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

Friday, October 21, 2005

Embedded In Iraq II: Editor & Publisher looks at Judith Miller's attempt at clarifying her "embedded" status in Iraq:

After a telephone interview with Miller Wednesday, [New York Times reporter Katharine Q.] Seelye wrote that what [Judith Miller] "had meant to say in her published account was that she had had temporary access to classified information under rules set by her unit," conditions similar to what other embedded reporters faced.

"Ms. Miller said that under the conditions set by the commander of the unit, Col. Richard R. McPhee, she had been allowed to discuss her most secret reporting with only the senior-most editors of The Times, who at the time were Howell Raines, the executive editor, and Gerald M. Boyd, the managing editor.

So Miller was allowed to include two senior editors in the loop. Checking the original Miller article from Sunday:

I told the grand jury I thought that at our July 8 meeting I might have expressed frustration to Mr. Libby that I was not permitted to discuss with editors some of the more sensitive information about Iraq.

Well, there is a universe in which these two accounts can coexist. And it might actually be our universe. But a more thorough threshing out of the details still seems to be in order.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Embedded In Iraq: There's one criticism of Judith Miller and The New York Times to which I'm particularly sympathetic. Normon Solomon, co-author of a valued book on my office shelf--The Wizards of Media Oz: Behind the Curtain of Mainstream News--would like The New York Times to explain why Judith Miller's "embedded" status in Iraq kept her from communicating certain information to her editors:

It now seems that Miller functioned with more accountability to U.S. military intelligence officials than to New York Times editors. Most of the way through her article, Miller slipped in this sentence: "During the Iraq war, the Pentagon had given me clearance to see secret information as part of my assignment 'embedded' with a special military unit hunting for unconventional weapons." And, according to the same article, she ultimately told the grand jury that during a July 8, 2003, meeting with the vice president's chief of staff, Lewis Libby, "I might have expressed frustration to Mr. Libby that I was not permitted to discuss with editors some of the more sensitive information about Iraq."

Let's replay that one again in slow motion.

Judith Miller is a reporter for the New York Times. After the invasion, on assignment to cover a U.S. military unit as it searches for WMDs in Iraq, she's given "clearance" by the Pentagon "to see secret information" -- which she "was not permitted to discuss" with Times editors.

There's nothing wrong with this picture if Judith Miller is an intelligence operative for the U.S. government. But if she's supposed to be a journalist, this is a preposterous situation -- and the fact that the New York Times has tolerated it tells us a lot about that newspaper.

I suspect that Miller's agreement with the military was typical of the agreements other media organizations made in order to get their reporters into military units. But it's one thing to keep certain information out of print; and quite another to keep information from a reporter's employer. The Times should explain its willingness to enter into this sort of agreement.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

A Look At A Critic of Judith Miller: Over at CommonDreams.org, Emerson College journalism professor Jerry Lanson has attacked Judith Miller pretty forcefully. In this excerpt, he focuses on Miller's willingness to use Lewis Libby as an unnamed source:

Why is it a reporter's job to protect someone powerful within government who is trying to do someone else [in this case, Joseph Wilson] harm? Why would a news organization even print a story based on such an offer of protection? (When I was an editor for the San Jose Mercury News, the managing editor established a policy that the veil of anonymity could not be used to attack someone else.)

Well, first: Miller never used her Libby interviews in a story. She was gathering information. And when journalists gather information, especially from high-ranking government officials, they often must promise anonymity.

Also, there's a necessary time line here. A reporter first offers anonymity, then receives information. You don't get the option of hearing the information, then deciding whether it's harmful (The Mercury News' litmus test?) before granting anonymity. The true test is how the information appears in print. Again, in this case, it never did.

But who was really doing "harm" to whom? Over time, we've discovered that Joseph Wilson was lying. In July, The Washington Post reported:

Wilson's assertions -- both about what he found in Niger and what the Bush administration did with the information -- were undermined yesterday in a bipartisan Senate intelligence committee report.

