"To what will you look for help if you will not look to that which is stronger than yourself?" -- C.S. Lewis

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Vertigo In Dallas: U2 is performing at the American Airlines Center here in Dallas tonight. Wish I were going. I made it to both Dallas concerts during U2's last tour (All That You Can't Leave Behind). Those were magical events. The second of the two took place after 9/11; and I remember Bono mentioning how, since the attacks, a spiritual mood had enveloped U2's performances--arenas felt like churches. And he was right.

In any case, yesterday our local paper looked back at all of U2's Dallas concert dates. Their first show--back in 1981--drew maybe 30 fans, and who can say what portion of those had really arrived for the wet T-shirt contest, which shared the bill. But what caught my eye was the Achtung Baby concert at Reunion Arena in 1992:

Fans got in on the action, with three of them storming the stage, including one redheaded fanatic who carried Bono around during "Where the Streets Have No Name."

I'd like some bootlegged video of that!

Indictment Response: I tend to agree with The Washington Post's initial reaction to yesterday's indictment of Lewis Libby:

The special counsel was principally investigating whether any official violated a law that makes it a crime to knowingly disclose the identity of an undercover agent. The public record offers no indication that Mr. Libby or any other official deliberately exposed Ms. Plame to punish her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. Rather, Mr. Libby and other officials, including Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff, apparently were seeking to combat the sensational allegations of a critic. They may have believed that Ms. Plame's involvement was an important part of their story of why Mr. Wilson was sent to investigate claims that Iraq sought uranium ore from Niger, and why his subsequent -- and mostly erroneous -- allegations that the administration twisted that small part of the case against Saddam Hussein should not be credited. To criminalize such discussions between officials and reporters would run counter to the public interest.

The Post is intent on keeping the potentially criminal "outing" of Valerie Plame separate from the journalistic issues present in this case. That's been my interest as well. If Plame was maliciously outed--I want justice. But while we must protect his wife, Joseph Wilson is no whistle blower. For instance: On PBS's NOW news magazine last night, Maria Hinojosa's report represented Wilson as just that, a whistle blower. There was never a mention that Wilson's claims were, as the Post characterizes them above, mostly erroneous. It's that sort of reporting on this issue that fuels the ongoing misunderstanding of this case.

I think you'll find that most critics who have been demonizing The New York Times' legal defense of Judith Miller would also tell you that Joseph Wilson was the victim of a White House smear campaign. That's unfortunate. He was not. His wife may have been a victim--but not our man Joe. Joseph Wilson was the architect of a smear campaign of his own. As it happened, his partisan hackery was aimed at other partisan hacks. And as such (i.e. being hacks themselves), they responded in kind.

And so it goes.

I have no sympathy for the legal consequences impacting all involved. But I do try to keep an objective eye on the journalistic implications of Plamegate. Journalism, as the fourth estate, deserves a vigorous defense.

Cheers & Jeers for The New York Times: Today's Times editorial should make it clear to the Times' critics where the paper stands on its decisions in the Judith Miller saga:

While [Judith Miller] was imprisoned for 85 days, this newspaper and this page gave Ms. Miller unwavering support. Recently, Times executives have expressed regrets about some of the ways her case was handled. Reflecting on these events, we have no reservations about the obligation of this paper to stand behind our reporter while she was in jail. We also think Ms. Miller was right on the central point, that the original blanket White House waiver was coerced.

Good for the Times. However, a quick parsing of the above language seems to indicate a feeling that the institution's journalistic obligations were met "while she was in jail." This may not bode well for Judith Miller's employment future at the paper. Maybe The Washington Post will assume responsibility for her future Plamegate legal bills. Some journalistic entity should.

Meanwhile, note the Times' characterization, in this same editorial, of the basics in the Wilson affair:

The diplomat, Joseph Wilson, went to Niger in 2002 at the request of the Central Intelligence Agency to investigate allegations that Iraq tried to buy uranium to make a nuclear bomb. Mr. Wilson reported back that the uranium story was unfounded, and he later went public with that contention. But Mr. Cheney's team kept on pushing the claim, which was included in President Bush's State of the Union speech in 2003.

