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Reliable Sources

Judith Miller - Hero or Goat?

Aired October 02, 2005 - 13:00   ET


GERRI WILLIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Gerri Willis at the CNN Center in Atlanta. Here are the top stories "Now in the News:" Police in Indonesia believe this amateur video of a man wearing a backpack shows one of the suicide bombers responsible for yesterday's deadly attacks in Bali. Moments later, a bomb went off. At least 19 people died in the attacks. Reports say the government is investigating potential involvement by a radical Islamist group blamed for more than 200 deaths in a similar strike on Bali three years ago this month.
And the U.S. Supreme Court opens a historic term tomorrow. John Roberts will be sworn in as the nation's 17th chief justice. On the docket this week, physician-assisted suicide. Join CNN Presents for a look inside the new Supreme Court. Find out what's at stake as a new chief justice takes the reins. That's tonight at 8:00 Eastern, here on CNN.

There were no winners in the Army's 10-mile race through Washington today. Police say a suspicious package found under the 14th street bridge caused some of the 20,000 runners to be diverted. The package proved harmless. Since the runners ran different courses the judges could not name a winner.

Those are the headlines. I'm Gerri Willis in Atlanta. RELIABLE SOURCES starts right now.

JUDITH MILLER, "NEW YORK TIMES" REPORTER: I was a journalist doing my job, protecting my source.

ANNOUNCER: Judith Miller, out of jail after three months, finally cuts a deal to testify in the Valerie Plame leak investigation. Couldn't she have gotten the same agreement from Dick Cheney's top aide before serving time? Her attorney, Floyd Abrams, joins us.

The Hammer versus the media. Tom DeLay's indictment gives the press a story-line about Republican corruption. Do journalists bear a grudge against the long-time House leader, and have they fairly reported his charge that a Democratic prosecutor is on a vendetta?

Hurricane hype: Why did news organizations report all those bogus rumors of atrocities at the Superdome?

Also, the view from Arianna Huffington and others top bloggers, and a reporter who is also a Washington insider. NBC's Andrea Mitchell on her network career and her famous husband. HOWARD KURTZ, "WASHINGTON POST:" Welcome to this special one- hour edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Ahead: the Tom DeLay coverage; Hurricane blunders; Some of the nation's top bloggers, and Geraldo wins one against the "New York Times."

First, Judith Miller's release from jail in the CIA leak investigation brings more questions than answers. Why did she accept a waiver now that she could have had months ago from Scooter Libby, the Dick Cheney aide who now acknowledges talking about Valerie Plame with Miller, as well as with "Time's" Matt Cooper. What did she accomplish by going to a Virginia jail for 85 days and why are so many journalists -- even at the "New York Times" -- criticizing her instead of praising her courage? Miller looked relieved when she spoke to reporters at the federal courthouse here on Friday.

MILLER: I served 85 in jail because of my belief in the importance of upholding the confidential relationship journalists have with their sources. Believe me, I did not want to be in jail.

KURTZ: Joining me now from New York is attorney Floyd Abrams who represents Miller and the "Times." Floyd Abrams, Judy Miller did a courageous thing by going to jail. But here's what I can't figure out: Scooter Libby, the Cheney aide, gave a personal waiver of confidentiality, releasing a reporter from the promise to protect him to Matt Cooper of "Time." He says he offered the same thing to Judy Miller. Libby's attorney, Joseph Tate, told your colleague, Bob Bennett -- who also represents Miller -- "Scooter doesn't want to see Judy in jail. Why didn't someone call us 80 days ago?" Why not?

FLOYD ABRAMS, JUDITH MILLER'S ATTORNEY: I can answer that first by saying while Judy Miller sat in jail for 85 days and Mr. Libby knew that she was doing it to protect him, no call came in from him. No letter arrived from him. Now, why didn't we call? I had had a discussion with Mr. Tate before she went to jail. It is true that he said to me, it's okay with him, if she testifies. It's also true that in the same conversation he said to me that the waiver that he had signed was, by its nature, coerced. How could it not be, he said? It's a waiver the government forces him to sign in order to stay on in the government. Otherwise, he would be fired.

KURTZ: For the record, Joe Tate tells "Newsweek" your account on that point is bull. Obviously you stand by it. What a lot of journalists can't figure out here, Floyd is, a question about who called who first. Did he really mean it or did he really, really mean it. Hard to imagine a journalist sitting in jail for three months because the lawyers are quibbling over these niceties.

ABRAMS: I don't think it really is niceties. First, I think a lot of journalists are being rather ungenerous -- journalists who've never been to jail, some of whom have never had a confidential source, are being extraordinarily harsh on Judy Miller, who served more time than any journalist in American history in the service of protecting her source. Why is that?

