Judy's Liaison Dangereuse

Judy Miller returned to the New York Times newsroom on Monday, and modestly told her colleagues: "I am very, very proud to be able to say that I got things that no other journalist has ever gotten out of a process like this."

Things like what? A jailhouse visit from John Bolton? Or from Simon & Schuster super-editor Alice Mayhew? Did she really think this grandstanding was a good way to curry favor among her fellow journalists?

But despite the fact that she sloughed off Scooter Libby's assurance that he had given her a waiver a year ago as White House "spin," the curious whodunit release of the Libby-Miller letters [PDF] may yet prove to be the tipping point among those of Miller's colleagues who are still on the fence about her. As one source put it: "The Scooter-Judy liaison dangereuse exposes how, during happier times between them, the darkest heart of the Bush administration was able to beat freely on the front page of the world's most important paper, with no hard questions asked."

Like O.J. promising to hunt down the real killers of Ron and Nicole, the Times once upon a time (a year and five months ago, to be exact) promised "to continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight" about the paper's miserable coverage of the Iraq WMD story.

The question is, will any courageous Times reporters take up that challenge and dig deeper into Miller and Libby's you-scratch-my-byline-and-I'll-scratch-your-policy relationship? Even if it means leaving the Times?

Here are a couple of places they may want to start digging:

The aluminum tubes story. Clearly Libby was not the only source on this Miller-promoted distortion of science and intelligence, but it would be good to know if he was one of the anonymous "Bush administration officials" she cited in her Sept 8, 2002 story "U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts," which contained the memorable line (from one of those aforementioned administration officials): "The first sign of a 'smoking gun,' they argue, may be a mushroom cloud." Or is it just a coincidence that on the very day that story appeared, Dick Cheney, Libby's boss, went on Meet the Press and brought up the Miller story -- which conveniently allowed him to talk about information that otherwise would have been too classified for him to mention? "There's a story in the New York Times this morning," the Vice President said, "it's now public that, in fact, [Saddam] has been seeking to acquire...the kinds of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge."

The Soviet Smallpox story. Remember this one? It was Dec. 3, 2002. In it Miller pushed the story about "an informant's accusation that Iraq obtained a particularly virulent strain of smallpox from a Russian scientist." The scary story, which cited a number of "senior American officials," was based on information given to the CIA by a single, unnamed informant. It later turned out that there was absolutely no basis for the informant's story. It's interesting to note that at the time this Judy special appeared in the Times, Cheney and Libby were deeply involved in a struggle with the administration's public health officials. The Vice President wanted to expand the nation's smallpox vaccination program. Miller never mentioned whether her administration sources had a dog in the smallpox fight. How key a source was Libby on this story? Doesn't this deserve some of the Times' promised aggressive reporting?

No wonder Libby wrote in his letter to Judy: "Your reporting, and you, are missed."

P.S. Oh, she also told the Times that "she was uncertain whether she would write her own account, either in the newspaper or in a book." Two questions: (1) Does she really, really, think anybody will believe that? (2) If she intended to maintain her completely selfless pose a little longer, she simply should have refrained from talking to her friends about her $1.2 million book deal because, as she herself proved last week, people talk.

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