Does the Times bring its readers up to speed on the veracity of Wilson's claims? Well, no. Today we know that Saddam did put out feelers in Africa, if not provably Niger, to inquire into the availability of nuclear materials. Bush's SOT specifically claimed Africa--not Niger. The fact that the Bushies hadn't the wits to make this defense--and then retracted the allegedly false sentence from the SOT--only goes to show how utterly pathetic and darkly comical this business became. And, yes, those Niger documents were forged. It's no wonder that partisans have had a field day manipulating the perceptions of Plamegate. Three truths, along with one factual omission, can completely alter the gist of any story on the subject.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Hitch's Cheat Sheet On Iraq: I meant to link to this over a week ago. Christopher Hitchens provides an "explainer" column on the political and ethnic factions in Iraq. One fact in particular catches the eye:

To be a Sunni or a Shiite is to follow one or another Muslim obedience, but to be a Kurd is to be a member of a large non-Arab ethnicity as well as to be, in the vast majority of cases, a Sunni. Thus, by any measure of accuracy, the "Sunni" turnout in the weekend's referendum on the constitution was impressively large, very well-organized, and quite strongly in favor of a "yes" vote. Is that the way you remember it being reported? I thought not.

Interesting. Immediately after the war proper, I would have liked to have seen more public discussion of dividing Iraq into smaller, independent nations. The MSM allowed the Bushies to take that option off the table without much fuss. I know Syria strongly opposes a Kurdish nation (and the Bushies gave pre-war assurances to Syria that the Kurds would remain state-less), but I'd rather not have conceded that as a deal-breaker--especially so quickly.

On a related note: There's a gem of a post on the Harper's Web site at the moment. An excerpt from “A Short Guide to Iraq,” published by the U.S. government in 1942.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Miller's Culpability on WMD's: In an op-ed in today's Washington Post, Robert Kagan refreshes a few memories. As Kagan says:

Many critics outside the Times suggest that Miller's eagerness to publish the Bush administration's line was the primary reason Americans went to war. The Times itself is edging closer to this version of events.

Kagan then goes on to reduce this characterization to rubble. Check out his column.

In a "Web Special" on the Columbia Journalism Review's Web site, Douglas McCollam offers up exactly the sort of sweeping criticism that must have inspired Kagan's piece:

Miller continues to largely blow off responsibility for her pre-war reporting about Iraq’s fictional WMD arsenal. At one time it might have been acceptable to say it was fundamentally a good-faith mistake. But not now. Not after she knows that her pre-war stories on WMD were in part a product of a government-financed campaign to hook up reporters—she chief among them—with dubious Iraqi defectors, and then later smear anyone who disputed the evidence. But Miller continues to be blasé. “If your sources are wrong, you are wrong. I did the best job I could,” she told Times reporters for the piece.  

But Miller’s sources weren’t just wrong, they spun her dizzy and in the process badly damaged the credibility of America’s best and most important newspaper.

As Kagan points out, the conventional wisdom on Saddam's WMD's had been established during the Clinton Administration--by government officials as well as the MSM. Miller was not uniquely responsible for the WMD story.

And once you're able to separate Miller's WMD reporting from her First Amendment legal battles, the necessity of her journalistic fight of the past few months is easier to see.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Welcome, Sully Nation: Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for today's link. AndrewSullivan.com was my first blog addiction, and it remains among the first sites I check every morning. Thanks, Andrew!

Turn Back The Clock: In March of 2003, I zapped an e-mail to Judith Miller. Two differing versions of a then recent Miller WMD article had appeared on the Internet. My e-mail follows:

Ms. Miller,

I've found two different versions of your most recent article.  One version, found on the International Herald Tribune site, includes the following:

<< Officials in Washington were also frustrated that while the UN team had conducted more than 440 inspections since last November, only 75 were on a list of known suspicious sites that Washington shared with Hans Blix, one of the two chief inspectors for germ and chemical weapons. >>

You can find the IHT version here:

Meanwhile, the version on the NY Times Web site--and the version in today's national print edition--lacks the above excerpt.

