A Pawn in Their Game

Midway through the Valerie Plame scandal, it is becoming clear that New York Times reporter Judith Miller’s 85 days in jail for refusing to name the source who illegally leaked the CIA undercover operative’s name is less a story about protecting the public’s right to know, and more a comment on the sorry state of her profession.

Most reporters and journalism organisations came to Miller’s aid (even back in South Africa) after it emerged that she was one of a number of journalists who had gotten the identity of Plame, a CIA operative, from sources in the White House.

Her own paper published at least fifteen masthead editorials in her support during her jailing and journalists’ groups worldwide supported her.
That she, unlike Time magazine journalist Matthew Cooper, had refused to hand her notes over to the special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald made her a cause celebre for the first amendment rights of journalists.

Miller herself had said: “If journalists cannot be trusted to guarantee confidentiality, then journalists cannot function and there cannot be a free press.”

On her release, the mainstream media gushed. CNN’s Lou Dobbs fumed, “I will not forgive Fitzgerald for what he did to you. I think it is an onerous, disgusting abuse of government power.” ABC’s Barbara Walters congratulated Miller for being “in jail longer than any other journalist” (not true by the way: for one, apartheid kept a few black South African journalists longer than this).

But gradually it seems the wheels are coming off on what Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer, among others, describes as a “window into the practice of official corruption of journalistic integrity in times of war.”

Miller, it turns out, was not so much protecting the public’s right to know (in fact, she had reported nothing on the story) as abetting the illegal activities of senior officials in the White House who had willfully gone out to out Valerie Plame in order to punish and discredit her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson.

The reason: before the US invaded Iraq in 2003, Wilson (a former ambassador to Iraq) had returned from a Central Intelligence Agency-sponsored mission to Niger in West Africa with the news that administration claims that Saddam Hussein had purchased uranium from that country to manufacture weapons of mass destruction were false. When President George Bush persisted in repeating the charge as part of the rationale for going to war, Wilson wrote an op-ed in the Times refuting the assertions.

A whisper campaign ensued, with Miller and Time reporter Matthew Cooper among the recipients of the classified information, apparently from former vice-presidential Chief of Staff “Scooter” Libby (who got it from his boss) and Bush guru Karl Rove.

Plame’s cover was actually blown by the crotchety right-wing pundit Robert Novak (a regular on CNN), who appears to have cooperated with the special prosecutor and avoided the martyrdom that Miller embraced. The Times flogged Miller’s sacrifice for all it was worth while she was in jail, but has since changed its story. Earlier this month, the paper’s executive editor Bill Keller, in a memo to his staff, wrote that Miller had misled editors, and that if he had known the nature of her contacts with Libby, he would not have backed her. This was not the first time. In May last year, the paper was forced to publish an apology about Miller’s pre-Iraq war reports of claims that Iraq had nuclear weapons.

As more details emerge, it becomes clear that rather than a story about the cause of journalistic ethics and a free press, this case is really about the White House using journalists, classified information and “secret sources” (usually a useful tactic for journalists) to smear a whistle-blower and forward its flawed rationale for leading the country into an unnecessary and ill-judged war in Iraq. Judy Miller didn’t go to jail so the public would have the right to know. She went to jail for her refusal to reveal a high-level crime, and ultimately for her participation in a campaign of disinformation leading to war.

Sean Jacobs is The Media’s correspondent in the United States.

Sean Jacobs

Sean Jacobs

Sean Jacobs is an Associate Professor of international affairs at the New School for Social Research and the founder and editor of Africa Is a Country.  Read more from Sean Jacobs

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