THE BLOG
11/10/2005 01:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Security Clearance That Never Was: Another Canard in Judith Miller's Long Trail of Deception

In New York Times public editor Byron Calame's October 23 column on "The Miller Mess: Lingering Issues Among the Answers," he flagged a troubling ethical issue that "I haven't yet been able to nail down." He was referring to Judy Miller's claim to have held a government security clearance--"something that could restrict her ability to share with editors the information she gathers." But he missed the point.

Assuming for the moment that there is any truth to this claim, she has also asserted that, while in Iraq in the spring of 2003, her "most secret reporting" was based on classified information that she could ONLY share with the topmost editors--but not the readers of The Times! Back then, in the heat of battle, such nonsense must have scratched Howell Raines' ego as he imagined 'hot intel' being 'stovepiped' from the WMD military task force in the desert directly to him on West 43rd St. in Manhattan.

In her 3,600-word October 16 account in The Times, Miller had written about her grand jury testimony regarding three conversations she had with Vice President Cheney's chief-of-staff, Scooter Libby, after she returned from covering the initial quest for WMD. According to her story, she held a security clearance from the Pentagon that allowed her to see classified information as part of her "embed" assignment with a military task force unit called MET Alpha, hunting for weapons of mass destruction: "I told [special prosecutor] Fitzgerald that Mr. Libby might have thought I still had [a] security clearance, given my special embedded status in Iraq."

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Calame might have picked up the phone and called the paper's Pentagon reporter, Eric Schmitt, who actually interviewed Miller about her alleged security clearance for a Katherine Seelye-bylined story of October 20. Had Miller's special clearance actually amounted to anything more than what many journalists covering the Iraq war had: a written agreement to see and hear classified information but treat it as off the record unless an ad hoc arrangement was reached with the military host--who then censored their copy? (Recall that the WMD intelligence was pretty bad!)

Despite there being no evidence to back up her more ambitious claim, she had often, while traveling with the task force, bandied about that she held a SECRET clearance from the Pentagon--as I reported in Editor & Publisher on September 23, 2003, based on eyewitness accounts. However, it now seems rather obvious that Miller had signed the standard embed agreement, but with an outfit that dealt with highly classified materials. So she had a running, largely oral, deal that she would be circumspect, while greatly embellishing her "secret clearance" status to impress press colleagues and commanders alike. No evidence has been discovered at the Pentagon that she got anything remotely resembling a bona fide security clearance that would have required a background investigation.

In Schmitt's telephone interview with Miller, she admitted that the so-called "non-disclosure form" was precisely what she had signed, with some modifications, adding that what she had meant to say in her October 16 published account was that she had had temporary access to classified information under rules set by her unit. Moreover, she said that under the conditions set by the commander of the 75th Exploitation Task Force, Col. Richard McPhee, she had been allowed to discuss her "most secret reporting" with only the senior-most editors of The Times.

(Imagine this communique from the field to her own top command while she was in
pursuit of sole possession of a Pulitzer: "Hey, guys, let me describe to you what it was like on the parade ground to pin the bronze star on Chief Warrant Officer Richard Gonzales of MET Alpha, after Gen. David Petraeus had awarded it in recognition of our team's successful quest for WMD.")

When asked by Schmitt if she had ever left the impression with sources, including Libby, that she had access to classified information after leaving her assignment in Iraq, Miller said she could not recall. "I don't remember if I ever told him I was disembedded," she said. "I might not have." But she added, "I never misled anybody." (This last quote often recurs in Miller's rationalizations of her bizarre behavior, with a ring to it not unlike Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook.")

Yet, late on Sunday night, October 23, after Calame's column appeared, Miller made a great leap forward in describing her unique access to secret information while in Iraq, via an e-mail message to the public editor.

After asserting that the "ethical issue" had been "fully clarified," she wrote: "No one doubts that I had access to very sensitive information or that I did work out informal arrangements to limit discussion of sensitive INTELLIGENCE SOURCES AND METHODS (emphasis mine) to the most senior Times editors. Though there was occasionally enormous tension over whether and when I could publish sensitive information, the arrangement ultimately satisfied the senior officers in the brigade hunting for unconventional weapons, The Times' editors at the time, and me. It also led to the publication of my exclusive story that debunked some of my own earlier exclusives on the Pentagon's claim that it had found mobile germ production units in Iraq." (Ponder this last boast.)

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She "became the news," alright. Miller had written several essentially false or highly inaccurate stories in April-May 2003 (not to mention before the war was launched in 2002-2003) in effect supporting the Bush Administration's claim that Saddam had WMD by reporting that they were actually being found, or about to be found, in Iraq. No wonder that all the parties were "satisfied"!

With her unique access to INC defectors and "hero in error" Ahmad Chalabi, she probably thought she was privy to the most sensitive WMD intelligence--just like her top sources in the Pentagon and the OVP back in Washington! Adam Clymer, a former colleague, understated the situation when saying: "She had gotten too close to her sources."

Almost in pathological denial, Miller continues to play down responsibility for her pre-war reporting about Iraq's fictional WMD arsenal. She knows that her pre-war stories on WMD were partly a product of a government-financed campaign to link reporters with untrustworthy Iraqi defectors, and then later smear anyone who disputed the evidence. No matter: "If your sources are wrong, you are wrong. I did the best job I could."

