Friday, December 30, 2005

Judith Miller on Nightline

Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who went to jail for 85 days for refusing to divulge the source from whom she learned the identity of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame, gave an extensive interview on Nightline Thursday night. Judith Miller was spoon-fed stories about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction by her close pals in the White House, giving the imprimatur of the NYTimes to the administration's empty claims. Scooter Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, told Miller about Valerie Plame as part of a deliberate smear campaign against Plame's husband, administration critic Ambassador Joseph Wilson. In spite of the fact that the revelation of Plame's identity was a crime in and of itself, and in spite of the fact that it was information that the public had zero right to know and that Libby had zero just cause to reveal, she spent 12 weeks in jail to protect her miscreant source.

Miller makes the valid point that the initial blanket waivers of confidentiality that the administration required Libby and others to issue, were not truly voluntary.

Sometimes you have to protect people who are not "whistleblowers," the classic whistleblower, in order to encourage the classic whistleblower to come forward. That's the way this business operates; that's the way we journalists operate. You can't say, "I'm only going to protect the saints, the good guys." Everybody, at one point or another, has a story that the public may need to know, and they may not be immaculate themselves — I certainly know I'm not. You have to encourage people to talk to journalists, and that means sometimes protecting people who don't pass someone else's litmus test of virtue.
But Scooter Libby, in this instance, was not just "not the classic whistleblower," he was the very antithesis of a whistleblower. He not only fails my litmus test of virtue, he fails any test of virtue. Using the press to compromise national security for strictly partisan political motives, is not virtuous. I thus do not share Judith Miller's sense that she "accomplished something in terms of the First Amendment"; indeed, I believe that by her actions she damaged the First Amendment and in particular the principle of allowing journalists to shield confidential sources.

Miller does make a valid point, sometimes overlooked in the flurry of activity around Plamegate and the Iraq war more broadly, that we as a nation cannot rest assured that our spy agencies are giving us accurate intelligence about Iran, Syria, or North Korea, any more than they did about Iraq.

However, in answer to Terry Moran's question, yes, there will always be people who, when they see the byline Judith Miller or when they see her on television, will simply say, I can't believe her. I say that with some assurance, because I number myself among their ranks. The damage that Judith Miller did to her journalistic reputation with the Valerie Plame affair, but more importantly with her overly credulous reporting of the administration's claims that Saddam Hussein had large stockpiles of WMD's, is, in my view, irreparable.