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judith miller

Miller is the former investigative reporter for The New York Times who went to jail for 85 days after refusing to reveal her source in the Valerie Plame investigation. She is also controversial for her pre-war reporting on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. A freelance writer, Miller also travels the country advocating a federal shield law to protect reporters from having to reveal their sources, except in cases of imminent national security. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 13, 2006. [Editor's Note: As a condition for this interview, Miller, who had a lawyer present, would not answer questions about the impending trial of Scooter Libby.]

In the courtroom before you went to jail, you made a statement about the importance of the freedom of the press. What did you say?

I said that without confidential sources, you couldn't have really free, independent press. I quoted Thomas Jefferson, who said that if he had to choose between having a government and having a free press, he would choose the latter. I said that because I'd worked in the Middle East for so long I understood the importance of the rule of law, because so many of the countries in which I worked didn't have a rule of law, or any law except the law of the leader. But that in a matter of personal conscience, when it was a question of freedom of the press versus obeying the law, while I was not above the law -- in fact I was here in this court as a statement that I was very much covered by the law and accepted it and appreciated it -- that I had to follow my conscience, and I had to protect my sources, because without them there couldn't be an independent and a free press. I had written out the statement before, because I knew I would be too nervous to make it just an extemporaneous statement. ... Judge [Thomas F.] Hogan permitted me to read it to him, and I did.

And then he sent you to jail.

Yes. (Laughs.) He did. From having read the statement, it seemed like just a couple of minutes before I was taken … to the punishment side of the law, right in back of the courtroom where there was a jail cell, locked cell, where I sat for several hours while they decided where I was going to go. It was terrifying.

Terrifying?

Yeah, really terrifying, because the fear of the unknown is always with you, and even though I'd been in some kind of fearful situations before, I had never been in jail. And I guess I'd seen a lot of movies, so yeah, I was fairly terrified.

Before all of this started, what did you think your rights were as a reporter, and particularly around confidential sources?

I knew that 30 years ago the Supreme Court had delivered what was a rather ambiguous statement with respect to whether or not reporters had a privilege not to testify about sources before a grand jury. And I knew that for 30 years the courts had kind of bent over backward not to push this issue.

“We can't begin to say I'm only going to issue pledges of confidentiality when politically I agree with the source, or I think the source isn't politically motivated. Almost all leaks of information are politically motivated.”

I also knew that while I would be protected in many states under state law, ... that at the federal level there was no guarantee of such protection, so I realized from the beginning that there was a possibility that I might go to jail. While others discounted that possibility, I never did. I always thought it was a serious risk.

But you played in the arena of Washington reporting, for instance, national security reporting for a long time.

Uh-huh. But nobody had ever gone to jail. I mean, the last person to go to jail with The New York Times had been Myron Farber in New Jersey [in 1978]. No national security reporters had been sent to jail. Usually these things were worked out between prosecutors and reporters, between the federal government and news organizations. I guess I hoped against hope that in this case there would be a similar resolution.

Did you have some method for deciding whether you gave somebody confidentiality? Because it seems pretty informal in Washington.

I think it is informal in Washington, or at least it was informal in Washington before this case. ... I think people who worked in the national security area almost automatically understood that the people whom they are interviewing had to take polygraphs, and one of the first questions that these sources were asked was always, have you had any unauthorized conversations with a journalist?

I think we were always aware that you had to speak to these people on the basis of confidentiality, or they wouldn't talk. Many of them had already stopped taking my calls at the office. I had to usually call before 8:00 in the morning or after 8:00 at night, because they would not talk to me from an office phone.

I had taken precautions about speaking on cell phones that couldn't be traced. You try and be careful. But ultimately your ability to function in a national security area depends on having people who trust you to talk to you, to give you their side of a dispute that you're attempting to cover. So even though you're careful, those of us who cover national security understand that almost everybody who talks to you is maybe violating the law simply by discussing classified information without authorization. ...

We now know who your source was. Mr. [Scooter] Libby, [then-chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney]. How long have you known him?

