by NICHOLAS LEMANN
How a leak became a scandal. Issue of 2005-11-07 Posted 2005-10-31
It’s probably safe to assume that nobody who participated in the outing of Valerie Plame Wilson as a C.I.A. agent, in the summer of 2003, was mindful that the result of the process—the publication of Wilson’s name in Robert Novak’s syndicated column—might be a federal crime. The law that makes it one was passed in 1982, in response to the murder of the C.I.A.’s station chief in Athens, Richard Welch, after the turncoat agent Philip Agee and his journalistic allies began publishing the names of covert agents. It has been successfully invoked only once, in 1985. The people involved in the Wilson affair were thus behaving as they would normally behave, and not as people cognizant of the possibility of criminal prosecution would behave. The Justice Department investigation, which began in the early fall of 2003, and which a special counsel, Patrick Fitzgerald, took over that December, last Friday produced the indictment on five charges, including perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements, of Lewis Libby, Vice-President Cheney’s chief of staff, who resigned. It has also exposed a particularly lightresistant aspect of the dealings between journalists and their sources in Washington.
When Novak published his column, on July 14, 2003, the aftermath of the military conquest of Iraq hadn’t become the disaster that it seems to be today. A distinct edge of disappointment had entered discussion of the war, though, because the main public rationale for it—that Saddam Hussein had a store of deadly weapons—hadn’t been proved. Saddam’s armed forces had collapsed with impressive speed, but why did that matter, if he hadn’t posed a military threat to the United States in the first place? So the war’s supporters, especially inside the Administration, were feeling surprisingly defensive, considering how little time had passed since May 1st, when President Bush had delivered his jaunty shipboard “Mission Accomplished” speech.
The Valerie Plame affair is an especially rich episode in the larger story of the Iraq war, and nothing about the war completely makes sense without the establishment of two preconditions. First, Saddam’s arsenal was only one of a number of possible reasons for the war. Members of the Administration believed that Saddam was developing deadly weapons, but they were also convinced that Saddam’s hostility to the United States and his oppression of his own people were reasons enough. There was another, and I think central, argument for war, which was often heard in private conversations in Washington, but which was only recently addressed publicly by President Bush: that the conquest of Iraq would inaugurate the vast and urgent project of forcefully countering the influence of violently anti-American Islamic fundamentalists in the Arab Middle East. Saddam’s history, his villainy, and his past weapons programs made Iraq the most plausible location for a bold military move in the region. In that sense, the whole business of presenting evidence to the United Nations and declaring the failure of weapons inspections was stagecraft. Stagecraft has to be persuasive; that was why the Administration was so upset that weapons didn’t immediately turn up in Iraq.
The other precondition that helps to explain the Plame affair is that, long before the war in Iraq, the Republican foreign-policy world had been engaged in an internal war over how seriously to take threats to the United States and how to respond to them. Thirty years ago, when conservatives were vigorously dissenting from President Nixon’s policy of détente with the Soviet Union and China, the young Dick Cheney, quietly, from a position on the White House staff, and the young Paul Wolfowitz, openly, from a position in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, sided with the conservatives; Libby, who was Wolfowitz’s protégé when he was a student at Yale, has also been on the conservative side for years.
In time, the conservative foreign-policy position generated a vigorous subculture. Life inside it had many charms, one of which was the unassailability of the conservatives’ ideas (since, until Iraq, their side had never won the policy debate, these ideas were untested). Conservatives were smarter, bolder, more strategic-minded, and more historically aware than moderate Republicans, being less vitiated by the need to appease interest groups and by the grind of running bureaucracies. When the Central Intelligence Agency or the State Department, let alone the United Nations, was mentioned in conversation with a foreign-policy conservative, the reference would usually draw a derisive chuckle or a rolling of the eyes: those organizations had been captured by the appeasers, and could be counted on to respond insufficiently to threats.
