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Issue Date:  November 11, 2005

Sinking under the weight of lies

Judith Miller affair reveals lack of integrity in the Bush administration and media


When special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald indicted vice presidential assistant Lewis “Scooter” Libby on five counts of perjury, false statements and obstruction of justice and resolved to keep working on Karl Rove, we knew that this could be the beginning of the end of the Bush administration -- at least as we know it.

What began as an attempt to punish ambassador Joseph Wilson for his report that, contrary to the president’s State of the Union Address, Saddam Hussein had not obtained uranium from Niger, has led to an examination of how Bush misled America into an unnecessary war and to the death that week of the 2,000th American soldier in Iraq.

This case is extremely important because it concerns the integrity of both the White House and the press, particularly The New York Times. The Times is our most thorough medium of information. The other media, especially TV news, take their headlines from the Times. If the Times doesn’t live up to its standards, the whole country suffers.

Consider the Vietnam/Watergate analogy. President Nixon sent the burglars to Daniel Ellsberg’s home because his leaking the Pentagon Papers revealed that the administration had lied to the people about the Vietnam War. Nixon’s cover-up led to his resignation. When Mr. Wilson told reporters Bush was wrong on uranium sales to Iraq, Lewis Libby and Karl Rove spread gossip about Mr. Wilson’s wife Valerie -- “Did you know she’s CIA?”-- to discredit him. Unless Mr. Libby pleads guilty, we will see a two-year trial where Vice President Dick Cheney and a string of reporters -- NBC’s Tim Russert, The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus, TIME’s Matt Cooper, columnist Robert Novak and the Times’ Judith Miller will testify. The trial about “little” lies will become one about the big lies that led to the war.

Crisis for the Times

The Times’ biggest recent embarrassment has not been the case of young Jayson Blair, who fabricated stories. It is its failure to perhaps prevent the Iraq war by more rigorous and skeptical reporting on the administration’s claims about weapons of mass destruction and the charge that Iraq was responsible for the attack on the World Trade Center.

The principal journalism mouthpiece for this deception was Judith Miller, who, in stories fed by exiled Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi and numerous unnamed sources, kept the myth of the WMDs alive. When Mr. Fitzgerald opened his inquiry, the other journalists cooperated; but Ms. Miller, presenting herself as a martyr for the First Amendment, chose 85 days in jail to protect Mr. Libby. The Times publisher, a longtime friend, committed the Times’ reputation to the justice of her cause. Until she changed her mind and negotiated her release.

Internally, while the publisher allowed Ms. Miller to “take the wheel” and steer her case, the staff was angry and split. Other papers outdid the Times in covering the leak, while the Times’ editorial page stuck to the “First Amendment” defense.

When Ms. Miller failed to cooperate fully with the Times’ long Oct. 16 story on the case, Times alumni moaned about the paper’s diminished legacy. In The Village Voice, Sydney Schanberg called Ms. Miller a loose cannon who talks about “the public’s right to know” but still keeps the public in the dark. In Editor and Publisher, David Halberstam found it “shocking that this young woman” (Ms. Miller had been there 28 years) seemed more loyal to the vice president of the United States than to the Times. Tom Wicker and Adam Clymer agreed she should be fired; and so did the Times’ public editor Byron Calame and columnist Maureen Dowd.

Protecting sources

Newsday investigative reporter Thomas Maier tells me, “I can’t have prosecutors going through my work on a fishing expedition.” Unfortunately, he grants, the Miller case is not a strong one on which to base the principle. An editor in the Midwest agrees: “I adamantly support her right to protect her source because that’s how our democracy has to work, but nevertheless her conduct also appears to be an example of the kind of insidious relationship too many Washington journalists have these days with people at the top ranks of power.”

Bush defenders have tried to discredit the investigation with three arguments: The leakers did not commit a crime; Ambassador Wilson is a partisan; Mr. Fitzgerald is a ruthless Javert. Actually, George Bush Sr. praised Mr. Wilson’s service during the first Gulf War. And the Irish Catholic, Jesuit-educated Ivy Leaguer Fitzgerald’s long, note-free narrative of Mr. Libby’s deceptions both emphasized the real harm done to both Mrs. Wilson and national security by the leak and both the legal and moral threat to democracy represented by Mr. Libby’s lies.

Eric Alterman, in his history When Presidents Lie (2004), reminds us that Bush’s lies have never been taken seriously enough by the media. Presidents, he says, tend to prefer deception to education, but they are wrong. They should protect their privacy but should “not, under any circumstances lie.”

I’m reminded of the story of the corrupt mayor in a small town who lied so often that the citizens brought him to court. The magistrate sentenced him to wear a 100-pound iron ball labeled LIES shackled to his ankle, to be dragged wherever he went.

One day, crossing the bridge over the river, the mayor spied one of his accusers in a canoe about to pass under the bridge. Filled with rage, the mayor stood on the railing, lifted the 100-pound ball and dropped it on his adversary.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is professor of humanities at St. Peter’s College. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, November 11, 2005

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