Most nights, the library inside UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism is as cozy and quiet as a cabin. But one evening last week, caterers transformed the room into a cocktail lounge, complete with spreads of tiny turkey canapés, plastic cups of white and red wine, and plates of fruit wedges.
Still, only about a dozen people showed up for the guest of honor.
"This is Judy Miller," an organizer said as she introduced the reporter, who was rail-thin beneath her turtleneck and leather jacket. "As you know, she does investigative work for the Times."
Judith Miller currently occupies a bipolar status among her peers. She has been vilified as an unquestioning publicist of the Bush administration's bogus arguments about so-called "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq, which she parroted on the front page of The New York Times during the run-up to the war. Her critics view that as enough to make her an accessory to the administration, an honor she has steadfastly declined. But more recently, and at the entirely opposite end of the political spectrum, Miller also has been pilloried by the very same administration for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury in a separate case that could unearth some of her confidential sources. Going to prison to protect a source is perhaps the closest a contemporary journalist can get to martyrdom.
In the days leading up to Miller's arrival, talk on campus suggested that war protesters planned to disrupt the event -- certainly a common-enough occurrence at Berkeley for far less controversial figures. But by the time she arrived at Wheeler Auditorium, after chatting up a few visitors while noshing on pineapple and swigging Pellegrino, it was mostly empty.
Dean Orville Schell of the Graduate School of Journalism delivered the opening remarks and said the integrity of journalism is under one of the fiercest attacks that he could ever remember, mentioning industry exiles Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, and the recently compromised (and retired) Dan Rather: "These are names that have not helped journalism for being accurate, fair, and honest." In contrast, Schell held out Miller, who has appeared as a commentator on cable television shows, and shared a 2002 Pulitzer Prize with ten other Times reporters for explanatory reporting.
Miller was to be interviewed by her friend Lowell Bergman, an adjunct professor in Schell's department. Schell introduced Bergman, enumerating his own laundry list of awards and adding, with no hint of humor, "As many of you know, he was portrayed by Al Pacino in the movie The Insider."
Since Bergman and Miller both write for the Times' investigative desk, it was only natural to wonder if Bergman would take the gloves off with his much-beleaguered colleague. Initially, he kept them on. He asked her to talk about her reasons for defying the subpoena she received in a case related to columnist Robert Novak's 2003 outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame. In a bizarre sort of dragnet strategy, an investigator looking into that security breach subpoenaed twenty reporters who cover the intelligence community in an attempt to learn the identity of Novak's government source. All but Miller and Time reporter Matt Cooper complied. Most of the reporters reasoned they had no information to give the investigator and, thus, nothing to hide. In essence, they reasoned, Novak would be the one whose feet were held to the fire.
Miller told Bergman and her audience that she had learned that the Bush administration had circulated a "waiver of confidentiality" to government employees that would force them to tattle on reporters to whom they'd granted interviews. Appalled by this approach, Miller said she decided to fight the subpoena to send a message to all of her sources that she'd go to jail before she'd divulge their identities.
"How close are you to going to jail?" Bergman asked.
Miller sighed. "Unfortunately, too close."
"You may go to jail for a story you didn't write?"
"It's Kafkaesque," she said.
Bergman asked, "So whatever happened to Bob Novak in all this?" Miller shot a glance into the auditorium and laughed. "The last time I checked, he was still on television.
"Believe me," she added, "If this didn't involve me, I would find this very riveting and exciting. ... I'm not a martyr; I don't want to do this. But I feel I have to."
Bergman sat cross-legged with his papers in his lap. In one hand, he dangled his eyeglasses by the bridge, twisting them back and forth. His mood turned pensive, and he looked up at the stage lights.
"Your critics say this is the wrong battle at the wrong time," he said.
"I'm not surprised."
"That this is isn't a whistle-blower case," he added. "That you're not protecting a source here."
"You could just wait for the perfect whistle-blower case, I suppose," Miller said, adding some stone-cold Rumsfeldian logic, "but you go with the case you've got."
Bergman listened until Miller exhausted her defense of her defense. "Let's talk about WMD reporting," he said.
"Okay," she agreed.
"Were you getting bad information?"
"I think I was given the same information that [my] informants were giving to the president."
Miller explained at length. She was working with people who weren't even supposed to be having coffee with her. She was talking to people who were working with highly classified documents. She was consulting with experts who were giving her critical information -- and she was checking it time and again.
"This information was held by virtually every foreign intelligence agency in the entire world," she said, somewhat dramatically. "The argument was over whether going to war over this was enough -- not whether they had WMDs."
Bergman asked about the experts before the war who suggested the WMD threat was overstated.
"I wish they had come forward at the time to express those reservations," Miller said. "But they didn't. At least not to me."
Members of the audience wrote questions on cards for Miller, which were handed to Bergman onstage. He flipped through them in his lap and announced that most of them were aimed at her WMD reporting. He summarized the questions into one: "Do you have any misgivings?"
Miller has been asked the same question many times, and at all turns she has refused to accept any responsibility for getting duped. It's a lot to hang on one reporter, for sure. But even so, she was in no mood for humble pie -- not even a crumb. "I think I did the best possible job I could do," she said. "So no, I really don't."
Bergman was finished with his questions. He turned to the audience, which included reporters from FOX News and the San Francisco Chronicle, and asked if anyone in the sparsely filled auditorium had a question for Miller. They didn't. Apparently they were satisfied with the information they'd been given.
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