11/08/2005 09:54 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Will theTimes Ever Tell Us If Judy Miller Had a Security Clearance?

It's been three weeks since the New York Times released its report, "The Miller Case," along with Judy Miller's first-person recollection of her grand jury testimony. In that article she talked about a tricky matter mentioned in other accounts of her work: that she had a security clearance from the Pentagon.

This would be highly unusual for a reporter and more than a little troubling, since a clearance means you agree never to speak or write about confidential information, and enlists you in the government's whole secrecy regime. It's a commitment to self-censorship, with criminal penalties if you fail. But we don't know if a clearance is really what she meant when she used the word "clearance," which is typical of Miller's self-reports throughout this case. They tend to increase uncertainty and invite confusion.

"During the Iraq war," Miller wrote, "the Pentagon had given me clearance to see secret information as part of my assignment 'embedded' with a special military unit hunting for unconventional weapons." See? Clearance. She said she told the special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald that Lewis Libby, her source, "might have thought I still had security clearance, given my special embedded status in Iraq." Then there was this cryptic remark: "Mr. Fitzgerald asked me if I knew whether I was cleared to discuss classified information at the time of my meetings with Mr. Libby. I said I did not know."

She didn't know if she was cleared to see classified information? I have spoken to a number of reporters about this statement, and several people who had clearances at some level (in a non-journalistic capacity) and all of them said the same thing: How could she not know? That's impossible, they said.

The same day Miller's article was published, Oct. 16, Bill Lynch, ex-CBS News correspondent, published a letter at Romenesko about Miller's revelation "that she was granted a DoD security clearance while embedded with the WMD search team in Iraq in 2003." This, said Lynch, would be "one enormous journalism scandal" if true. But was it true?

"In my experience, defense and intelligence officials routinely share secrets with reporters in the full expectation they will be reported," wrote Lynch. "But if any official had ever offered me a security clearance, my instincts would have sent me running."

The next day, I wrote to Times spokesperson Catherine Mathis and tried to find out. I asked her: "Did Judith Miller, as a reporter for the Times in 2003, have any special security clearances that would have allowed her to handle types of classified information off limits to other reporters and editors of the Times?" I also asked her what the publisher and executive editor knew of such arrangements.

The day after that MSNBC reported: "Officials from the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon say they have no idea what New York Times reporter Judith Miller was talking about when she claimed to have been given a 'security clearance' while she was embedded with a U.S. Army unit in Iraq in 2003."

Two days later, on Oct. 20, the Times quoted Miller in an article by media reporter Katharine Seelye. The clearance story seemed to have changed. She now said she signed the same non-disclosure form that other embedded reporters signed "with some modifications." According to Seelye, what Miller "had meant to say in her published account was that she had had temporary access to classified information under rules set by her unit."

She meant to say that, but somehow "temporary access" and "non-disclosure form" came out as "clearance" and "security clearance" in the report she wrote for the Times. I thought this was strange, since it seemed unlikely that an experienced national security reporter with her pride-of-beat would not know the difference between a clearance and a non-disclosure form, sometimes called a waiver. (See this letter from Army Major Bob Bateman on how unlikely that is.) So that day I again appealed to spokesman Catherine Mathis, asking if the Times could clear up the confusion Miiler had, as usual, introduced.

Mathis did write back asking if I had seen Seelye's story quoting Miller-- and of course I had. But Mathis had no answers for me; she just pointed to the paper. I asked her whether she was telling me that Judith Miller offficially spoke for the New York Times on the question of her clearances. To date I have I received no answer to that, or my original question, or other e-mails asking if there would ever be a reply. Except for the pointing, silence.

On Oct. 21 I published a detailed post at my weblog, PressThink, laying out the reasons why it was important to get an answer, and showing how much confusion Miller had sown about her clearances.

I was not the only one wondering. Barney Calame, public editor of the Times, also thought it was an important matter, so he made inquiries with the editors. He's empowered by the Times to question the Times on behalf of readers, so when he asks it's a different story. Same result, though: In his Oct. 22 column he wrote: "Another troubling ethical issue that I haven't yet been able to nail down is whether Ms. Miller holds a government security clearance-- something that could restrict her ability to share with editors the information she gathers." Nothing since then from the public editor's office. (Calame indicated to me that he hasn't dropped the matter. Good for him.)

Over the last few years there have been many published accounts saying that Miller had some sort clearance or was believed to have such. In 2003 Barton Gellman of the Washington Post spent one day in Iraq with the same unit Miller was attached to, looking for Saddam's weapons. He said soldiers asked him if he had a "secret" clearance like Judy Miller's. ("Secret" is one of the three broad categories of classified information: confidential, secret and top secret.) He also said that, lacking a clearance, he had to step away from a conversation about a classified matter with the officer-in-charge. “I heard Judy tell him, ‘I’m cleared for that, but he isn’t,’” Gellman recalled to William Jackson of Editor & Publisher.

In Franklin Foer's lengthy profile of Miller in New York magazine (June 7, 2004) he says sources told him that "Miller had helped negotiate her own embedding agreement with the Pentagon­- an agreement so sensitive that, according to one Times editor, Rumsfeld himself signed off on it.”

True? Not true? The Times has not told us. Tthe editors may not know the answer; after all, the Times has admitted to lax supervision of Miller. The period in question was one of turmoil at the paper. And they may not trust the answers Miller gives them when they ask directly. Would you?

Meanwhile: We know that soldiers in Iraq thought she had a clearance at the "secret" level. We know that where Gellman had to step away from a discussion of classified material, Miller stepped forward to say she was cleared for that. We know that Patrick Fitzgerald was asking about her security clearances and the way Libby handled classified information in her presence. We know she spoke openly of having "clearance to see secret information" and a "security clearance" in her October 16 account, and then changed her story when the CIA and the Pentagon said they had no idea what she was talking about. We know the public editor asked and has not been able to get enough of an answer to report back.

In fact we know more than enough to be interested and alarmed, but nowhere near enough to draw any conclusions. In my view we have no reason to trust what Miller says; if the Times lets her explanations stand, it will have given a publicly unintelligible reply. Perhaps I'm the only one who cares this much about getting an answer, but I should think that Times reporters themselves would want to know, especially in the Washington bureau, as well as other journalists who report on national security issues.

The implications are large, and I don't want to speculate about whether she did or didn't; that's why I asked my question and tried to follow up with Mathis and Calame. But if you're a Times reader, how can you trust a Judy Miller who talks about having security clearances, forcing you to guess whether a.) she really does or b.) just goes around saying she does?

Perhaps it's impossible for the Times to answer right now, when it's trying to separate from Miller and cope with her demands to correct the record. I would understand that. It would make sense to me. But it may be harder to get an answer after a legal separation, which usually involves not talking about the other party. Maybe Fitzgerald knows. Maybe he'll tell us. Or maybe no one will.
Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University. His weblog is PressThink. This post appeared in slightly different form at Romenesko's Letters.