I had known him for several years. I had known of him for years before that, because when I began working with my colleagues on my book [Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War] about biological weapons, Mr. Libby had been quoted in that book as a source. He had been very helpful to my colleagues. I had not interacted directly with him, but he knew of me, and he knew that a lot of the information that we were asking him about had come from me. So we kind of knew of each other. ...

Was he part of your network of people that you would talk to regularly just to know what was going around in Washington?

... He was not a social friend, if that's what you're asking. He was not somebody whom I went out to dinner with regularly. He was not a person that I dealt with regularly, but I had some contact with him.

He trusted you?

I don't know whether he trusted me. You'll have to ask him that. I felt that I had given him a pledge of confidentiality, given his position and given the kind of information he had, and given the kinds of conversations we were having, and that that pledge had to be respected.

When did you first find out that you were going to get subpoenaed into what was then the Robert Novak case?

I think I had a premonition, if you will. I had a fear that I might be subpoenaed, because the subpoenas were being issued quite broadly in Washington. I knew several reporters who had gotten them, and I also knew that I had had conversations with Mr. Libby and that, therefore, I might be subpoenaed as well. Because of that, I went to our lawyers at the Times, and I said I was worried about getting such a subpoena.

Because you were afraid that they would be able to determine that you had talked to him in some way?

Yes. ...

And when you received it?

It was obviously not a happy day. But I wasn't really surprised. I was just worried.

Were you clear at that point that you weren't going to cooperate?

Very clear.

From the beginning?

From the beginning. ...

You know, a lot of people are confused. You never wrote a story about this, but you were subpoenaed.

Right.

Can you explain that?

I can't really. I mean, normally journalists are prepared to talk about the stories we write. I think what was particularly troubling to me about this case was that I was being asked to discuss a story I hadn't written, information that I had not published. ... Therefore the confidentiality pledge was even more important. ...

... People understand that if there's a whistleblower, someone who's got some information about wrongdoing or illegality going on, let's say, in the government, they need to be protected, obviously. There's even laws that protect them as whistleblowers. But what happens when it's not about whistleblowing, when there's another motive of the source? I'm speaking generally here.

Look, sources aren't saints, and we shouldn't expect them to be. People leak for all kinds of reasons. ... My job was to collect as much information as I could in order to discover where the truth lay, and that means getting information from all kinds of people. In Washington, officials discuss information like this every day. They spin it. They get their side of the story out. Reporters have to hear all of that in order to evaluate the information they have.

Another point is that when you sit down to interview a source, say, if I'm interviewing you, I don't know what you're going to tell me. I don't know whether or not it's truthful or accurate. I don't even know why you may be telling me this, but I know that it's important that I hear it if I'm trying to write a story that's balanced and that's fair.

So we can't begin to say I'm only going to issue pledges of confidentiality when politically I agree with the source, or I think the source isn't politically motivated. Almost all leaks of information are politically motivated.

Let me re-enact this in some way, generically. So I'm a very powerful official in the United States government and I say, "Let's have lunch, but it's going to be on background."

Happens every day in Washington, yes.

But then I start to unload on you information that's negative information about someone in Washington.

That happens every day. Just about every day. It's the reporter's obligation to sift through that information and find out whether or not there's a legitimate story there.

But if the source is obviously after some kind of political advantage -- this isn't to expose something to the American public, to give them some information that they can't get any other way; ... we're talking about political hardball basically -- you still have to honor that arrangement?

Absolutely, or people won't come forth to talk to you. You have to honor your pledge of confidentiality. …

But you're saying there's no gradations? There's no difference between your confidentiality pledge to a source who's got some ulterior motive versus someone who's taking risks to present information to the public?

People are always taking risks when they're discussing classified information with reporters. Mark Felt, who was Deep Throat, were his motives entirely pure? Was he angry about the administration policy, the Nixon administration?

My job is to evaluate motive when I'm actually writing a story. When I'm collecting information, I want to talk to as many different people as I can and hear as many different viewpoints as I can. That's tricky when the information you're dealing with is classified. But I can't begin to draw a boundary around information and sources based on their political views or whether or not I like what I'm hearing. ...