KURTZ: Yes. ABRAMS: She's controversial individually, her reporting was controversial. None of that should have anything to do with what she did here; what she did here was to put her body on the line in the service of protecting her sources and, hopefully, more broadly, sources generally. She was the one ready to say, look, unless and until I am absolutely persuaded that this waiver that's being offered here is genuine, intended, meaningful, not done because the government is pushing and because Mr. Libby is concerned about his own safety. Unless I'm persuaded of that, I have to go to jail. That's what she did.

Not until he called her on the phone and allowed her to make her own judgment, not based on what Mr. Tate and I, lawyers talking to each other say, but what the source says to the reporter, not until she had that was she willing to, in effect, come out of jail and regain her liberty.

KURTZ: I talked to people at the "New York Times" who are angry and confused about this. They say, understanding -- look, many journalists have used confidential sources. Most of us have not gone to jail. They say you could have had something approaching the same deal before she went to jail. You and Judy Miller took an absolutist position -- we cannot possibly betray the source -- by going to jail and what happens at the end? She takes the waiver and testifies before the grand jury.

ABRAMS: We couldn't have had the same deal. Indeed, in one respect I tried to get a deal a year ago. I spoke to Mr. Fitzgerald, the prosecutor, and he did not agree at that time to something that he later did agree to, which was to limit the scope of the questions he would ask, so as to assure that the only source he would effectively be asking about was Mr. Libby. She has other sources and was very concerned about the possibility of having to reveal those sources, or going back to jail because of them.

The fundamental issue remains the same thing. This is not niceties between lawyers. This was a journalist deciding, at what point am I sure enough that my source really wants me to speak, that I can give him up. Not until she was absolutely persuaded of that was she willing to testify. I think she deserves to be honored by her journalistic colleagues -- many of whom are doing just that -- rather than making the central issue here whether she could have gotten out earlier.

The central issue, in my view, is, did she serve or disserve the public and First Amendment by standing firm. I think she served it.

KURTZ: Judith Miller certainly has a lot of admirers for her stand. We appreciate your coming out today.

ABRAMS: Thank you very much.

KURTZ: Joining me now here in Washington, Andrea Mitchell, chief foreign correspondent of NBC News and author of the new book, "Talking Back," "Wall Street Journal" national political editor John Harwood, and Byron York, White House correspondent for "National Review." Welcome.

Andrea Mitchell, you just heard Floyd Abrams. Judy Miller says she went to jail to defend a great principle of journalism. But an awful lot of people feel that was undercut by the fact that she did ultimately accept this waiver from Scooter Libby, that people feel if she pushed a little bit harder, she could have had months ago. What's your view?

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS: It is inexplicable. We really don't understand why they couldn't have talked more aggressively with Scooter Libby's attorney and figure this out quite some time ago.

KURTZ: If you were facing jail, would you want your lawyer to say, they didn't call? I'd want my lawyer to call.

MITCHELL: Floyd Abrams is correct that what they did get from the independent counsel was this agreement to limit the questioning to her conversations with Scooter Libby. That's terribly important because she didn't want a fishing expedition into all of her other sources -- which are legion in this administration and others -- on the subjects of weapons of mass destruction.

KURTZ: But John Harwood, other journalists, including Tim Russert of NBC, two reporters at the "Washington Post" and "Time's" Matt Cooper all testified under waivers, they were able to get the limited narrow scope of questioning from Prosecutor Fitzgerald -- but first they had to have the waiver. By the way, Karl Rove also gave a waiver to Matt Cooper, keeping him out of jail. Do you understand why Judith Miller didn't take the waiver from Libby months ago?

JOHN HARWOOD, WALL STREET JOURNAL: I still don't get it and still don't get it after listening to Floyd Abrams talk to you just now. He said in that conversation with you that, on the one hand, Tate said to him it's okay with Libby if she testifies, and then he agreed the government waiver was inherently coercive. Fine. It may have been inherently coercive, but if Tate was telling Abrams she could testify, I don't under why she didn't do it. Journalists have been saying for a while, the facts of this case aren't great for a big principle test of First Amendment and the ability of reporters to protect their sources. But it may be even worse if you take bad facts, assert a principle and then reverse course and look like you're undercutting the principle.

KURTZ: Byron York?

BYRON YORK, NATIONAL REVIEW: That's the lesson that will come out of this. If you are a prosecutor -- Fitzgerald wanted her testimony. She had a high-minded reason for not giving it. He sends her to jail and now he's got her testimony. The lesson is, coercive detention works if you are a prosecutor.

