The Times Asks for Answers; We Provide Some of the Questions

Sunday's New York Times editorial criticizing President Bush for authorizing Scooter Libby to leak distorted information about Iraq to, among others, Judy Miller suggests "this messy episode leaves more questions than answers." Indeed it does.

But what the Times doesn't say is that one of the reasons there are more questions than answers is because the Times itself continues to operate behind a veil of secrecy, refusing to come clean about exactly what transpired behind the scenes at the paper while this White House disinformation campaign was going down.

This isn't information that the paper of record needs to get from Bush or Cheney or Libby or Fitzgerald or the Senate Intelligence Committee. It's information the Times already has -- questions the paper can already answer.

So instead of bemoaning the surfeit of Plamegate questions, how about the Times adding a few answers to the ledger?

Here are some of things we'd like to know:

What exactly happened in the Times newsroom after Judy Miller received the exclusive National Intelligence Estimate scoop from Libby on July 8? The Times editorial tells us "she never wrote about it" but doesn't say why. A scoop-hungry reporter gets both the Valerie Plame leak and a top-secret exclusive -- and doesn't write a word? Why?

Did Miller propose writing a story about any of what she heard that day at the St. Regis (or during her two subsequent July 12 phone conversations with Libby)? If not, why not? Why would she keep this information to herself?

Rereading Miller"s explanation of her interaction with Libby, it appears that Libby never told her the information he was giving her on the 8th was declassified. I know that by now most of us have forgotten more than we remember about this story, but here is a significant detail: according to Miller, she told Fitzgerald that she thought "Mr. Libby might have thought I still had security clearance, given my special embedded status in Iraq" (as ludicrous a claim as has been made in this whole ludicrous claim-laden affair). But all the more reason for her to want to write the story.

So if she did pitch the story, which Times editor did she pitch it to? What was their reaction? Why did no story result? Had the editors become so suspect of Miller's sources and reporting that they refused to sign off on the story? Was she officially barred from writing about Iraq/WMD? Did her editors know that she thought she had special Pentagon clearance to receive classified information?

Or were Times editors dubious of Judy's latest round of inside info because they knew that just a week earlier Colin Powell had told three other Times reporters the opposite of the bill of goods Libby was peddling to Miller?

Was this contradiction discussed in the newsroom? If so, and if the Times had reason to believe it was being leaked false information by the White House, why wasn't a story about THAT written? That's a huge story, why was it ignored?

In a chatty, almost giggly, Q & A with readers last week, Keller (while offering up the now de rigueur blog-bashing), labeled the Miller saga "an important cautionary tale" and once again apologized for waiting so long to "come clean with readers" over the paper's flawed WMD reporting.

Well, here's a perfect opportunity for the paper to show it has learned from the "cautionary tale" and "come clean with readers" -- especially since I'm told by sources close to the Times that Keller is still fuming over the way he allowed Arthur Sulzberger and Floyd Abrams to dictate what turned out to be the disastrous handling of l'affaire Miller.

And the sooner, the better. Because while Keller may believe the Times has "moved on" from Miller, the impending Libby trial will bring the paper careening back to the future. When Miller takes the stand, the New York Times will be stepping into the docket too. Judy stands for the paper, whether she's with the paper now or not. It is inescapable. They are stuck with her -- and this could put them in deep trouble.

It is clear that a big part of the Libby defense strategy will be to impeach Judy Miller and attack her credibility. Libby's lawyers will try to destroy her. And when they impeach Miller's credibility, they will also be impeaching the credibility of the New York Times.

This is why the Times, if only in the name of self-preservation, should try to help itself by immediately clearing up as many questions about its handling of the story as possible. Once any trial starts, Miller's interests and the paper's interests will split. It may be in Miller's legal interest to not talk about things and to continue to stonewall her former employer, but it is in the Times' interest to get it all out now.

Failing to recognize this is beyond foolish -- it is a symptom of ongoing institutional dementia.

As Bill Keller, clearly in touch with his inner MySpacer, put it in his Talk to the Newsroom posting: "Sigh."