Before she is carted off to jail for refusing to identify her source in the Valerie Plame leak case, the New York Times needs to fire Judith Miller. Miller, who harmed the reputation of both her newspaper and her craft with bungled reporting in advance of the Iraqi invasion, is the last person journalism needs to have serving as its martyr. She was wrong about virtually everything she wrote on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. And Miller is just as wrong about protecting her Plame source instead of protecting her country.
There is no question that journalists need to do everything reasonable to protect their sources of critical information. But it is equally certain that there are rare circumstances when that responsibility is outweighed by an issue of greater importance. Miller, Matt Cooper, Robert Novak, and all journalists need to heed a higher ethic. Isn't national security, the safety of their own country and the welfare of their fellow citizens, more important than protecting the identity of a source who was, in all probability, violating federal law by talking to reporters?
These moral conundrums are not unique to journalism. There are isolated cases where the legal profession is also compelled to violate attorney-client privilege to serve the larger principle of justice. What if a lawyer, court-appointed to defend a terrorist, learns during attorney-client discussions, of a nuclear device planted on American soil? The privacy of that information is no longer sacrosanct and the lawyer can be forgiven for divulging the knowledge. His country is more important than his career. Judith Miller, apparently, thinks differently.
The leak of agent Valerie Plame's identity did more than put her and her family at risk. Plame, according to various reports, was working undercover with a number of bad actors from Eastern Europe in the arena of weapons of mass destruction. Whoever provided her name to journalists thought Plame's espionage to prevent a WMD attack on America was much less important than politically harming her and her husband, Bush administration critic and former US Ambassador Joseph Wilson. Even if federal law does not speak in detail to this sin, there is nothing else for it to be called other than treason. Why would Judy Miller or any other journalist protect such a person?
The more essential question, of course, is who is Miller's source. Looking at her reportage during the run up to the war offers some useful evidence on who was tipping Miller. The protocols she followed to gather and corroborate her erroneous information were almost painfully transparent. In the Mid East, according to Miller, she got story leads from Ahmed Chalabi, the convicted embezzler funded by US tax dollars, and any number of his confederates within the US intelligence community. They were all feeding Miller information that supported the notion of an invasion and WMD. She almost certainly called the White House to get corroboration. And no one there was likely to contradict what Chalabi and company were saying because they were all working toward the same goal. This kind of closed loop system, where Miller, Karl Rove, Chalabi, and others end up breathing their own fumes is what led to a front page New York Times story suggesting that a shipment of aluminum tubes was proof Saddam was trying to build a uranium gas separator. He wasn't. The tubes were Medusa 81 rocket bodies from Italy and their fins and motors were discovered in a warehouse north of Baghdad after the US had invaded. But that story built great political support for the war.
No information comes out of the White House without being cleared by Karl Rove. If he is not one of the targets of the federal probe, the investigators need to rethink their career choices. No one who has known Rove or has watched the deployment of his political skills and treachery is willing to believe that Valerie Plame's identity was exposed through an independent act by someone in the White House or the Vice President's office. Rove tends to set up layers of deniability between himself and the execution of his political assaults so it's not likely he picked up the phone and called Miller. But it is probable he set in motion a process that led to Miller, Novak, and others getting information on Plame. And if Miller would give up her source, the trail of bread crumbs will probably lead right back the president's man servant, Karl Rove. And even if it doesn't, offering up the name of her source is certain to lead to judgment of a person who thinks their country's safety is less important than a political enemy's demise.
Journalism today is beleaugured for a reason. Readers, viewers, and listeners are losing trust in an industry that increasingly fails to get it right. And some reporters appear to think they can decouple themselves from the laws and mores that give our society structure. It isn't hubris that is harming journalism; it's just plain stubbornness. Judith Miller has become iconic for much of what is going wrong in American media. And journalism needs to reject the silliness that she is a fitting martyr for a principled cause. Miller can improve the stature of her craft. And help keep her country safe. By giving up the name of her source. In this case, doing what's right is abundantly obvious.
It just isn't easy.