Many of your colleagues made different decisions than you did. Mr. [Tim] Russert [of NBC], Mr. [Walter] Pincus [of The Washington Post], they decided to cooperate. …

… Every reporter must make his or her own decision about whether or not they're going to cooperate in such an investigation. But I think that unless all sources or potential sources know that a reporter is going to protect them, they won't come forward with information. ...

Can I say something else about this source business? Our political culture now has become deeply polarized and politicized. There are some of my colleagues, and I'm not going to name names, but I think some colleagues decided that it was more important to "get someone in the Bush administration" than it was to protect the First Amendment.

For me, ... protecting the public's right to know always had priority, and therefore my standard for cooperation was very high. It was different from other people's. Everybody has to make that call themselves, but I knew what I could live with and what I couldn't live with.

But, you know, it became clear pretty soon that because of the WMD [weapons-of-mass-destruction] stories and at least what you represented to some people in the public and the media that you were going to have some problems getting support. Did you ever wonder, "Maybe I'm not the right person to do this"?

I don't think I chose to put myself in this situation. I think the facts of this case kind of chose me. I thought that I just had to follow my conscience and do what it dictated. ...

This is why I feel so strongly we need a federal shield law, because individual journalists and individual news organizations shouldn't have to be in the situation of deciding like this, on a case-by-case basis, whether or not we're going to go to jail or violate our commitment, ... because the public deserves to have this information, and we need judicial help at this point in achieving that mission.

But how would a federal shield law have helped you? I don't know of anybody who's proposing one that would cover national security information.

Well, the first versions of the measure that was proposed by Sen. [Arlen] Specter [R-Pa.] and Sen. [Christopher] Dodd [D-Conn.] did that. It had virtually an absolute privilege for reporters except in cases of imminent harm to the national security -- not previous harm, but imminent future harm. And I think that might have covered my case. Yes, I do.

The irony here is that the complaining witness, if you will, the victim was the CIA. They complained to the Justice Department that there was a potential violation of the agent identification act because of Mr. Novak's article, and that's a national security issue. The woman in question, Valerie Plame, was an undercover agent or undercover official, so she was potentially in danger. ... Do you think that reporters shouldn't be answerable in those circumstances?

No. I think that reporters ought to have an absolute privilege.

Absolute?

Except in cases of imminent harm to an individual or imminent harm to national security. I think the broader the statute, the better protection of the public's right to know.

So journalists should be able to determine what's public and what's not, when it's a matter of national security and classification?

The Constitution decided that. The First Amendment decided that. That's our system.

But there are limits on it.

News organizations make those decisions every day, and the fact that the administration in this case has chosen to go after, to pursue so many criminal investigations involving so many reporters I think ought to raise questions in the public's mind about whether or not the administration wants them to have information the press wants them to have.

Wait a second. I thought you were Judy Miller, the supporter of the administration, the friend of the administration?

Who says that? Who says that?

I've read it.

I never characterized my own political views. I don't discuss my political views publicly. ... People offering what they believe to be opinions about what I believe and what my political views are oftentimes -- especially in a lot of what I read about myself -- don't know a thing about me or what I believe, or my history, or my political views. And I don't think that that should be relevant in terms of assessing whether or not sources should be protected. ...

Look, you prided yourself and have actually developed quite a reputation for having access in Washington to officials, to sources. ...

Yes.

For example, you managed to have, if you will, an unusual relationship with the U.S. military in terms of covering what was going on in Iraq related to weapons of mass destruction, right?

I was embedded with the unit that was charged with hunting for weapons of mass destruction.

No one else was there for the media?

No.

... Do you see why people perceived you as a friend of the administration, because you had that kind of access?

You know what? I got an interview with Bill Clinton on the eve of his impeachment hearing to discuss biological weapons and the threat to this country posed by bioterrorism. It was a president in one of the most severe crises he had, and I was given access to him for an interview on a subject that he cared a great deal about and I cared a great deal about and I was covering for The New York Times. Nobody said, "Oh my gosh, she's too close to the Clinton administration."