The panel found that Wilson's report, rather than debunking intelligence about purported uranium sales to Iraq, as he has said, bolstered the case for most intelligence analysts. And contrary to Wilson's assertions and even the government's previous statements, the CIA did not tell the White House it had qualms about the reliability of the Africa intelligence that made its way into 16 fateful words in President Bush's January 2003 State of the Union address.

In addition:

Former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, dispatched by the CIA in February 2002 to investigate reports that Iraq sought to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program with uranium from Africa, was specifically recommended for the mission by his wife, a CIA employee, contrary to what he has said publicly.

So with 20-20 hindsight, we now know that Libby was challenging Joseph Wilson's lies in an off the record conversation. If he didn't "out" Valerie Plame in the process (a separate issue from Miller's journalism), then there's no crime. That's the bottom line. But beyond that, based on what we know, how on earth did Judith Miller stray from normal journalistic practice here? She didn't.

And that's my problem with attacks such as Jerry Lanson's. He's so blinded with partisan anger that Judith Miller has been drawn into his sights.

You have to wonder how he's addressing this case in his classes.

Er, Yeah... What They Said: The Washington Post seems to be on board with parts of my post from yesterday:

[I]t's astonishing to see many in the journalism establishment, and in the media trade press, turn on Ms. Miller not just for questions surrounding the waiver but also for refusing now to identify all of her sources, turn over all of her notes and otherwise lay bare her reporting. Normally these commentators are among the first to defend journalists who seek to protect a confidential source. Reporters often rely on unnamed sources to expose corruption and incompetence in government. Neither Ms. Miller nor the other reporters in this case (including two at The Post) faced an easy choice in deciding the circumstances under which they could testify, but their struggle with the dilemma, and her decision to go to jail, merit some sympathy and respect. That Ms. Miller is receiving so little stems in part from disapproval over her too-credulous reporting leading up to the Iraq war and in part, in some cases, from animus toward the Bush administration. But the next time a journalist faces off with a prosecutor, these same commentators may regret the certainty with which they condemned Ms. Miller.

Well, we can hope these same commentators will regret certain aspects of their criticism of Judith Miller, but I fear they will probably guiltlessly compartmentalize this inconsistency in their overall stance on the First Amendment. That's how partisan thinking works.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

"Flame"-gate: With the New York Times' publication on Sunday of a staff article on the Judith Miller saga, as well as a personal account of the tale from Miller herself, the subject of Miller's memory lapse--selective or otherwise?--is on the front burner. According to the Times' staff article:

Ms. Miller spent 85 days in jail for refusing to testify and reveal her confidential source, then relented. On Sept. 30, she told the grand jury that her source was I. Lewis Libby, the vice president's chief of staff. But she said he did not reveal Ms. Plame's name.

And when the prosecutor in the case asked her to explain how "Valerie Flame" appeared in the same notebook she used in interviewing Mr. Libby, Ms. Miller said she "didn't think" she heard it from him. "I said I believed the information came from another source, whom I could not recall," she wrote on Friday, recounting her testimony for an article that appears today .

I have a theory here. And I offer it mostly as--hopefully--an interesting intellectual exercise--not as something I'm married to:

Of course Judith Miller remembers the source for the name "Valerie Flame" in her notes.  But it’s not Libby. Also, this other source has not released her from a “deep background” confidentiality agreement. Rather than admit she remembers the source’s name and face more jail time by refusing to reveal it, she follows a course that both keeps her out of jail and preserves her promise to her source: She says she can’t remember.

So, in a world without shield laws, Miller has found a way to protect her sourcing promises. Her allegiance to journalism trumps her allegiance to the law of the land.

How would this debate play out in a J-school Media Law and Ethics course, I wonder? I think you’d find healthy-sized factions supporting all sides. A twist: Miller would usually receive backing from absolutist First Amendment advocates. But in this case, a significant portion of that group is angry with her for her WMD reporting in the run-up to the war in Iraq--and they're having the darnedest time keeping the two issues separate.

But back to my theory: Should the real source of the “Valerie Flame” note end up in Libby’s position—that is, being prosecuted for Plame-gate… then... Judith Miller will have new problems.

