My Take on Plamegate

millerEver since I called Judith Miller a heroine when she first went to jail, I’ve been reading what others have said about the grand jury investigation, most notably this wrenching self-investigation from the NYT staffers, and staying quiet. Today I think I finally know enough to (a) predict what’s going to happen and (b) comment on what all this (should have) taught us

I still think Judith Miller is brave, and that she did the right thing going to jail. I’m probably the only one in the world that still thinks so. Here’s my reasoning:

  • You get close to your ‘sources’ over time, and your desire to protect them becomes more than just a matter of principle. 
  • She said (and in the paranoia of Bush Washington there’s reason to believe her) that she believed Libby’s willingness to waive source confidentiality was coerced, which suggests to me that she knew that Bush/Cheney were willing to sacrifice Libby because they had ‘plausible deniability’.
  • She was also right to believe that when Libby’s lawyer made the point about saying no other reporters had suggested Libby knew or talked about Plame, it was a blatant warning that if she were to testify and say he did, she’d go down. This gratuitous addition to the ‘you can testify’ clearance was unquestionably an attempt to influence her testimony.
  • She wasn’t willing to sacrifice Libby, and I don’t think that’s because she wanted to hide the crime, she just couldn’t see the point in Libby taking the fall while the higher-ups get off scot free (like the bosses of the Abu Ghraib torturers).
  • If Libby does take the fall, and that’s the end of it, there will never be anyone in the Bush Administration willing to talk to anyone about anything, especially not a whistle-blower.

The principle is important. Whistle-blowers need to know the messenger won’t always be shot (or at least, they’ll take the crook with them). Miller is a second-rate journalist and a loose cannon, and a lousy poster-child for the US first amendment, but the one thing the NYT management did right in this case was to support her for not revealing her source.

What the NYT did wrong was let Miller have far more autonomy in dealing with this situation than they should have (far more than any reporter should have). That is especially embarrassing after the Jayson Blair fiasco, and basically shows the NYT wasn’t following its own procedures. For them to admit they never bothered to second-guess why she refused to take the ‘you can testify’ clearance at face value is just bush league. That undermines the credibility of everything in the paper, which is the only real asset a newspaper has. It’s a sad day for the NYT.

The next crime in this case is one that both Miller and the NYT were complicit in. That dates back to the initial reporting by Miller that gave unwarranted credibility to the existence of WMD in Iraq (or at least to suggestions Iraq was attempting to procure them). The crime is a consequence of what James Surowiecki explains so well in The Wisdom of Crowdsgroupthink. When you work closely with a bunch of people for a long period of time under difficult circumstances you come to trust them, and to think like them. That’s what she did, genuinely expressing her concern about Iraq’s WMD potential or intentions based heavily on the sense of the team she was ’embedded’ with.

The very purpose of ’embedding’ journalists is to elicit such groupthink, and both the NYT and Miller should have known that. Groupthink is excusable for us, perhaps, but not for a journalist. Embedding is simply an unacceptable and inexcusable limitation on journalistic freedoms, and no reputable newspaper should tolerate it, even if that means being ‘scooped’ on distorted news stories by refusing to be part of embedded teams. What were they thinking, to believe that somehow they would be immune to the propaganda such circumstances are designed to produce? Don’t they teach this in journalism school?

So, to sum up, lessons learned:

  1. We need better whistle-blower protection: US desperately needs greater federal whistle-blower protections, including a source identity shield law, even though it is open to abuses. The US is far from alone in this. The situation in Canada and Europe is actually worse (perhaps due to complacency that we don’t need whistleblowers).
  2. The media need better management, consultation and internal communication: Newspapers that want to keep their credibility and reputation need to manage their people, and get them to share all information (other than the identities of sources) openly, get second opinions, and consult with others, so that collective wisdom is brought to bear in all the organization’s decisions and publications, and not left to individual cowboy-mentality reporters operating with complete autonomy.
  3. The media should not condone or participate in ’embedding’: ‘Embedding’ operations hopelessly compromise the objectivity of reporters, and no respectable newspaper or news medium should participate or allow their staff to participate in such operations, or report anything that comes from such operations. All that does is abet propaganda, and that’s nothing short of journalistic misconduct.
  4. The media need ‘auditor-style’ independence and objectivity guidelines: One of the (many) problems that allowed the Enron fiasco was the cosy relationship between Enron and its auditors. The auditing profession has (now even tougher) rules to prevent relationships getting so close as to impair the objectivity of the auditor. So does the medical profession with respect to relationships with patients. The media should study these and adopt guidelines along the same line. Just as there must always be a line between auditor and client, and between doctor and patient, there must always be a line between journalist and source. Any degree of casualness, intimacy, or personal feelings for a source should be setting off alarm bells. Journalists need an additional question on their fact-checking checklist: Are you so close to your source that it might impair your objectivity?

