Published on Thursday, October 13, 2005 by the Guardian/UK
Coverage of the Plame Affair has been Tainted by the Press's Cozy Duet with the White House
by Sidney Blumenthal
|From the steakhouses of the lobbyists to the cloakroom of the Senate, from the book-launch parties to the news bureau, the main subject in Washington is who will be indicted, and when. As the inquiry of independent counsel Patrick Fitzgerald into the leaking of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity approaches its deadline of October 28, the cast of characters appears for final performances before the grand jury. Trailing clouds of mystery, they disappear into the windowless chamber to emerge illuminating nothing. Fitzgerald's airtight office, leaking to no reporter, only fuels the fires of rumor by its silence.
The New York Times reporter Judith Miller has been summoned to the prosecutor's sanctum three times. Miller was the stovepipe for disinformation from the administration and Ahmed Chalabi (self-proclaimed "hero in error") about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction on to the front page of the Times in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. When a former ambassador, Joseph Wilson, disclosed in a New York Times article on July 6 2003, What I Didn't Find in Niger, that he went on a CIA mission before the war and debunked the tale that Saddam had sought enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, he exposed more than the falsity of the president's claim; his account was a blow to the credibility of Miller's stories. Ten months later the Times published an editor's note, saying that some of its coverage was "not as rigorous as it should have been". Miller's name went unmentioned.
Miller spent 85 days in prison for contempt of court, protecting the anonymity of the source already revealed for a story she never wrote that connected Wilson's mission with the role of his wife, Plame, as a CIA operative. Miller then extracted the fig leaf of a letter from that source, Vice-President Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis Libby, who reminded her he had given her a waiver a year ago. Frantically, she raced out of jail and before the grand jury. If she had not hastily flipped, she would have possibly faced indictment for criminal contempt and obstruction of justice.
The Times, unlike the Washington Post, NBC News and Time magazine, whose reporters all testified in the case, had decided Miller's fight was an essential defense of freedom of the press. Inevitably, her cause was deflated. Journalists are citizens, and they must testify if they witness crimes, according to the supreme court. Miller's adamantine martyrdom, with the full support of the Times, obliterated the customary privilege of reporters that had existed solely in deference to the now punctured status of the press. The Post's lawyers counseled cooperation, but the Times decided to accept Miller at her word, her refusal as a principled stand, and to force an issue it was destined to lose.
After her first appearance before the grand jury, Miller discovered notes of a conversation with Libby, having previously declared she had none. That conversation about Wilson took place on June 23 2003, two weeks before his article was published. Two people I have spoken to who visited Miller in prison report that she appeared convinced of her stance as press martyr. But rumor-plagued Washington has divided into two camps: was Miller a self-deluded dupe or co-conspirator?
The Times has subordinated its news coverage to her legal defense, withholding reporting on what she has told the grand jury, though it promises a full account. Will it include her colleagues' recollections of how livid she was that the Times published Wilson's article?
Unlike in Watergate, which was largely advanced by the press, this scandal has unfolded despite much of the press corps' efforts to avoid, demean or restrain the story. Also, unlike in Watergate, major influences in the press have been aligned with their sources in the administration, not with the professionals in the government acting as whistleblowers. Bob Woodward, who has written two books describing events from the perspective of the Bush administration, supported the White House version of the Niger incident by charging in July 2004: "There were reasonable grounds to discredit Wilson."
Even as Bush's popularity has crumbled, leading journalists have kept cheerleading for Karl Rove, who is also implicated in the affair, arguing that he will rescue Bush. Some prominent writers have received lucrative advances to write books extolling Rove's genius. Those panegyrics may take unexpected twists in the late chapters. This week Rove is scheduled to testify before the grand jury for the fourth time.
Inside the west wing the lowering atmosphere of dread is like that of Edgar Allan Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum: "Down - steadily down it crept."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005