In the late summer of 2002, President Bush, by most accounts having already decided to invade Iraq, elected to seek U.N. support. That was a victory for Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, and a defeat for Vice-President Cheney and the other foreign-policy conservatives. The existence of weapons of mass destruction would provide the casus belli, since they would prove that Saddam had ignored a series of U.N. resolutions ordering him to disarm. Powell’s dramatic, and now discredited, presentation of evidence about Saddam’s weapons at the U.N., in February, 2003, with the director of the C.I.A., George Tenet, sitting at his side, represented the subjugation of the State Department and the C.I.A. to their conservative enemies, who, we now know, had helped to produce most of the material that Powell used in his briefing.
Joseph C. Wilson IV, Valerie Plame’s husband—a career State Department official, married to a C.I.A. agent—was not a comforting figure to conservatives. Wilson had served for fifteen years as an officer in the Foreign Service; in 1991, he was the chargé d’affaires in Baghdad and had been outspoken in opposition to Saddam. In 1992, he was named Ambassador to Gabon and São Tomé and Príncipe by President George H. W. Bush. By the late spring of 2003, as Wilson emerged as an off-the-record war critic in Washington, he was definitely playing for the other team. He had offered a skeptical view of the prewar intelligence to selected journalists, most notably Nicholas Kristof, of the Times, and Walter Pincus, of the Washington Post. He told them that, in February, 2002, in response to a request from Cheney to the C.I.A., he had been sent to Niger to investigate the charge that Saddam had bought uranium that could be used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons, and that he had come back without any solid evidence. Nevertheless, in January, 2003—two months before the start of the war in Iraq—the nuclear allegation wound up in Bush’s State of the Union Message. First Kristof, on May 6, 2003, and then Pincus,on June12th, published versions of Wilson’s story, identifying him only as a retired Ambassador; on June 19th, the New Republic published online a story in which an unnamed Ambassador “knew the Niger story was a flat-out lie.” Wilson then cast off his anonymity and, on July 6th, published the Niger story himself, on the Times’Op-Ed page. In doing this, he had violated not just the conservatives’ First Commandment—never underestimate a threat—but also the First Commandment of an unusually tough and loyalty-obsessed Administration: never embarrass the President. Even worse, from Cheney’s point of view, Wilson had constructed a situation in which, indirectly but unmistakably, the Vice-President had embarrassed the President.
But Congress never passed such a law; and in 1972, in a 5–4 decision, the Supreme Court had ruled that the First Amendment does not protect a reporter from having to testify before a grand jury. During the past few years, prosecutors and judges have shown themselves to be increasingly impatient with the idea that journalists have special privileges. Meanwhile, in Washington, the old journalistic way of doing business had not, it turned out, actually vanished from the scene along with the Alsop brothers and Walter Lippmann. Government officials still attempt to use the press to gain advantage, and they still use anonymous leaks as well as scripted scenes. Even the press-resistant Bush White House leaks. Editors still want their reporters to get access to top officials, in the hope of finding information that their competition doesn’t have. Especially in the small world of foreign policy and national security, the reporters and columnists for the leading news organizations tend to be assigned to their beats semipermanently, and to have close, confidential relationships with officials. This is no less the case today than it was in the Clinton Administration; it’s just that a different set of journalists (Charles Krauthammer, for example) have the better access. In the end, the chummy imperatives of Washington trumped the press’s independent self-conception.
So when Joseph Wilson emerged as a significant enemy of the Administration—according to the indictment, Libby had him fingered by late May of 2003—it was business as usual for the Administration to try to discredit him, and to use the press in the struggle. Although the person who originally published the name of Wilson’s wife, Robert Novak, is a classic pre-Watergate type—a journalist of many decades’ standing, and friendly to the Administration—the effort to discredit Wilson’s story reached far past the conservative press, to include, for example, a veteran national-security reporter whose work was skeptical of the Administration’s estimate of Saddam’s capabilities (Walter Pincus) and a political reporter with no discernible foreign-policy inclination (Matthew Cooper, of Time), who is married to a prominent Democratic operative (Mandy Grunwald, a consultant to the Clintons). Fitzgerald has given us a glimpse of a venerable process in Washington journalism, presented in all its splendid disorganization, confusion, and self-interest.