I'm just wondering whether the above excerpt is true.  Or was an unedited version sent out to NY Times Internet affiliates by accident?

The IHT link is no longer active. But Miller responded:

Yes, I just got your email in northern Iraq...
It is true....email is tough for me here. We can discuss this further after the war. J.

After the war proper, I attempted to follow up with Miller on this issue, but her publicly available NY Times e-mail address had ceased to work.

Today I wonder if the above excerpt was indeed true. In the run-up to the war, was Blix's inspections team really ignoring Washington's list of "suspicious sites?" If so, that certainly didn't help diffuse what was already a volatile situation. Or was this an example of Bush Administration B.S. being fed to Miller?

A small side note. But intriguing.

A Surprising Turn: In yesterday's NY Times Public Editor column, Byron Calame analyzes an instance of "she said, she said" within the Times newsroom, and then takes sides:

One ethical problem emerged when Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor, asked Ms. Miller if she had pursued an article about Valerie Plame, the C.I.A. operative, or her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV. Ms. Miller said in an interview for the retrospective that she "made a strong recommendation to my editor" that a story be pursued. "I was told no."

But Jill Abramson, now a managing editor and the Washington bureau chief in 2003, would have known about such a request. Ms. Abramson, to whom Ms. Miller reported, strongly asserted to me that Ms. Miller never asked to pursue an article about the operative. Ms. Abramson said that she did not recall Ms. Miller ever mentioning the confidential conversations she had with I. Lewis Libby, the vice president's chief of staff, who appears to be in the middle of the leak investigation. When I asked her, Ms. Miller declined to identify the editor she dealt with.

If Ms. Abramson is to be believed, and I do believe her, this raises clear issues of trust and credibility. It also means that because Ms. Miller didn't let an editor know what she knew, Times readers were deprived of a potentially exclusive look into an apparent administration effort to undercut Mr. Wilson and other critics of the Iraq war.

There was a hint of this dispute between Abramson and Miller in the October 16 Times' staff report on the Miller saga:

Neither that article nor any in the following months by Ms. Miller discussed Mr. Wilson or his wife.

It is not clear why. Ms. Miller said in an interview that she "made a strong recommendation to my editor" that an article be pursued. "I was told no," she said. She would not identify the editor.

Ms. Abramson, the Washington bureau chief at the time, said Ms. Miller never made any such recommendation.

Calame has posted an e-mailed response from Miller, which, among other things, addresses this specific issue:

You chose to believe Jill Abramson when she asserted that I had never asked her to pursue the tip I had gotten about Joe Wilson’s trip to Niger and his wife’s employment at the C.I.A. Now I ask you: Why would I – the supposedly pushiest, most competitive reporter on the planet -- not have pushed to pursue a tantalizing tip like this? Soon after my breakfast meeting with Libby in July, I did so. I remember asking the editor to let me explore whether what my source had said was true, or whether it was a potential smear of a whistleblower. I don’t recall naming the source of the tip. But I specifically remember saying that because Joe Wilson’s op-ed column had appeared in our paper, we had a particular obligation to pursue this. I never identified the editor to the grand jury or publicly, since it involved internal New York Times decision-making. But since you did, yes, the editor was Jill Abramson.

Obviously, Jill and I have different memories of what happened during that turbulent period at the paper. I did not take that personally, though she never chose to discuss with me our different recollections about my urging her to pursue the story. Without explanation, however, you said you believed her and raised questions about my “trust and credibility.” That is your right. But I gave my recollection to the grand jury under oath.

All that said (whew!), why has Calame boldly taken Abramson's side in a dispute in which the truth can only be known by the two parties involved: Abramson and Miller? If Calame has more than Abramson's "strong assertions" fueling his conclusions, then, as Public Editor, he should bring us into this loop.

