Thursday, September 29, 2005

Judy unchained

Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter incarcerated for 85 days for refusing to identify a confidential informant, walked out of jail after her source, the vice president’s chief of staff, said it was all right to identify him.

Now, it turns out the whole affair may have been a big misunderstanding, according to the Washington Post. Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t.

But one thing is certain: The case has made many news organizations more cautious about using the confidential sources that traditionally have provided crucial information for vital stories that otherwise would not see the light of day.

Ms. Miller was jailed for contempt of court when she refused to testify before a federal grand jury investigating whether someone in the administration unlawfully outed former covert CIA agent Valerie Plame.

Ms. Plame was identified as an operative after her husband, former Ambassador Joseph P. Wilson IV, scotched the administration’s assertion that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy enriched uranium in Niger to build atomic bombs in Iraq. The discredited uranium story was a major piece of evidence offered by President Bush in support of the Iraq invasion.

In every state but Wyoming, reporters generally are shielded by law from being forced to identify their confidential sources. But the Plame case is a federal matter, so no such protection exists. Ms. Miller was jailed in July until she either agreed to testify or the grand jury's term lapsed, which is scheduled to occur in October.

Ms. Miller was freed when Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the chief of staff for VP Dick Cheney, released her from her promise to protect his identity. As part of the deal for her freedom, Ms. Miller promised to testify immediately.

According an amazing account reported by the Washington Post, a big misunderstanding may have been behind the case that landed Ms. Miller in prison longer than any other American journalist ever has been jailed for protecting a source.

The Post said Mr. Libby approved a formal waiver to release Ms. Miller to testify more than a year ago, but that her legal team apparently did not understand this.

“Joseph Tate, an attorney for Mr. Libby, said yesterday that he told Ms. Miller's attorney, Floyd Abrams, a year ago that Mr. Libby's waiver was voluntary and that Ms. Miller was free to testify,” reported the Post. “He said last night that he was contacted by [Robert S. Bennett, another of Ms. Miller’s layers] several weeks ago, and was surprised to learn that Ms. Miller had not accepted that representation as authorization to speak with prosecutors.”

Because neither Ms. Miller nor Mr. Cooper ever wrote a story, the article actually exposing Ms. Plame was written by Robert Novak, who never sought to protect his sources, if any, from the grand jury.

Based on what we know now, it appears that Ms. Miller may have gone to jail to protect a source who didn’t want to be protected for a story she never wrote about a crime that may not have been committed.

This is getting curiouser and curiouser.


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