Bush himself, eager to avoid the appearance that he might be covering anything up, ordered everyone in the Administration to coöperate fully with the investigation. Novak had a strong incentive to testify: he could have been charged with a federal crime. Two of the major news organizations involved, the Washington Post and NBC News, appear to have sized up the case as a poor occasion for making a stand. Tim Russert, of NBC, and two Post reporters, Pincus and Glenn Kessler, gave testimony to the grand jury investigating the leaks. The two other news organizations involved, Time and the Times, decided to resist Patrick Fitzgerald’s grand-jury subpoenas.
According to Matthew Cooper, he worked on the story during a weeklong frenzy in early July, 2003, which was sparked by a White House announcement that it could no longer stand behind Bush’s State of the Union assertion that “[t]he British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” In brief telephone conversations with Karl Rove, Bush’s deputy chief of staff, and Lewis Libby on successive days, Cooper, promising both men anonymity, asked them about the bad information. The name of Joseph Wilson, who had just published his Op-Ed piece, immediately came up. From Cooper’s account, it appears that Rove and Libby were trying primarily to protect their bosses—Bush and Cheney—and only secondarily to contradict Wilson; both cited Wilson’s wife in order to make the point that it was she, not the C.I.A. or Cheney’s office, who had sent Wilson to Niger. The Administration’s message seemed to be that Wilson, far from being so important that the Vice-President would turn to him, was so unimportant that his wife was scrounging around to find freelance assignments for him. A version of that sort of thing—impugning an Administration’s critic—must surely occur every week, on some issue or other.
As is often the case in press manipulation, White House operatives did not make the initial contacts with reporters.Rove and Libby didn’t call Cooper—he called them. But they took his calls, and it seems more than purely accidental that they both noted that Wilson’s wife worked for the C.I.A. and had a hand in his mission to Niger. When Libby was called to testify before the investigators, he said, under oath, that he had learned Valerie Plame Wilson’s name from reporters, rather than their having learned it from him. Perhaps he was betting that Fitzgerald couldn’t get the people who could dispute his account to testify, but he was wrong. This past summer, three days after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by Time and the Times, the editor in chief of Time Inc., Norman Pearlstine, turned over Cooper’s note to the special counsel. In mid-July, Cooper appeared before the Fitzgerald grand jury.
Judith Miller, the Times reporter who has emerged as a central figure in the Plame investigation, is a different story. She seems to have spent more time on Wilson and Plame than any other reporter, but she never published an account in the Times; and, of six reporters whom Fitzgerald subpoenaed, she is the only one to have resisted to the extent of going to jail rather than reveal a source. In 2003, though, what set her apart as a reporter was an attitude of open friendliness toward the foreign-policy conservatives’ position within the Administration. How the White House treated her shows the advantages given to a reporter who functions as a member of a team inside government; how the Times treated her shows how much leeway there is for investigative reporters who occasionally produce spectacular results that bathe their news organizations in institutional glory. (Miller was on a team of journalists that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for explanatory reporting on the global terror network.)
I hardly know Miller, but it says something about her that I remember clearly the first time we met. It was in the summer of 1976, just after I had moved to Washington; a friend of mine was living in a mansion in the Kalorama section which a childless couple had bought and then taken in boarders to help pay for. My friend and Miller were two of the boarders; the place had the feeling of a left-wing safe house, where you could have dinner with people who’d just visited Cuba. Miller, who was then a freelance writer on the verge of being hired by the Times, was not so much ideological as eager to let you know that she travelled in a world of international intrigue and important people—the sort of person who was always conducting hushed, urgent telephone conversations. By the time of the Valerie Plame affair, though, she was plainly a hawk. Miller’s book “Germs,” co-written with her Times colleagues Stephen Engelberg and William Broad and published just after the September 11th attacks, took the position that the United States was not being aggressive enough in pursuing chemical- and biological-weapons research, leaving the field open to the bad guys. Her instincts led her to stories about dire threats to the United States from abroad—threats that she believed were met by official complacency from the national-security bureaucracies. During the run-up to the Iraq war, her byline appeared on major Times stories that seemed to confirm the Administration’s view of Saddam’s weapons capabilities.
