Reporter at Center of CIA Outing Leaves 'NY Times'

Reporter Judith Miller retired from The New York Times on Wednesday. Miller spent 85 days in jail to protect a confidential source at the center of an probe into whether White House officials leaked the name of a CIA operative to the press to retaliate against the operative's husband, a vocal critic of the Bush Administration's Iraq war strategy. Madeleine Brand talks with NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik about why Miller's once-supportive editors at the Times began to doubt her.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller says she plans to keep lobbying for a federal shield law to protect journalists from revealing their sources. Miller resigned from The Times yesterday after a 28-year career that brought the newspaper both scoops and scandals. She shared a Pulitzer for covering al-Qaeda before the September 2001 attacks, but later drew scorn for her discredited coverage of the supposed threat posed by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. She left The Times after quarreling with top editors about her role in the Valerie Plame CIA leak case. And with us now from Washington is NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.

And, David, this is the end of a long, long story involving Judith Miller. And tell us a bit about this infighting with her editors at The Times.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK reporting:

Well, she served 85 days in jail to protect her source in the CIA leak case. That source was Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who had been the vice president's chief of staff until he received five counts of indictment. And what she gave publicly as her account of that troubled editors. They felt that she had perhaps not been candid with her Washington bureau chief about whether she had been the recipient of a leak. She asserted that she had tried to pursue the story about Valerie Plame and her husband, the former ambassador and critic of the Bush administration, but Jill Abramson, the managing editor, said actually Miller had never proposed doing such a story. They felt there were a number of situations in which she hadn't been forthcoming with the leadership of the Times. And as The Times had been defending her publicly very much, they seemed very much to resent that.

BRAND: And so they agreed that she would leave the paper--both sides agreed--and but not before she extracted a promise from them to publish this rather long letter in today's paper.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, she had demanded, actually, the right to write an Op-Ed piece, and they said, you know, the Op-Ed pages is not a forum to allow a back-and-forth about The Times' own standards. But as a former reporter, she was allowed to write this very long letter in which she tried to say, `Listen, there were times at which I was mistaken in my coverage, but a lot of people were mistaken in coverage, and that's what happens sometimes with sources.' She felt that she had upheld the strongest traditions of journalism and principles of journalism by going to jail to defend her anonymous source. She felt that she kept faith by reaching an agreement to testify, which also upset some of her peers. So she tried to offer her rationale for this.

This was a heavily lawyered agreement for her to depart. It was complicated by the fact of certain union protections. As Miller at times has pointed out, you know, she was not punished after a series of things that The Times now feels were missteps by her. At times she was essentially rewarded or giving plumb assignments. It makes it a lot tougher to make the case that she's done a series of bad acts that management has rebuked her for.

BRAND: Well, I guess I still don't understand why they couldn't just fire her after all this.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, as I understand it, there are certain guild protections. That is, there has to be sort of a paper trail or a corporate record that the company has made clear to its employee that she has failed to uphold their professional standards. Well, Judith Miller has operated at the top echelons of The Times pretty much since she arrived in 1977 and she has not been held back. She has been essentially promoted, either in status or promoted as one of their top-tier reporters. In 2001, she was part of a team that won a Pulitzer for calling attention to al-Qaeda before the September 11th attacks. This was a time when Howell Raines was executive editor. He actually beat Bill Keller to be top editor first time around. You know, he had championed her. He said, `This is one of our stars. I want her stories on our front page.' And it makes it tougher for management to say, `Well, listen, consistently and throughout, we've argued that this is somebody who's sapping the credibility of this newspaper.'

BRAND: And so what's next for her?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, she's promised that she has a next act. She's set up her own Web blog on which she's written quite avidly in the last couple of days. She's been speaking at forum after forum on the importance of press liberties. She's going to be speaking in favor of a shield law at an event next week intended to call attention to a new collective of bloggers. I wouldn't be surprised if we didn't end up hearing from her. She kept a journal in jail, and although she says she doesn't have a book contract, it would seem likely that one may well be in the wings.

BRAND: NPR media corespondent David Folkenflik, thanks a lot.

FOLKENFLIK: Good to join you.

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