I do my job. It was my job to find out what information was being provided by the intelligence community to the president -- a Democrat president and then a Republican president. I did that job irrespective of who was in the White House.

I'm not saying that you've been fairly criticized for it. I'm saying that you step back for a minute and try to understand why the criticism, in a sense, was political, for example.

... It probably was political, and I regret that, because I think that it has muddied the waters. I think that it has clouded the issue here. It's clouded what's at stake in the protection of sources. ...

When you first read [former Ambassador] Joe Wilson's op-ed piece, what was your reaction?

I didn't read it. I was in Iraq. I heard about it when I came back.

You heard that possibly the administration had used bad information to go to war?

Right.

And when you read Novak's column, what was your reaction?

Clearly I was annoyed. I was annoyed because the Times had been beaten. I thought there's clearly a story here. Either there's a story that Wilson's information was not correct, or there was a story that the White House was trying to discredit him, slander him through his wife. But I knew there was a story there, and Novak had picked up on that and had gone with it. And I don't like to be beaten.

But you saw that he identified Wilson's wife as an operative of the CIA.

Yes, operative.

What did that mean to you?

I wasn't quite sure. I wasn't quite sure whether or not he was saying that she was undercover or that she was an operations officer or [whether] he was just using a word that was kind of a sexy word for an analyst. I didn't know. ...

Did you have an intention to write anything about it?

I recommended to an editor that a story be pursued -- not that we write, but that we pursue this story. ...

But you didn't necessarily have any intention of writing anything?

No. I was assigned to a different story at that point. ...

In this case, there was something that no one counted on called waivers. When did you hear about them, and what did you think about them?

When I first read that government officials had been asked by the administration, by the president and by [special prosecutor] Mr. [Patrick] Fitzgerald to sign blanket waivers, I said these people aren't signing these documents willingly and voluntarily. If your boss comes to you and puts a piece of paper in front of you and says, "Sign this or you're out of a job," do you really have much of a choice?

I felt that those blanket waivers, what I called assembly-line waivers -- anonymous, impersonal -- did not really relieve me of the pledge I had made to my source. I would have liked to have accepted it; I just couldn't. ...

There was an expectation at the beginning when the CIA made its complaint and the FBI investigation was announced [that] this is just going to be another leak investigation in Washington; given the Justice Department guidelines, reporters aren't going to get subpoenaed, right?

Right.

And The New York Times editorialized for a special counsel.

Yes.

And eventually Attorney General [John] Ashcroft stepped aside.

Yes.

It's kind of ironic.

Be careful what you wish for. Be careful what you editorialize for. I always disagreed with that editorial. I think special prosecutors imperil both reporters and their sources because they're not accountable to a political system. I think that they're part of our problem at the moment. ...

So you think these waivers are what -- "pernicious" is the word you used?

Yes. Coercive and dangerous, pernicious. Definitely.

But take the other point of view: Officials in the White House or in the Central Intelligence Agency, or anywhere where they're sworn to secrecy, they're not supposed to leak.

I know that.

So?

But our system works on the basis of information, and getting information out through a free press.

But isn't there some information that the public shouldn't have for national security reasons?

Yes, I think that's right; there is some. When I was an embedded reporter, I came across that information all the time. It involved operational details that could imperil the operations of the war, that could endanger soldiers and soldiers' lives, that could endanger Iraqis who were cooperating with the United States. That kind of information is definitely dangerous. ...

Reporters don't publish information that intentionally jeopardizes people. I don't know reporters who would, for example, fail to cooperate with the authorities if he had information about a kidnapped child, which is something that's frequently hauled out in congressional testimony against a shield law. Reporters are citizens, too. But we have an obligation that's recognized under the Constitution to publish information that the public has a right to know, so we have to make these calls day in and day out.

Yes, it is tricky. Yes, mistakes will be made. But I would rather err on the side of a free press than an unfree press, or a guided press, or a shackled press, or a terrified and intimidated press. And that seems to be where we're heading.