In the late spring of 2003, Miller was in a peculiar position at the Times. The paper’s top editors, Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd, were under intense pressure after the spectacular misdeeds of one reporter, Jayson Blair, set off a rebellion against their leadership. (They resigned in early June.) The institution was in turmoil. Miller’s direct superior, Douglas Frantz, the head of the Times’ investigative-reporting team, had defected in May for the Los Angeles Times; no replacement had been named yet, so Miller didn’t really have a boss. Miller’s own reporting had come into question, because no evidence of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction had turned up in Iraq. By a process outside the Times’ordinary negotiations with the Pentagon, she had arranged to have herself embedded with a military-intelligence unit that was scouring Iraq for evidence of Saddam’s weapons program. In April, in a story that was widely mocked, she reported that an unnamed Iraqi scientist, whom she had seen from a distance but not spoken to, had pointed out sites to the Americans where weapons material had been removed “only days before the war began.” After Miller returned to New York, in June, the Times, acutely aware that before the war it had been generally credulous of the Administration’s claims about Saddam’s weapons program, assigned a team of reporters to reëxamine the prewar intelligence. Miller says that she was a member of this team; her bosses say that she wasn’t. Her byline did not appear on the team’s story, which was published on July 20th. Instead, she wrote a companion piece, reporting on the unsuccessful postwar hunt for weapons.
It was during this period that Miller interviewed Lewis Libby three times. Her account, though, leaves unclear who proposed the first meeting, and what Miller had told Libby she was working on. Miller says that she had asked Jill Abramson, the Times’ Washington bureau chief at the time, for permission to write about Joseph and Valerie Wilson and was refused; Abramson, now a Times managing editor, says that Miller never asked. It was not for lack of initiative or cleverness that Libby failed at his mission, which was to get the Administration’s version of the Wilson story into the Times. He simply hadn’t realized how rapidly Miller’s stock was falling at the paper.
Miller’s account of her activities in the late spring and the summer of 2003 is full of blank spots. For instance, she failed to mention her first meeting with Libby—a sit-down interview in his office—until after she was released from jail, this past September, and found her notes. But every damning detail about Miller that emerges also damns the Times. It’s clear that, however good her reporting had been in the past, by the summer of 2003 the top editors at the newspaper were looking for places to park her where she could not do any harm and might take the hint and leave. It was like a bad marriage that never ends.
In February, 2004, the New York Review of Books published a long critique, by Michael Massing, of Miller’s prewar coverage. The article appears to have prompted the Times to produce, in May, a carefully worded review of Miller’s stories about Saddam’s weapons program. (It didn’t mention Miller by name.) We will never know what would have happened to Miller at the Times next, because a few weeks later Fitzgerald subpoenaed her, and the paper decided to mount a full-throated defense of a reporter’s right to protect anonymous sources. Surprisingly, it seems that nobody in the Times management sat down with Miller and went through her notes of the interaction with Libby, or grilled her about the details of her work on Wilson and Plame; for more than a year, the paper was in the position of having to defend her as a prosecutorial target, however much the paper’s top editors, Bill Keller and Abramson, mistrusted her as a reporter.
Miller’s decision, in late September, to leave jail after eighty-five days and testify before Fitzgerald’s grand jury presumably was not what the Times had in mind. Skeptics at the paperthink that the rigors of jail, combined with the urging of Miller’s personal lawyer, Robert Bennett, in favor of a deal, wore down her resistance. Miller explained that she had decided to testify because Libby had convinced her that he was sincere in releasing her from a promise to keep him anonymous. But, by Miller’s own account, another important reason for her testimony was that Fitzgerald had agreed to ask her only about Libby, and no other source, when she appeared before the grand jury.