And finally, my predictions, which I really, really hope are proved wrong:

  1. All the important people in the Bush/Cheney Administration have plausible deniability and will be untouched by the jury findings (and because there’s no sex or violence involved, voters will soon forget and the political damage to the administration will be minimal). The only hope for a different outcome is that someone deep inside, for reasons I cannot fathom, will risk all and blow the whistle on the people at the very top. Unlikely.
  2. The cone of silence that pervades this administration will get worse. There will be no need for a memo from the top once everyone realizes that if you say nothing to anyone and if you know nothing or can plausibly deny knowing anything, you are safe. The only thing left is spin, and we’ll have even more of it.
  3. Attempts to introduce meaningful federal whistle-blower legislation in the US and elsewhere will continue to fail because the people who would have to pass such legislation (such as all branches of the pork-laden federal government) are precisely the ones who have the most to fear from whistles being blown. Not going to happen without a huge shakeup in the people making the legislation (and in Congress, at least, gerrymandering guarantees that that won’t happen either).
  4. The media will otherwise escape relatively unscathed, in part because the public already distrusts them as much as any group has ever been distrusted in recent US history, and in part because, for all the  failings of the NYT, its competitors are mostly much worse, so those of us with any hope for the legacy media will continue to prop up the NYT.

The irony of course is that everybody knows Bush lied about the reasons for invading Iraq, just as everybody knows Clinton lied about having sex with his intern. The fact that the consequences of that knowledge have been so different for these administrations says more about the mindset of the public than it does about either the presidents or the media.

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11 Responses to My Take on Plamegate

  1. J says:

    Um… sorry to burst your bubble, but Libby is hardly a whistle blower– he’s the government official manipulating a bad reporter to exact punitive damage ON A WHISTLE BLOWER (Wilson). And Miller never wrote a story about Plame or Wilson– therefore, she wasn’t acting as a journalist, but as a witness to a crime, and thus the 1st amendment has nothing to do with it. You are a journalist by action, not by title. If you fail to act in the capacity of a journalist, then you cannot claim the protections that journalists have. I’d urge you to read a bit more on Miller and her history of carrying water for the Bush administration. Bravery implies a heroic defense of a higher ideal, not a stubborn defense of you and your friends’ self-interests.

  2. Darcy says:

    Not only was Miller a stooge for the Bush Admin’s disinformation campaign re WMD both before and after the beginning of the current war in Iraq, but it is also becoming more apparrent that she could very likely have been part of a rather wide ranging conspiracy of crimes too numerous to go into here. The info is all out there on the web – some of it may be over-reaching, but no one seems to believe that Judy Millers real motivation for going to jail was to protect the “freedom of the press.” A good place to start is here: Also – what do you think of the Libby’s cryptic quaking aspens (with connected roots) turning in unison? Read the whole letter (the NYT has a pdf somewhere) – it is obvious that Libby was “coaching” Judy. Now why would he feel that he could get away with that?

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    J/Darcy: You may be right. It’s easy to Monday Morning quarterback this stuff. I went through both Miller’s long and somewhat annoying explanation of her testimony, and the NYT staffers’ equally long and quite candid (I thought) take on it, which was not entirely sympathetic with their beleaguered reporter. Hopefully we will know in the end, but I just don’t think Miller had/has any great love for Bush and the neocons, nor do I believe she was stupid enough to be ‘played’ by Libby. Darcy, I thought the observer article you reference above was excellent, but it didn’t change my perception. I believe Miller and Libby are friends and she would not want to hurt him, but I don’t think that’s inconsistent with defending first amendment rights. I did read the ‘quaking aspens’ letter, and, given the fact that their last meeting was at a conference in Aspen where a ton of big-spending Republicans with connected roots turned in unison vociferously against Bush, I think it more than likely that the quote was neither coaching code nor romanticism, but a wry reference to that astonishing meeting.