Still another theory: The “Flame” source is not Libby. However, Miller really can't remember exactly which source gave her the name "Valerie Flame." But she can recall a group of two or three people from whom that name must have come. Complicating matters further, maybe one or more of the people in that pool gave information on deep background—but not all. From a journalistic point of view, can you partially reveal names from that group based on the number of deep background sourcing promises to which you’re committed? I don’t think so. It’s all or nothing; and clearly Miller's chief aim is to honor her sourcing promises.

Until we know more, I offer these theories for general consumption...

Friday, October 14, 2005

Iraq At Issue: Can't make this point often enough. Andrew Sullivan hits the nail on the head:

In 2002, Saddam's regime was teetering toward another generation of corrupt, half-mad dauphins eager to appease Jihadists if it served their purposes. Those who simply trust that Saddam could never have allied himself with these monsters are and were trusting Saddam, Uday and Qusay Hussein. Containment would not have stopped the threat. At some point the regime itself - a potential weapon of mass destruction in itself - had to be dealt with. There was a time when you could find almost no one - from Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Madeleine Albright to Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Bill Kristol - who disagreed. They all ruled out appeasement. At some point, we had to fight. And we had to fight in the central area of the Arab world because the stakes had risen too high to risk piece-meal measures. Al Qaeda knew this, but believed that the Vietnam syndrome would still prevent the West from real action soon enough. They were wrong at first, but they may be onto something now.

On the topic of Iraq, what separates me from the Bushies is that I was on the case when Clinton allowed Saddam to kick inspectors out of Iraq. I thought it as unacceptable then as I do now--with 20-20 hindsight.

And contrary to what the anti-war Left claims, Bush did not enter office with Saddam much on his mind. Saddam certainly was not present in the president's pre-9/11 rhetoric. To my mind, like Clinton, Bush was ignoring a significant threat to the U.S. and the world.

As Sullivan says, Saddam's regime was a "potential weapon of mass destruction in itself." Whether it harbored physical WMD's or not, it possessed the blue prints to them and could pass those along to whomever it wanted. The present alliance between Al Qaeda and Saddam's former Bathist loyalists should dispell any pre-war misconceptions that these two ideologies wouldn't join to face a common enemy.

I've never cast a presidential vote for Bush. And I don't think much of his management of the war. But I remain in agreement with his decision to go to war in the first place. At this point, maybe the best we can hope for from Bush is a flurry of last minute "legacy building" good deeds--mirroring the game plan of the post-Lewinsky Clinton Administration.

Now there's a moderately happy thought. But what we really need is a massive rethinking of the Bushie approach in Iraq. A bold willingness to revisit every aspect of the current military plan. We reached the Moon in a decade, and that sort of deadline-beating inginuity will be required in Iraq. And believe me, I don't mean to be spinning a sappy American fairy tale here, but there is precedent in this country for discoveries of remarkable solutions when needs are greatest.

And let's face it: Bush isn't leaving office tomorrow. I don't think we can afford to wait for the next president to fix this. Constructive pressure needs to be put on this administration now.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Funny: Since Halloween is approaching, I thought I'd pass this along. For Wizard of Oz fans, here's the Wicked Witch Doorstopper. Yep, those striped stockinged, ruby slipper-clad feet can now protrude from beneath any door in your home. Clever item.

Wednesday, October 5, 2005

The Krugman "Correction": I'm late to this discussion. Things have been busy for me this week. But the New York Times on Sunday finally ran a formal correction of Kruggy (see my September 17 post).

Putting all of Krugman's partisan hackery to the side, I should say that I agree with one of his fundamental points: the fairest way to have dealt with the 2000 Bush-Gore battle in Florida would have been to conduct a state-wide recount. Of course Gore wasn't looking for a fair recount. He only sought a recount that seemed most likely to deliver him a win. Bush fought that gerrymandered recount strategy--and won. I took smug satisfaction in the findings of post-election recounts, which showed that Gore's best chance of winning would have been to pursue the--fair--state-wide recount. Gore's recount of choice--asking for recounts only in strongly Democratic counties--was unlikely to deliver him the election.

Yet, even to this day, Democrats claim Bush stole the election. If you're looking for the most overt attempt at cheating, check Gore's recount strategy.

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