But don't reporters sometimes overstep the bounds?

Yes.

Don't they sometimes take confidential information and, let's say, use it to try and get a story, and maybe endanger a government case or maybe inadvertently or in the enthusiasm to get a break, a news, a scoop, do something that could endanger an investigation or national security?

Yes, I'm sure there are situations like that.

So how do you bring that under control if you can't subpoena the reporters or get to the bottom of it?

Well, first of all, even the Justice Department guidelines say that the government has to exhaust all other alternatives before it subpoenas journalists. ... I think you have to strike a balance. I think a federal shield law that protects national security from imminent future harm would be the kind of law that would strike that balance. It would protect reporters and their sources. I don't like the notion of these shield laws as reporters' shield law. They're really the public's shield law. ... It's the public's right to know that's being protected, not mine.

But I can hear somebody out there saying: "Wait a second, Ms. Miller. You're a citizen of the United States first. Don't you have an obligation to testify if there's a violation of the law, just like any other citizen?"

Not about confidential sources. If I see something on the street, if I see a crime and I'm not doing my job, I have an obligation just like any citizen to testify. But when the issue involves the protection of confidential sources and the preservation of a free and independent press, I think it becomes much, much more problematic.

And to those in the business who say there is a point where the Supreme Court refuses to hear your case and recognize your privilege, the ones that say you've got to testify?

No. I have to go to jail. I don't have to testify necessarily. I have a choice. I was honoring the law and accepting the law as it was interpreted in my case; that I felt as a matter of conscience and profession and principle that I had to go to jail rather than testify until I got a voluntary personal waiver from my source. That's my standard, and I think it's the right one. I thought it was the right one then, and I think it's correct today. ...

[You didn't feel that] the communications between your attorney and the attorney for your source [constituted a waiver]?

I know there was a lot of discussion between my attorneys and a lot of back-and-forth. But I knew this source; he knew me. If he had wanted me to testify, he could have conveyed that in a personal way, and he did not until I had been in jail for 85 days. At that point, he did. I am very grateful that he did finally. I accepted the waiver once it was personal, voluntary, written, and I could question him about it. That was my standard. ...

Well, you know, it's one of the other complications that makes your situation and the situation around this case difficult for people to understand. Why would you go to jail for 85 days, that you couldn't make this deal beforehand?

I didn't get the letter beforehand. If I'd gotten the letter from Scooter Libby beforehand and been able to talk to him about it, I wouldn't have gone to jail. I didn't have what I needed.

But there was a second part to what I needed. It wasn't only a waiver from Mr. Libby that I needed. I also needed the special prosecutor to tell me that he wouldn't be asking me about any other sources in my notebook other than Mr. Libby. ... Until he agreed that I would not be subjected to the kind of open-ended investigation into my sources, I also could not cooperate and could not come out of jail. So I really needed both. ... Without those two elements, I would still be in jail today. ...

We interviewed [Times executive editor] Bill Keller. Basically what he said was in hindsight, he feels like maybe we could have avoided this whole thing of Judy going to jail, and that we really maybe did not pursue a waiver and go about doing that in a way that we could have avoided this from the beginning.

That's his view.

Well, in the end, everyone did testify, including you.

Yes, but not on the basis of an anonymous blanket waiver. There is a difference between me and my colleagues who testified and when they testified. ...

Bill Keller is entitled to any view that he has. I would point out that when I was in jail, he supported me, and when I came out of jail, he was with me at my side at the press conference. The paper stood with me through this ordeal.

But there was a dissolution of that support after you got out of jail?

Yes.

Because?

I think you'll have to ask them. I never changed my view or my position. I think I made the right decision to go to jail, and I think I made the right decision to come out of jail when I did.

Did you feel betrayed by the paper?

I'm not going to comment about that. I had 28 wonderful years at The New York Times. I think it's a great institution, full of talent and energy and dynamism, and I don't regret any of it. I am obviously very disappointed that some people now feel that my ordeal was not worth it. But for me it was, and I'm very comfortable with the decision I made. ...