MITCHELL: Let me take a step backward, also, though. The attorney general, the Justice Department have guidelines, which is you do not question or coerce reporters unless there is a major criminal case involved. They would not have followed this, they would not have tried to get Tim Russert or Glen Kessler or Walter Pinkus or any of the other correspondents or Judy Miller to be interrogated if it had just been at the Justice Department level. So an independent counsel is brought in because of media pressure, including the "Wall Street Journal" and others, arguing that there needed to be some sort of independence here. Perhaps not the "Journal" but certainly the "New York Times" and others. At that stage we've got an independent counsel going way beyond normal guidelines.

KURTZ: He's a special prosecutor. He basically can do what he wants and he decided to be very aggressive. There have been other cases where journalists have been put on the line and are facing jail. The climate has gotten much chillier here, John Howard. And journalists say they need sources in order to inform the public. You've got to be able to promise people I won't use your name. Give me the information. But in this particular case, as you well know, these aren't whistle blowers. These were senior administration officials who many people believe were outing Valerie Plame as a CIA operative to get even with her husband, administration critic Joe Wilson.

HARWOOD: That's why the facts were bad in this case for a test like this. This is not a case of a journalist courageously protecting the source of information of vital national importance. It involves trash talk, political trash talk, from one side or the other. It's difficult.

I think one of the things that's true, as Andrea suggested -- until we hear from Patrick Fitzgerald and know exactly what he's got, we won't know how all these pieces fit together.

KURTZ: I was hoping I would wake up this morning and see in my "New York Times" and read a 5,000-word piece by Judith Miller telling us everything that was involved. She has no more legal liability here. Matt Cooper did it. No piece in the paper today.

MITCHELL: Matt Cooper did that, and in fact I think that is something we do expect and would have wanted from Judy Miller. We want to hear her story. I'm not quite sure why we're not hearing her story. I do think coming out of this, even thought facts are bad and it is a bad case all the way around, it's conceivable we'll never know. If he doesn't indict, he does not have an obligation to file a report. We may never know what's going on.

I think it should lead to what John McCain and others have called for, a national shield law. I really think that, even if this case was bad, by all -- by everyone's agreement, we need to prevent this from happening again. It is really an outrage that she was in jail for 85 days, for whatever reason, for a story she never wrote.

KURTZ: That's what I was going to ask Byron York, which is another bizarre thing here. It's Robert Novak, the columnist and CNN commentator who is currently on suggestion suspension for cursing on the air -- who outed Valerie Plame in a column two years ago. Judy Miller, for whatever reason, was talking to Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney's top aide, about Joe Wilson's wife -- get all the characters straight here -- never wrote a story. How does she become a lightning rod? Floyd Abrams talked about the hostility, even within the journalistic community, that seems to be directed toward her.

YORK: Here is my definitive answer: I don't know. There is a story in the "Washington Post" today, and a few paragraphs down it said, "still to be determined is whether Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has determined whether a crime was committed." There's so much we don't know. One of these sources close to the case told me weeks ago. He said, you know, you are looking at the fourth quarter of the game. You don't know what happened in the first three quarters. The story today said, they don't know what arrangement Fitzgerald has made with Robert Novak. All of these things are unknown.

MITCHELL: One of the things that we are expecting, according to some sources, some lawyers who have had other witnesses in front of the grand jury is there is the possible theory of the case that he is pursuing a conspiracy because the original statute is so hard to convict anyone on. Some sort of conspiracy to undermine Wilson's credibility by outing his wife.

KURTZ: One thing I've learned to do is not predict what prosecutors or grand juries may do.

Last question, John Harwood. Haven't journalists with their somewhat promiscuous use of unnamed sources in all kinds of routine political stories -- you used the phrase "trash talk" -- kind of undermined public support? So a case like this comes along and people say they're not rooting for the journalist. I didn't detect a public groundswell when Judy Miller was marched off to an Alexandria, Virginia, jail.

HARWOOD: Sure. There's a lot of hostility out there toward the press that many politicians play to effectively.

KURTZ: Haven't we added to that by overusing and abusing unnamed sources?

HARWOOD: No doubt about it. Many newspapers for years -- my dad when he worked for the "Washington Post" 20, 30 years ago tried to root out confidential sources. It's very, very difficult to do. That's how Washington works.

YORK: The "New York Times" in particular called for this Fitzgerald investigation. When it happened it said it's about time this happened.

KURTZ: Got to get a break. When we come back, Tom DeLay -- under indictment -- mounts a media offensive. Are journalists giving him a fair shake?

And later some Category 5 mistakes in the Katrina coverage. That's all coming up.