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Analysis: Miller time

Judith Miller's strange role in the CIA leaks probe

By Jeff Greenfield
CNN

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CNN senior analyst Jeff Greenfield

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Opinion
Iraq
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
Judith Miller

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Many years ago, a Supreme Court justice, in a rare display of ordinary English, said of a complicated case, "The more you explain it, the less I understand it."

Which brings me to the case of Judith Miller, The New York Times, and the Case of the (Maybe) Covert CIA Employee Whose Name Was (Maybe) Leaked by People in the White House to Smear Her Husband-Critic and/or To Nail Said Critic On His False Claims.

We will know tomorrow or next week whether anyone will be indicted by Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor investigating who leaked the name of Valerie Plame as a CIA operative to reporters, and on what charges. (Related story)

But when it comes to Judith Miller and The New York Times, the 10,000 words the paper devoted to the story and to Miller's account of her grand jury testimony, I am left with one overwhelming reaction: Huhhh?

Why am I befuddled? Let me count the ways:

Item: Times Executive Editor Bill Keller says he was so troubled by Miller's reporting on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction -- stories that proved essentially wrong -- that one of the first things he did when he took over the paper was to tell Miller she could no longer cover that beat.

But somehow, he told the Times' reporters, she kept edging her way back to that beat by talking with administration officials on Iraq.

Item: Keller and the paper's publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., went to the mat for Miller, spending millions of dollars in legal fees, and God knows how much energy, in defending the decision to protect her source.

But it turns out that they did not know the full story of who or what she was protecting in refusing to testify before the grand jury, a refusal that cost her 85 days in jail for contempt.

She and her lawyers made the calls; the people in charge never knew whether she was protecting a whistle-blower or her own backside in not revealing her dealings with I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney.

Item: Miller told the grand jury she didn't think Libby had given her the name of Valerie Plame -- or "Valerie Flame," as she wrote it in her notes that were subpoenaed.

But Miller's lawyer, Robert Bennett, urged the special prosecutor to confine his questions to Miller to her dealings with Scooter Libby -- because he was the only one who provided meaningful information.

Item: In her dealings with the Times reporters chronicling her story, Miller would not let them see her notes or engage in any meaningful conversation about what she told the grand jury, or pretty much anything else.

Item: The whole account in the Times -- the paper for which Miller worked for so many years -- reads more like a prosecutor's brief than anything else.

Present and former Times employees describe Miller as a loose cannon, someone they fundamentally did not trust. If this is how many of her colleagues regarded her, how could the Times as an institution cede control over her case to Miller and her lawyers?

The conduct of the "paper of record" may well be a sideshow to the bigger picture: Did anyone in the White House break the law?

Was there a concerted effort to discredit Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson, the retired career diplomat who disputed in a celebrated Times op-ed piece the administration's contention that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had shopped for uranium in Africa?

And if there was, was it a defensible political tactic aimed at an untrustworthy critic, or a retaliation that crossed the line into an illegal and dangerous outing of a covert intelligence agent?

And is this story part of the greater battle: The war between the CIA and the vice president's office over U.S. policy toward Iraq -- and the intelligence that drove that policy?

Still, when it comes to the policies and practices of the most influential newspaper in America, it would be nice to finish its 10,000 words of explanation with something more than a heartfelt "Huhhh"?

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