In her letter-to-the-editor of November 10, Judith Miller was certainly correct on one point: she became "a lightning rod for public fury over the intelligence failures that helped lead our country to war." But she was indulging in legerdemain when complaining that "I was not permitted to pursue" the WMD story further once she returned to the States. That assignment was her main charge in the summer of 2003, as part of cleaning up The Times' WMD coverage under the supervision of interim executive editor Joe Lelyveld, Washington bureau chief Jill Abramson, and foreign editor Roger Cohen. She was allowed a long mini-culpa on July 20, 2003, aptly entitled "A Chronicle of Confusion in the U.S. Hunt for Hussein's Chemical and Germ Weapons" --critiqued by me in E&P as "Miller's 2nd Draft of WMD History."

Well, now, she is free to tell us more about "the easily checkable falsehoods." Ah, but as Lynne Duke implied in her perceptive "The Reporter's Last Take" (November 10 Washington Post) does Miller know how to tell the truth? There is no doubt about Duke's indictment: "During the war, when other newspeople and experts began realizing that the lack of evidence of Iraq's WMD was likely an indicator that there was no WMD, Miller held out longer and continued to write from the field as if they would be found any day." In pursuing the big story about "threats to our country," she warned Army officers: "I intend to write about this decision in the NY Times to send a successful team back home just as progress on WMD is being made."

In "The Judy Code" on CJR's website, Douglas McCollam writes: Perhaps the most revealing document to come out in the last few days wasn't Miller's lengthy word summary of her grand jury testimony in the Valerie Plame leak case, but the memo of Craig Pyes, her reporting partner on the prize-winning bin Laden stories: "I do not trust her work, her judgment, or her conduct," Pyes wrote in an internal Times memo reported Monday in The Washington Post. "She is an advocate, and her actions threaten the integrity of the enterprise, and of everyone who works with her." Pyes wenht on to say that Miller took "dictation from government sources" then tried to "stampede it into the paper."

Sound familiar? That accusation resonates loudly today because that's exactly what a lot of journalists and experts think Miller was doing in her melodramatic, sensational WMD reporting--prior to and in the early stages of the war in Iraq.

In her tirade to Calame, she touted her alleged permission to have had privileged access to "intelligence sources and methods," a phrase that the intelligence community uses to refer to the most sensitive of intelligence secrets such as electronic intercepts, satellite photographs, and human spies. In knowingly using the code phrase "intelligence sources and methods," Miller, one of The Times' most experienced national security reporters, would seem to be engaged in a transparent attempt to help Libby (and herself) by making it difficult for special prosecutor Fitzgerald to raise their conversations in an open trial. McCollam is on point: "The more you analyze Miller's story (I have read it four times now) the less it seems like a straightforward recitation of events and the more it seems like a carefully scripted message to Libby, and perhaps to other sources with whom Miller spoke about Valerie Plame and Joseph Wilson."

She is upping the legal ante, "throwing sand in the air," by leaving the impression that she and Scooter Libby might have discussed "sources and methods" in their three meetings in June-July 2003. This ploy comports with her "ambiguous" and "flaky" testimony before the grand jury--as described to me by a lawyer familiar with it. Indeed, when one follows her lawyer-vetted public proclamations since she left jail at the end of September, they appear to be scripted to make it difficult for the prosecution to use her as an effective witness against one of the neo-con architects of the buildup to war.

But her disparate utterances may get her into big trouble with the Army officer pictured below, Col. McPhee, the commander in overall charge of the task force teams searching for WMDs in the spring of 2003.The Army will certainly disavow sharing "intelligence sources and methods" with an "embed." And, the CIA just might ask the Justice Department to initiate an investigation of her claim independent from that of the special prosecutor in the Plame case.

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(Incidentally, Col. McPhee would not see her when she returned to Baghdad in early June 2003, seeking a re-negotiated, less restrictive, non-disclosure agreement; and she had to leave the country. Shortly after that, her first known meeting with Libby related to Plame occurred on June 23.)

Judy Miller's varying claims to have special access to classified intelligence have gotten her into trouble on Capitol Hill. On October 25, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), following a discussion with one of the primary in-the-field sources for my September 2003 account of Miller's in-the-desert reporting methods, made a speech on the floor of the Senate. Stating his intention to ask the Pentagon inspector general to investigate, he asked: "What kind of clearance would that reporter have to see classified or secret information?"

Dorgan went on: "The classification of material that is secret or top-secret dealing with intelligence or military operations is not...a classification that can be overcome by someone in the Pentagon that says, 'O.K., you put on a military shirt or a pair of military trousers, go embed yourself with that unit, and by the way, you sign a little form that says nondisclosure'.'" He was, in fact, describing the appearance of Miller in some photos taken of her with the WMD task force to which she was attached.

Why, men and women with a journalistic moral compass may ask--Jay Rosen, "Will the Times Ever Tell Us If Judy Miller Had a Security Clearance?"--does the leadership of The Times not try to get to the bottom of the serious ethical issue behind the security clearance claim? I do not think that editor Keller sees any particular need to come clean on this issue and inform Calame. He has a way of not being concerned about bad publicity or mistrust, if he does not regard the matter as a major issue. In any case, what would he say? Seelye and Schmitt reported that she was not claiming anything beyond the normal non-disclosure agreement, with minor modifications. Would Keller call Raines and ask if he had been aware of anything approaching a Pentagon-issued security clearance for Miller that would have required a background investigation?

I assume that her editors were not aware of her having anything like a security clearance, other than "embed" arrangements, because she had none. As for editors Raines and Boyd and publisher Sulzberger getting her "most secret" reports from Iraq, they may have been under such an illusion. But remember that her copy was subject to censorship; AND much of her WMD information was wrong! Moreover, both her PAO "minder" and the commander of one of the WMD teams on the scene told me flatly (in late summer 2003) that she had no SECRET-level security clearance. It was puffery, or embroidery; throwing her weight around by invoking Pentagon authority.

The mystery has been solved. This was the security clearance that never was--a canard.