A Star Reporter Fights Subpoena, and Criticism

Some applaud Judith Miller for protecting her sources, but question what they call her uncritical coverage of Iraq weapons programs.

From an American Bar Assn. conclave in Florida to the National Press Club in Washington, Judith Miller basks in acclaim.

A veteran national security reporter for the New York Times, she insists over and over that she rejects it, but the mantle is proffered nonetheless — 1st Amendment martyr.

Miller's audiences embrace her for facing down a special prosecutor and federal judges who have demanded that she reveal the identities of her confidential sources or face up to 18 months in prison for contempt.

"I am involved in a fight, a fight for my life right now," Miller, 57, said, "which is to stay out of jail and to continue to be able to function as a reporter. That has been an all-consuming fight."

Miller's path into the pantheon of journalism heroes might be unobstructed were it not for a second vein in her work that just won't go away. That is her reporting on Iraq, particularly in the months leading up to the war, which an array of critics have said uncritically trumpeted the notion that Saddam Hussein's regime possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.

Alternately acclaimed and derided — sometimes by the same audience, or even the same individual — Miller occupies a peculiar station in American journalism. The phenomenon was in evidence during her two-day visit to UC Berkeley this month.

"I applaud her willingness to go to jail to protect her sources, but this does feel a bit like part of Judy Miller's rehabilitation project," said Sandy Tolan, a Mideast expert and instructor at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. "Maybe that's because she keeps saying, 'I'm no martyr, I'm no martyr, I'm no martyr.' "

Fellow journalists have long found Miller fascinating.

When few other female reporters ventured to the patriarchal Middle East, she was on a first-name basis with sheiks and princes. Back home, she waged fierce turf wars with her colleagues at the hyper-competitive Times.

Before many others in the media, she warned about the threat from a shadowy group called Al Qaeda. And she joined several co-workers in winning a 2002 Pulitzer Prize for reporting on global terrorism.

Miller herself became the story last October, when a federal judge held her in contempt for refusing to divulge confidential sources to a special prosecutor.

The case sprang from a July 2003 report by syndicated columnist Robert Novak who identified Valerie Plame as a CIA operative. Some viewed the disclosure as a payback by the leaker because Plame's husband, retired American diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV, had contradicted President Bush's claim that Iraq had sought to obtain uranium for nuclear weapons.

Miller acknowledges gathering information about the Plame leak, but she never wrote a story about it. Nonetheless, she and Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper received subpoenas from special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald. Appointed in December 2003, he has been investigating the leak and deciding whether anyone should face felony charges for violating the federal law that prohibits revealing the identity of covert agents.

(Novak's status in the case remains a mystery; he has declined to comment on whether he was subpoenaed or testified.)

"So I would be going to jail for a story I didn't write, for reasons which I don't know, for something which may not actually have been a crime," Miller told the audience at Berkeley's Wheeler Auditorium. "It's become kind of Kafkaesque "

Guiding Miller through campus appearances was her friend Lowell Bergman, who invited her to the journalism school where he teaches investigative reporting. Also a reporter for the New York Times, Bergman earned his greatest acclaim as the "60 Minutes" producer who brought the story of tobacco industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand to television. (The story later became fodder for the 1999 movie "The Insider.")

Although Bergman introduced Miller as a stalwart defender of the 1st Amendment, some of his journalism school colleagues insisted that her controversial weapons reporting also be part of the agenda.

Bergman raised the subject in his one-on-one interview with Miller before an audience of about 200 and a camera crew from C-SPAN. But he didn't read any questions from the audience and, in the minds of a small gaggle of students, went too easy on his friend.

"I thought it was a little softball," one student told Bergman afterward. "You could have asked with more oomph."

The students promised they would change the tone the next day when Miller was the guest speaker at Bergman's class.

But Miller became uneasy when she learned the session would be opened to a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, according to journalism school officials. The school's dean, Orville Schell, briefly floated the idea of closing the classroom to all but students and faculty.

"I don't want her to spend an hour with the students and think that she can't be fully open and honest with them about all of the issues," Schell said. "But I also don't want to be a journalism school that says 'OK, journalists are not allowed.' "

In the ensuing 90-minute class, students asked about Miller's career and sources. The question on weapons of mass destruction arose when instructor Tolan singled out an April 2003 story under the Judith Miller byline.

The piece said a U.S. search team had located an Iraqi scientist who said Iraq had destroyed unconventional weapons "only days before the war began" — seemingly an explanation for the failure to find stockpiles of such weapons in Iraq. Miller acknowledged in the story that she was not permitted to interview the scientist and could only view him from a distance. He was wearing a baseball cap.

The New York Times last May acknowledged in an editors' note that it had "never followed up on the veracity of this source or the attempts to verify his claims." Miller, however, seemed unmoved when Tolan suggested that she had based her story on a "tenuous source."

She not only stood by the story but launched a broad defense of her reporting and said that the failure to find chemical, biological or nuclear weapons materials in Iraq had become a fixation.

Why hasn't there been more reporting, she asked, about the intelligence failures that led the U.S. and other governments to miscalculate Iraq's weapons capabilities? And what about the ongoing threat of unconventional weapons from other nations?

"It remains a dangerous world out there," Miller said. "We've kind of stopped focusing on the threat posed by others who are continuing to seek to acquire such weapons and, in the case of Al Qaeda, planning to use them if they can get them."

Last year, in its mea culpa for its reporting on Iraq's weapons, the New York Times said no one reporter or individual was responsible. But the newspaper conceded it had published stories that were "insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged."

Miller sent quite a different message at Berkeley.

When challenged about the 2003 story, she read a letter (previously published in the New York Times) from leaders of the U.S. military teams that she had been embedded with in Iraq. The statement by three Army officers, who had searched fruitlessly for unconventional weapons, said they were "firmly supportive" of Miller's reporting and strongly disagreed with the Times' critique.

By the end of the Berkeley visit, the strain of her double-profile showed. Miller smiled and demurred when a journalism professor called her stand for confidential sources heroic. She snapped back an angry denial when a Los Angeles Times reporter suggested she differed with her editors on the subject of weapons of mass destruction.

Bergman took Miller aside as she protested: "I did not need this. I really did not need this."

A few days later, Miller was off to London on another story. She would not disclose the topic. But she said she hoped to get one more major piece done before the jail sentence, long discussed, might become a reality.

"The thing about journalists is we are not soothsayers," she said. "And we are not omniscient. The answer to insufficient reporting is more reporting."

By James Rainey March 27, 2005

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