The agreement left Miller an opening to say that she couldn’t remember who had first mentioned Valerie Plame’s name to her. What could Fitzgerald do at that point? Time was running out for his grand jury, and he could ask Miller only about Libby. Thus Miller was able to protect whichever of her sources—maybe Libby, maybe somebody else—who had first mentioned the name Valerie Plame. While Miller was in jail, Libby sent her a lyrical, cryptic letter in which he wrote about the aspens out West, connected at the roots, and urged her to “come back to work—and life.” He seemed to be indicating that, in Cheney’s circle, she would be accorded a loyalty that she might no longer be able to expect from the Times.
Although the paper made an immediate public show of support—Keller; Floyd Abrams, the Times’ lawyer; and the paper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., were photographed with her when she appeared at a federal courthouse in Washington—the anger toward Miller that had been building up inevitably erupted. By late October, the paper was experiencing a fever of self-obsession and recrimination. First, a team of reporters and Miller published lengthy, side-by-side accounts that contradicted each other on several key points. Then the introverted Keller, who happened to be visiting Times bureaus in Asia as the controversy grew more intense, offered some rueful reflections to the Times staff via e-mail; it was clear that his true feelings about Miller were anything but supportive. Then two Times columnists—Maureen Dowd and the public editor, Byron Calame—weighed in, with strong anti-Miller views. Miller fired back with e-mails to Calame and Keller that were fiercely self-justifying; she called Keller’s memo “ugly.” The newsroom on West Forty-third Street seemed as distracted as it had been during the Jayson Blair incident. The Times’ problems entailed not just the Miller affair but a falling stock price, layoffs, and relations among its top executives that were rather complicated, since Sulzberger had initially chosen Raines rather than Keller for the job that Keller now occupied. The Times has very quickly gone from fending off accusations that it was being insufficiently transparent to committing the reputation-impairing transgression known to American teen-agers as T.M.I.: too much information.
Still, it is possible to extract some good for journalism from this riveting mess. Long before the Plame case, any reporter focussing on politics and government surely would have experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance regarding the official rhetoric about the relationships between journalists and their sources. A reporter receives a continuous stream of confidential information—most of it from self-interested parties, and much of it as overtly unpleasant as the White House’s leaks about Joseph Wilson. Even low-level whistle-blowers, alas, are more often cranks than heroes. Actually, in this case the press performed quite admirably, in the sense that nobody, with the exception of Robert Novak, published Plame’s name. The news organizations involved in the White House leaks ended up treating them as what they were—another attempt to propagate negative information about a political enemy—and taking a pass. That’s what usually happens.
The press’s reflexive self-justifications tend to present all reporters and all anonymous sources as disinterested public servants. The unlovely process of official leaking and journalistic competition is substantially motivated by the players’ lust for short-term advantage—for spin and for scoops. But, in the end, this process can, and does, produce a version of the activities of government which is very different from the official version. Even though many of the transactions don’t look very good individually, the peculiar and continuous traffic between reporters and their sources is valuable to society. It deserves protection.
Now that Fitzgerald’s grand jury has issued an indictment of a major Administration official, attention will shift quickly away from the press and toward the many troubles of the Bush White House. For the prosecutor, forcing reporters to testify about their sources was just a means to the end of indicting Libby. Yet it would be too comforting to conclude that this was a onetime disaster for the press which will never be repeated. Judith Miller managed to combine two types of Washington reporter in one person, and to embody some of the disadvantages of each: she is both the crusading muckraker with strong beliefs (though they’re not the beliefs of many of her colleagues) and the insider with confidential access to the powerful. This double aspect of Miller is what made her so influential in the period before the war in Iraq began. Apart from Judith Miller, though, Washington journalists continue to applaud themselves for producing inside stuff, and also for having passions strong enough to chase down hidden information. There may never be another case with novelistic detail this good, but it’s only a matter of time before another prosecutor gets an occasion to demonstrate that he doesn’t buy the press’s version of itself.