A Persistent Prosecutor Unravels the Leak Case

Originally posted: October 28, 2005

Around Labor Day I spoke to an assistant to Patrick Fitzgerald, “Every reporter’s favorite independent prosecutor, right?” she quipped. Wrong. At about that time, Fitzgerald was using federal subpoenas to compel reporters from NBC News, Time magazine and The Washington Post to testify about their sources in the Valerie Plame leak case.

At its core, this is a case of government sources abusing that confidentiality by purposely lying to reporters, in effect; using that pledge to hijack the newspaper or network that gave it to advance a political agenda.

I and many others could not figure out why Fitzgerald was so determined to force The New York Times’ Judy Miller to testify. Unlike the others, she talked to someone but never wrote an article.

My conversation with Fitzgerald’s assistant occurred around the time the Supreme Court upheld the prosecutor’s right to compel Miller to testify or go to jail. Miller was steadfast and the Times backed her, spending millions to do so. At that moment, Fitzgerald looked like another zealous special prosecutor with an excessive agenda, one nobody could quite fathom.

How wrong that turned out to be. With time running out on Fitzgerald’s grand jury, we began to learn a number of very important things. We learned that when he goes on TV, Vice President Dick Cheney does not consider himself under oath. On “Meet the Press,” Cheney said he didn’t know that Joseph Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was an undercover CIA official. In fact, Cheney was briefed by CIA Director George Tenant on exactly that point weeks before.

We learned that Cheney’s top staffer, I. Lewis Libby, doesn’t consider himself under oath even when he testifies before a grand jury. Libby told prosecutors that he learned Plame’s identity from reporters. It is now pretty clear he learned it from Cheney, then passed it on to Miller.

Through Miller’s saga, we see even more clearly how influential Ahmad Chalabi was just before the start of the Iraq war. Chalabi was telling Cheney what he wanted to hear about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction capacities. Chalabi was also a principal source for Miller, who was imbedded in Iraq with a military unit searching for WMDs. Miller’s reporting echoed Chalabi’s information and the Times supported the administration in the run-up to the war.

A year later, Times editor Bill Keller wrote a note to readers acknowledging misguided, misleading reporting during this period. Five of the six stories he cited were written by Miller.

The fact that the Times was backing Bush policy helped neuter Democrats and silence others who might have opposed the war. Now 2,000 American soldiers are dead.

We also learned that Miller entered into an unusual conspiracy with Libby, agreeing to more deeply mask his identity as an unnamed source by calling him “a former Hill staffer.” Adding to that, Miller developed convenient memory lapses in grand jury testimony, forgetting one meeting with Libby until presented with White House entry logs. She failed to report that they discussed Plame, and claims that name in her Libby notebook must have come from another source, she can’t remember who. Why would anyone believe her?

We learned that the Times still has management problems at the top level. Keller told Miller she could not cover national security affairs anymore, but he now acknowledges that “she kept drifting on her own back to the national security arena.”

Keller took over from Howell Raines, who lost his job because of an unsupervised rookie, Jason Blair. Keller’s problem was larger — an unsupervised star. Miller once described herself to her new foreign editor as “Miss Run Amok.” She explained, “Meaning I do whatever I want to.” When a reporter says that to an editor you know there is trouble ahead.

Amazingly, neither Keller nor publisher Arthur Sulzberger questioned Miller about her contacts with Libby before throwing the power of the institution behind her all the way to the Supreme Court, even allowing her to go to jail. There is still trouble at the Times.

Patrick Fitzgerald pulled on threads until things started to unravel everywhere.

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