Meanwhile, if I were Judith Miller, I wouldn't expect to generate much sympathy from an appeal to "differing memories" at this moment in the spin cycle. While I concede that Miller's selective memory may have a journalistic ethic behind it (as I mention in my post of October 18), it's clearly not her position of strength.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Keller's E-mail: I started to write this post yesterday, but I've been hit with some sort of cold bug--and the will to blog left me.

But today, with Sudafed in the system, back to the subject at hand: NY Times' executive editor Bill Keller sent an e-mail to his staff on Friday. In it, he clarified... and explained... and attempted to smooth things over within his paper's newsroom. Overall, I think he got things right. The New York Times didn't do enough to become informed about the specifics of the Judith Miller legal case. But Keller stops short of saying he should have abandoned the court fight:

In the end, I'm pretty sure I would have concluded that we had to fight this case in court. For one thing, we were facing an insidious new menace in these blanket waivers, ostensibly voluntary, that Administration officials had been compelled to sign. But if I had known the details of Judy's entanglement with Libby, I'd have been more careful in how the paper articulated its defense, and perhaps more willing than I had been to support efforts aimed at exploring compromises.

This is the bottom line. There were serious journalistic reasons to fight this case. Yet early on, the Times could have done a better job of articulating these reasons. And armed with more of the particulars of Miller's case, Keller could have served as a better rhetorical steward of the institutional New York Times.

Still, Keller's e-mail leaves us with an unresolved dispute:

Until Fitzgerald came after her, I didn't know that Judy had been one of the reporters on the receiving end of the anti-Wilson whisper campaign. I should have wondered why I was learning this from the special counsel, a year after the fact. (In November of 2003 Phil Taubman tried to ascertain whether any of our correspondents had been offered similar leaks. As we reported last Sunday, Judy seems to have misled Phil Taubman about the extent of her involvement.) This alone should have been enough to make me probe deeper.

And to what reporting is Keller referring?

In the fall of 2003, after The Washington Post reported that "two top White House officials disclosed Plame's identity to at least six Washington journalists," Philip Taubman, Ms. Abramson's successor as Washington bureau chief, asked Ms. Miller and other Times reporters whether they were among the six. Ms. Miller denied it.

"The answer was generally no," Mr. Taubman said. Ms. Miller said the subject of Mr. Wilson and his wife had come up in casual conversation with government officials, Mr. Taubman said, but Ms. Miller said "she had not been at the receiving end of a concerted effort, a deliberate organized effort to put out information."

Clearly, it is not an established fact that Judith Miller misled Phil Taubman. Taubman knew from the beginning that Judith Miller had come across Plame in interviews, but that Miller did not feel she was on the receiving end of "a deliberate organized effort to put out information." And that, after all the jail time and all subsequent reporting, hasn't changed.

If we are to be perfectly objective here, I think we must concede that attacks on Joseph Wilson are completely separate from attempts at outing his wife as an undercover CIA agent. After all we now know that Wilson was lying. There's nothing wrong with a Bush Administration official giving an off-the-record interview in which he challenges Wilson. So Keller needs to distinguish between "anti-Wilson whispers" and efforts to "out" Plame. The two are not the same.

The fact that these interviews were preemptive--that is, they were occurring before Wilson's op-ed piece had been published--hints that Wilson's intentions to go public were already known inside the beltway.

Miller's Response: So one of the key issues at hand has become reasonably well-defined. Check Judith Miller's response to the Keller memo:

Ms. Miller said in an interview that Mr. Keller's statements were "seriously inaccurate." She also provided The Times with a copy of a memorandum she had sent to Mr. Keller in response.

"I certainly never meant to mislead Phil, nor did I mislead him," she wrote to Mr. Keller, referring to Mr. Taubman.

She wrote that as she had said in an account in The Times last Sunday, she had discussed Mr. Wilson and his wife with government officials, but "I was unaware that there was a deliberate, concerted disinformation campaign to discredit Wilson and that if there had been, I did not think I was a target of it."

Based on what we know, I don't think we are in a position to judge Judith Miller's journalistic decisions. If it turns out that she's lying--that she was the target of an effort to "out" Valerie Plame--then things will be different. But I'm not so sure that that's what is going on here.

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