You know, you said that the others involved didn't get the same kind of waiver, but they disagree with you. They say that they did get a voluntary waiver.

As I said, it's up to every journalist to make that decision himself or herself in the absence of federal shield legislation. Without a law protecting us, there's always going to be chaos and confusion about whether or not we should cooperate and when and what constitutes a voluntary as opposed to coerced waiver. That's why we need a law. ...

I did not want to go to jail. I did not seek to be a "martyr" for the First Amendment. That was the last thing I was thinking of. What I was thinking about was the next time when I say to somebody, "I will protect you if you give me information that's important," will that person believe me? Will the person believe any of us? That's what I worry about all the time.

Well, set yourself aside for a second. Did this case in the end give the public or that person who may want to talk any confidence that reporters aren't going to testify?

I don't know. In my case, I've had people, sources say to me, "Thank you." I have done several stories on weapons of mass destruction since leaving jail, several stories involving classified information, and people have continued talking to me. So I feel comfortable that they know that I was willing to spend 85 days in jail protecting them -- and longer if I had to. …

After you got out of jail, there was a firestorm of criticism about you, your choices. One time you called it a "40-day tsunami." Your Times ran stories. Maureen Dowd wrote a column called "Woman of Mass Destruction."

It started when I was in jail. ... And it was particularly painful and frustrating while I was in jail, because I wasn't at liberty to defend myself or to say that these stories were completely false and malicious. ...

The suspicion, the motivation, which we've had some people say to us on camera, is that you were becoming a martyr to re-establish your credibility because of all the criticism you got about your WMD reporting.

Going to jail for me was not a career move, a career-enhancement move. Going to jail was something I felt I had to do; I didn't want to do [it]. I hadn't sought a confrontation with the government. I'd never written anything. It was a question of principle and conscience. And whatever anyone else said, in a way, was irrelevant to me. It was painful. It was extremely painful for my friends and family. But I knew why I was in jail. And I knew that I was in jail for a cause that I thought was essential to our profession. So I was very comfortable with the decision. But was it painful? Yes. Was it disappointing? Yes. Was it infuriating sometimes? Yes. It's journalism. ...

I just want to say something. As painful as those bloggers were who were saying these things, I have to really stress that the support for me when I was in jail was kind of overwhelming. I got thousands of letters. ... [Former Sen.] Bob Dole came to see me twice. Journalists from all over the world were writing to me. I was honored after I got out of jail by the Society of Professional Journalists, given a First Amendment Award. So some people did get it. ...

I think it was a small, very politicized group of reporters and bloggers who really disagreed with the decision in principle because they disliked the administration so much. ...

Well, it's not for me to say whether they did or not, but there's a group of people who felt that you were doing this to make up for the problems with the WMD coverage.

I didn't feel that I had anything to apologize for with my WMD coverage. I had done the best that I could at the time with the information that was available to me. I had worked very hard when I got information that disagreed with the administration's intelligence assessments to get that information out. I went back to Iraq a second [time] in order to write a story about mobile labs and all of the doubts among the technical experts about whether or not those were mobile germ labs as the CIA contended. Every time I was permitted to follow a story and report it out, I did so.

But journalism is not omniscient. Journalism is a process of writing what you know when you know it, being as honest as you can with the reader about where the information is coming from, and evaluating it at the time. ...

You've said that you may have gotten some of the stories wrong because your sources were wrong.

Right. They gave me information that I believe they believed. It was information that was given to the president. The National Intelligence Estimate [NIE] went to the president. When George Bush asked his director of central intelligence, "Is this the best you've got on WMD?," we learned from Bob Woodward [that] George Tenet's answer was the famous, "Slam dunk, Mr. President."

Well, if the president was being given this information, it was the official intelligence assessment of the United States government and the intelligence community. I believed that they wouldn't give the president false information.

I'll say something else about WMD: It's a very hard area to write about. I was not alone. Many other papers did the same kind of reporting that I did. I think because The New York Times is the paper that it is and I had written for so long about it, I was --

You were the leader. You were the expert in this area.