  4. Susan Hales says:

    Dave, I was very happy to see this long awaited analysis from you — as I highly respect your views, and your generosity when offering other perspectives and points of contact with other aspects of our collective experience here on this small planet. And yet I seem to remember a time when you thought the fear that Diebold might be tampering with voting machines “over the top” — just sayin…The thing that makes me believe that you are wrong about the outcome is my faith in our new media and our “collective conciousness” that has not ever been seen before to this level, and you, as one of the more prolific writers in this project should weigh in more often – there is no one right answer as to how this happened, and there won’t be one outcome, but one thing seems to be true – they aren’t operating in secrecy any longer. The pieces to this puzzle are falling into place quite clearly, and the media is smelling blood in the water. It’s a lot easier to see here in Lower Alabama than it is in places where the majority of the population is progressive to begin with. My best -Susan

  5. Darcy says:

    Niether Libby or Judith Miller were at the Sep 2005 Aspen conference. They last saw each other in July 2005 at the St Regis Hotel in DC. However, the Sep 22 Aspen conference is an interesting reference – Robert Novak wrote the column that you link to and of course we all know that he was the very journalist who outed Valerie Plame’s name as a “CIA operative” “according to two White House sources” – one of which, we all know now, was Scooter Libby. Is he saying Novak a turncoat along with all the other “turning Aspens?” Why does he think Judy Miller will be writing more about WMD (the Times had already put a stop to that) and suicide bombers, Etc, Etc…. I still say she was protecting her relationship with her source, rather than her source. Even shrinks have to testify when one of their clients is involved in a crime (either as victims or perpetrators). The public’s need to know trumps the inviobility of a personal relationship. I will concede however, that Ms Run Amok (MS Law Unto Herself?) may have “believed” she was doing the right thing when she published her misinformation (the same organized misinformation campaign that Joseph Wilson blew the whistle on) about WMD. She may have “believed” that she was standing up for the 1st amendment. But her actions show that it was more about not being accountable – to her editors, to the public the free press is mandated to serve, and most of all herself. The consequences have been disastrous, not only to the American people – but to Iraq and the world as a whole, that is the world is much less secure than it was before the Feb 2002 invasion of Iraq.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Darcy: Thanks for the Wilkerson bit; I wonder if he has any real wrongdoing to tell us about, rather than just horrific judgement and refusal to listen to advisors. I was sure I had read that Libby & Miller’s last meeting was in Aspen, or at least that she had run into him there. I agree with you that Novak is the guy who should be charged in all this, along with whoever prompted him to leak this. I think it’s possible he will be. Re: the Aspens quote, I think Novak makes it clear in his review that he is not one of the turncoats, but he is almost alone in that. And he thinks Miller will write more about all this because he knows her, and knows she is determined to keep writing about this. That’s her life. She will probably be fired by the NYT (they have done everything short of that), and will end up doing freelance stuff both on “threats to the US” and on First Amendment issues, for whoever will print her articles, . Someone will.

  7. Darcy says:

    Another link Dave! Re Judy and her future, I am sure you are right. She will continue to write – it will be interesting to see who will publish her. The Weekly Standard, perhaps?

  8. Rayne says:

    Dave, on Miller you and I will have to agree to disagree. She is not protecting a whistleblower and is therefore not a First Amendment martyr. She is aiding and abetting at least one criminal act, and it may be treason; there is no First Amendment right to do so. She may have done more than aid and abet; she may have been a willing participant in the effort go to war. There is far too much evidence already in the public to suggest that she was not acting purely as a journalist. What say you if she was acting as a propagandist? What say you if she received benefits or payment-in-kind for her services?One piece that may change your outlook: — ask yourself whose interests she served then.There are other folks whose research on Miller and the rest of the “Yellowcake Conspiracy” I encourage you to read: the gang at FireDogLake (, emptywheel at The Next Hurrah (, Billmon at The Whiskey Bar ( — to name a few.If only it were as easy as busting Novak for disclosing classified information that he not only knew to be classified, but was warned not to disclose by a member of the intelligence agency. If the leaks from the White House are correct, the difficulty of this situation is exponential to busting “Douchebag of Freedom”. Keep in mind there is at least one other overlapping, interconnected scandal being investigated along with the Plame outing; a government official already prosecuted and sentenced.

  9. Rayne says:

    Dave, here’s another piece that might be eye-opening about Miller: // written by MaryBeth at Wampum, part I of a series.I did not know until I read this that it had been reported years ago that John Poindexter, retired admiral and NSA for Reagan, used Miller in a disinfo campaign…

  10. Chris Ball says:

    You know what they need? Professional certification for journalists. I mean, they have it for doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc, so why not? Specifically (since I’m an engineer by trade) I’m thinking of the way professional engineering certification works in Ontario. You don’t have to be certified to practice engineering, but certification gives you certain priveledges as well as certain responsibilities. As for journalism: you wouldn’t need to be a “certified” journalist to write for your local paper, but if you WERE certified, you would be immune from the kind of thing that Judith Miller was subject to, thus allowing people to trust you with their information. But, in return, you would have a strong ethical code that you would be responsible for living up to (which I’m not sure Miller did).

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