Jailed Reporter Miller Described as Risk Taker

New York Times reporter Judith Miller is currently the only person in jail in the investigation into who leaked the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame. As NPR's David Folkenflik explains, Miller's headlong pursuit of sources and scoops may shed some light on how she landed there.


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And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

New York Times reporter Judith Miller is currently the only person in jail in the investigation into who leaked the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame. As NPR's David Folkenflik explains, Miller's headlong pursuit of sources and scoops may shed some light on how she landed there.


In February, Miller explained to Terry Gross of WHYY's "Fresh Air" why she was defying prosecutors to protect her sources.

(Soundbite of "Fresh Air" broadcast)

Mr. JUDITH MILLER (The New York Times): Because in investigative journalism, confidential sources are really the life's blood of what we do. We can't operate without people who are willing to take a chance on us.

FOLKENFLIK: Stephen Engelberg is managing editor for investigations at The Portland Oregonian, but until spring, 2002, he was Miller's boss at The New York Times. He says Miller builds trust with sources because she shares their obsessions and passions, but he adds a caution.

Mr. STEPHEN ENGELBERG (The Portland Oregonian): Once you go out and try to get your own information, you are now fishing in the waters that the world's intelligence services fish in and that's a water that includes very reliable sources, charlatans and fabricators.

FOLKENFLIK: Miller's sources have helped her to break important stories. Engelberg and Miller led The Times to a Pulitzer with their January, 2001, series on the danger al-Qaeda posed to the West. Times managing editor Jill Abramson says Miller took great risks to travel with tribal warlords in Afghanistan.

Ms. JILL ABRAMSON (The New York Times): Talk about guts, you know, she was like hopping on airplanes with Massoud that were like leaking gasoline as they went and had holes in the bottom.

FOLKENFLIK: Miller joined The Times in 1977 after contributing stories to National Public Radio. Since then, she's written extensively on terrorism and the Middle East. On September 8th, 2002, Miller and Michael Gordon reported on the front page of The Times that US intelligence officials had concluded Iraq had, quote, "stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons." The clinching evidence involved aluminum tubes said to be intended for the production of nuclear weapons. That morning, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press."

(Soundbite of "Meet the Press" broadcast)

Vice President DICK CHENEY: There is a story in The New York Times this morning. This is--and I want to attribute it to The Times. I don't want to talk about, obviously, specific intelligence sources, but it's now public that, in fact...

FOLKENFLIK: But just five days later, Miller and Gordon wrote another article. They briefly noted some government experts challenged whether the tubes were intended to produce nuclear weapons. That story appeared on page 13.

After the invasion of Iraq in March, 2003, Miller was embedded with the military task force charged with finding weapons of mass destruction. In April, Miller wrote an Iraqi scientist told the task force troops had destroyed such equipment days before the invasion.

(Soundbite from PBS' "Newshour")

Ms. MILLER: I think they found something more than a, quote, "smoking gun."

FOLKENFLIK: Miller spoke on PBS' "Newshour."

(Soundbite from PBS' "Newshour")

Ms. MILLER: What they found is a silver bullet.

FOLKENFLIK: But the military didn't allow Miller to interview the scientist. Instead, she watched from a distance as he pointed to sites in the sand to US task force members where they said he said elements of chemical weapons had been buried. No evidence emerged verifying the man's claims, and as The Times conceded more than a year later, the so-called Iraqi scientist later said he was a military intelligence official.

Former Times investigations editor Steve Engelberg says he was appalled.

Mr. ENGELBERG: What in the world is this? I mean, that was just so patently, as far as I'm concerned, below the standards that I thought The Times had for such things.

FOLKENFLIK: Engelberg blames Times editors for printing that story and others on weapons of mass destruction that the newspaper later acknowledged were seriously flawed. Journalists say it's uncomfortable to criticize Miller while she's in jail. But several current and former Times colleagues spoke on condition they not be named, and they say Miller's record has been marred by her inability to discern reliable sources from unreliable ones. A key one was Ahmed Chalabi, now an Iraqi government official. As an exile, he gave reporters and American officials information that often turned out to have been untrue.

Other journalists also relied on Chalabi, but critics such as William Jackson of Editor & Publisher say plenty of them struck a more cautious tone than Miller did.

Mr. WILLIAM JACKSON (Editor & Publisher): She was out to prove that the enemy had weapons of mass destruction, and I think that explains her involvement in the Plame case.

FOLKENFLIK: On July 6th, 2003, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson wrote in The Times about a government-sponsored trip to Niger. He said he found no evidence Iraq sought nuclear materials there, and his comments struck at the credibility of Bush administration officials. That same month, The Times asked a team of reporters to explain why weapons of mass destruction had not been found in Iraq. Miller was to report on why the task force she accompanied in Iraq came up empty.

On July 14th, syndicated columnist Robert Novak cited unnamed White House sources to report Wilson had been sent to Niger at the suggestion of his wife, Valerie Plame, a covert agent for the CIA. The leak may have been a crime. Top White House figures such as deputy chief of staff Karl Rove and Lewis Libby, the vice president's chief of staff, testified before a grand jury. So did reporters. Miller did not and her role remains a mystery. Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has argued Miller can help confirm whether government officials were leaking information about Plame to punish Wilson. But Miller never wrote about him.

Miller would not comment for this story. She told managing editor Jill Abramson she's read several books in jail. One was Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago," a memoir of life in the Soviet prison camps.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.

WERTHEIMER: A time line of this case is at npr.org.

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