I was the alleged expert. There were other experts. But in the first Gulf War in '91, the CIA had said that there was no WMD threat, ... and they found that, in fact, Iraq was perhaps a year away from having a nuclear capability. I think our experience in Iraq and our experience with the U.S. intelligence community led many of us to believe that, if anything, the intelligence community would minimize a threat rather than exaggerate it. ...

I always tried to take that information and to vet [it] against the international inspectors. I always took the information and went to private analysts and said, "Does this sound right to you?" Was it perfect? No. Was it wrong? Yes, it turned out after the fact to be wrong. But as I say, the answer to wrong stories is more reporting.

I could hear somebody saying the CIA got all these things wrong; the intelligence community got all these things wrong. They were your sources.

Yes.

OK. So why weren't you more skeptical?

I was skeptical. I thought that, once again, the intelligence community might be underestimating the threat.

Also, we have to remember this threat was being evaluated in the aftermath of 9/11. ... I think we were all influenced by that event, and it probably led me to not question hard enough whether or not the information being given to the president was perhaps exaggerated.

But was I skeptical? Yes. Did I do the best job I could to evaluate the information I had at the time? Yes, I did. I simply couldn't get it. And every time I got more information that contradicted that assessment, I published it.

I've met [Iraqi National Congress founder Ahmad] Chalabi, one of your sources.

A source always identified by name in stories, and identified by me as an opposition leader who wanted to replace Saddam Hussein, who wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein. I don't believe that I quoted Mr. Chalabi as just a source blindly. I think he was almost always on the record with me.

But he provided you with defectors?

No, he provided me with one defector. (Laughs.)

Who turned out to be not reliable.

No, I think there's still a question about the story I wrote years before the Iraq war. He was someone who had fled Iraq. I think there's still a debate within the intelligence community about what parts of his testimony were accurate.

But he was a source of information -- and through people that he knew and others around him -- who provided you with information that Saddam did have things like mobile labs.

What I wrote in the Times was that he said he had been asked to make changes in facilities that were consistent with their being able to store weapons of mass destruction. He never said, and we never published, that he had actually seen such agents or such weapons. I clearly identified Mr. Chalabi's role in directing that source to me. ...

Do you think you may have gotten carried away in your pursuit of a scoop; that you got manipulated; that you believed without questioning enough?

No. I think I was skeptical. I was always skeptical of the information, and I did the best I could to try and vet it. It was hard, because a lot of this information was classified, and a lot of people didn't know about it, so I was in effect telling them for the first time when I was trying to evaluate it. This is not a science. Journalism is not perfect. You do the best you can. And if you don't get it, you go back and you do it again.

So then why have you even said -- you characterized yourself as being "Miss Run Amok."

Oh, that was a bureaucratic joke. I was making fun of myself. One of the senior editors at the paper had asked me to go to Washington and to get front-page stories. ... Newspapers are notoriously turf-driven, and a paper like the Times is very protective, reporters are very protective of their beats and their sources. ...

I was told to go down there and just break news and make news and shake things up. I said: "That's an impossible situation. That's an impossible assignment. They'll say, 'There she comes. Here I am, Miss Run Amok.'" It was a kind of a joke that was masquerading a complaint. (Laughs.) ...

But you know, Judy -- and I've said this to you before -- ... you're aggressive.

Sure.

You're obsessed.

Yes.

You've got sharp elbows.

Right. You have to to do good journalism, I think, and to break news, you have to be relentless. I am, and I was, and that's me.

Did you pay for it in the end in this battle, that so many people criticized you?

Maybe. Maybe that was part of it. I wasn't Miss Congeniality. I didn't spend a lot of time schmoozing by the coffee cart. I was totally driven. And after 9/11, I was completely and totally driven, because that had been such a deeply upsetting event, particularly so for me, because I had been writing about Al Qaeda for years. ...

Let me read you what Bill Keller told us: "Judy, I think, shares the responsibility" -- this is for the paper's coverage of WMD -- "because she came up with questionable information from questionable sources. The paper shares responsibility for not second-guessing and third-guessing her on those stories, and then for putting them on the top of the front page."

