'll never know whether you're right or I'm right, but there is one difference. Mr. Libby has never been identified in any way, shape, or form as anything other than an administration official in one of my stories. And moreover, in 28 years of journalism I have never, ever been accused by my paper of misattributing a source, not once.

BOB GARFIELD: Let's move away from the particulars of the Plame affair for a moment and sort of the other general allegations that have been made against you by outsiders and insiders at the Times. You've acknowledged that your WMD reporting in several material instances got it wrong, but you've also said that the story is only as good as its sources. Now - [OVERTALK]


BOB GARFIELD: - to put the question in plain language, Judy, were you played for a chump by these sources, Ahmed Chalabi in particular?

JUDITH MILLER: You know, first of all [LAUGHS] I - I'm not going to be insulted by your question, but I think that the sources that I relied on were reliable. They had been reliable in the past. I'm not going to discuss who they were, though many of them were actually identified by name in my stories. Moreover, those stories were heavily edited. They just didn't dance their way into the New York Times. As the editor's note acknowledged, everybody's wrong if your sources are wrong.

BOB GARFIELD: There is this kind of archetype in journalism of the State Department reporter who takes to smoking pipes and wearing tweed and the police reporter who puts lights in his car, and other reporters who become so associated with the beat that they're on that they cease to be distinguishable from the people they're actually covering. Were you so immersed in spooks that you sort of started seeing yourself as a spook yourself?

JUDITH MILLER: Oh, hardly. You know, I'm a journalist. Those lines don't get blurred. But yeah, I do hang out with sources. If I was hanging out with fellow journalists, I usually wasn't learning anything. If I was hanging out with, you know, national security policy wonks, I tended to learn something.

BOB GARFIELD: Is there nothing to the charge that you are so successful in getting to the corridors of power that you're at times unable to distinguish what is good information from manipulation?

JUDITH MILLER: You know, look at my record and look at the record of stories, and you'll see that about 90 percent of them are not only accurate but were front-page stories that have been widely praised. And I think that, you know, the record will answer that question.

BOB GARFIELD: But your record also includes a half dozen or so stories about weapons of mass destruction which - [OVERTALK]

JUDITH MILLER: A half dozen. How many stories do you think I've written over my 28-year career at the New York Times? We're talking about half a dozen stories out of a career of literally - [OVERTALK]

BOB GARFIELD: A half a dozen stories that - [BOTH AT ONCE]

JUDITH MILLER: - hundreds and hundreds of stories - [OVERLAPPING VOICES]

BOB GARFIELD: - at the moment in a buildup -

JUDITH MILLER: - many of which have won prizes. And, yeah, at times every reporter is going to get things wrong. I've already said I got WMD wrong. [LAUGHS] I've never said I'm a perfect reporter.

BOB GARFIELD: But under the circumstances, considering how critical the New York Times reporting on this subject was to the Administration's case for war, have you looked inwardly, amid all of this controversy, and said not only did I make mistakes, but I made egregious mistakes and this is really hard to live with? Just how comfortable are you with - [OVERTALK]

JUDITH MILLER: No. I have not - I have - [BOTH AT ONCE]

JUDITH MILLER: - your reporting?

JUDITH MILLER: Excuse me. Every time I make a mistake in a story, I go back and I look and I say to myself, "how did I get this wrong." I honestly believe that if you look at my stories, and very few people have even bothered to read them, you will see that the information that I was given was always vetted by outside independent experts -- did this make sense, was it possible, was it probable? I - I wish that people were more concerned about how the U.S. intelligence community, all of the agencies, got it so wrong.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, I'm glad you posed that question because it's true, they got that wrong. They got the Iranian revolution wrong. They got the fall of the Berlin Wall wrong, and understanding Soviet economy and military capability wrong. The U.S. intelligence apparatus has gotten a great number of things wrong, going back decades.


BOB GARFIELD: Which makes me wonder what greater degree of skepticism a reporter should apply to anything coming from these very sources.

JUDITH MILLER: I do think that there was a difference here. Like on the famous aluminum tube story that Michael Gordon and I wrote in the fall of 2002 leading up to the war, you know, the reason we thought that the Administration knew what it was talking about was that these tubes weren't kind of theoretical tubes or reports of tubes. These were tubes the CIA had. They had them in their possession. They were analyzing them. They were looking at them. They were touching them, feeling them, smelling them. And if they said these are tubes for a nuclear weapons program, my gosh, I thought, you know, this is a real thing. We did the best we could with the information we had available, and I was glad to see that another group of reporters went on and looked at that issue in greater depth. But it shows you how really broke the intelligence community system is. And am I skeptical? Yeah. You're right. Now I don't think I'm ever [LAUGHS] going to believe anything I'm told from the intelligence community, if it's not checked 15, 20 different ways, and even then there's still a possibility we'll get it wrong.

BOB GARFIELD: All right, Judy. Well, thank you very much for doing this.

JUDITH MILLER: Okay. Thank you.

BOB GARFIELD: Judy Miller is a former reporter for the New York Times.

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