Mr. Keller was not in charge of the paper at that time, and he doesn't know what was done to try and evaluate that information. I don't accept that criticism. I know that the person who was vetting the stories was never asked what he tried to do to verify the information, and I'm very comfortable that we did the best job that we could with the information we had at the time. ...

Now, years later, what's your evaluation of the way not just you but the news media covered the run-up to the war?

Oh, I think, you know, as [head of the Iraq Survey Group] David Kay said, the information was wrong. (Laughs.) We were all wrong. ... I worry to this day that the American people still haven't had a good accounting of what was done with the information that the White House received.

There were two parts of the investigation into what went wrong with respect to weapons of mass destruction. One was, was the information correct? We've had a lot of investigation into that -- many commissions, many independent inquiries. I think we have a good understanding of that, but the second part of that inquiry, which is what was done with the information?

What do you mean?

In other words, was the information that the White House was given exaggerated? Was it put out in a distorted way? That's the second part of the investigation that the oversight committees in Congress were supposed to look into, and they still haven't done it. The American people still don't know, and I think that's scandalous. ...

When you use a confidential source, how do you describe them when you write about them?

You try and give the reader as much information as you can about whether or not the source is in a position to know what he's talking about and what the source's motivation might be. You do as much as you can to identify where the person is in the information chain and what his motivation or her motivation might be while still protecting that person's identity. …

Ever tempted to describe them in a fictional way?

Tempted? Yes. Do it? No. I have never lied about who the source is. Never. And there's never been an allegation anywhere in The New York Times that I've done that. I don't believe in that. That's not being honest with the reader. ...

You've written that in your discussions with Mr. Libby, you discussed with him identifying him as "a former Hill staffer," something that he hasn't been for many years and isn't. Isn't that misleading?

He asked to be identified as a former Hill staffer. I agreed to listen to what he had to say on that basis. I never agreed to publish a story with that attribution, and I would not have done so. It would not have appeared in The New York Times. ... I think you agree to listen; you try to find out what the source wants to tell you, and then you discuss with him the circumstances under which you're willing to publish it. ...

When you came out of jail, you declared victory, basically.

Yes, I thought that I had achieved something short of a federal shield law. I thought I had set a standard; I had set a kind of a new standard for what constituted a voluntary waiver, and I had hoped that others would use that standard to evaluate confidential sources and when a waiver was truly voluntary. That's what I had hoped.

That's not the way it went down in the public.

No, I think it was confusing for people. Some people believed that in our profession, that no waiver would have ever been sufficient; that I should not under any circumstances had ever testified or cooperated. I call those people -- and I have great respect for them, but once again, I disagree with their position -- First Amendment absolutists. ...

I thought that once my source had given me a personal and a voluntary waiver and I had protected other sources that were not related to this case, that I had fulfilled my obligation both to that source and to my other sources and that I was free to cooperate. That was the position that I took from the beginning. ...

If you could replay events, is there anything you would do differently?

No, no. I felt I had to go to jail to protect my source. There were tactical disagreements about when and how I should come out of jail. But when I got what I felt I could live with, what I felt was an honest, personal, voluntary waiver from the source, when I felt I could protect my other sources, I didn't see why I should spend an extra day in jail simply to fulfill the four-month sentence. ...

I feel manipulated by some of the people I dealt with in the run-up to the war about information that I got or sources that were supplied to me. ... You don't seem angry with your sources who were wrong, manipulated by your sources who were wrong, and, in some cases, potentially consciously knew that their information wasn't very good.

... I'm not bitter about the people who tried to "spin me," because that goes with the territory. That goes with reporting in Washington. People are always trying to do that. I'm angry with the people who conveniently -- after the fact, that were involved in this chaotic and deadly war -- who say: "I might have done something before, but I didn't. But it's the journalists' fault." I think those are the people whom I really resent. I'm just sorry they didn't talk to me, because my stories would have been more balanced. ...

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posted feb. 13, 2007

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