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Profile: Jill Abramson

Jill Abramson was a participant or observer in the following events:

The New York Times again finds itself apologizing for its failures in covering the outing of Valerie Plame Wilson and its handling, or lack of handling, of the newspaper’s star reporter, Judith Miller, who recently testified as to her knowledge of the matter (see September 30, 2005). It also admits that much of Miller’s prewar reporting on Iraq was “totally wrong.” Although the paper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, and its executive editor, Bill Keller, supported Miller’s decision to go to jail rather than reveal the source of her knowledge about Plame Wilson’s CIA identity (see July 6, 2005), neither knew many details of Miller’s conversations with her source, former White House aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby. Neither knew, for example, that Miller’s claim of not learning Plame Wilson’s identity from Libby was undermined by her own notes. Ultimately, both Sulzberger and Keller left most of the decisions on how to handle the situation to Miller herself. “This car had her hand on the wheel because she was the one at risk,” says Sulzberger. While Miller continues to portray her decision to go to jail as one rooted in principle, critics say that she and the Times were not protecting a whistleblower, but an administration source bent on crushing dissent. Asked what she regretted about the Times’s handling of the matter, managing editor Jill Abramson says, “The entire thing.”
'I Got It Totally Wrong' - Many in the newsroom and in the editorial staff believed that Miller’s prewar articles on Iraq’s WMD—articles that have long been proven to be based largely on false information from unreliable Iraqi defectors (see December 20, 2001, September 18, 2002, March 19-20, 2003, July 25, 2003, and Autumn 2003)—unfairly advanced the administration’s case for war. Miller operated with a level of autonomy other reporters found unusual and distressing, especially since many of them believed her reporting verged on administration propaganda. Investigative editor Douglas Frantz recalls that Miller once called herself “Miss Run Amok”; when he asked her what she meant, she replied, “I can do whatever I want.” Miller now admits her reports were largely specious. “WMD—I got it totally wrong,” she says. “The analysts, the experts, and the journalists who covered them—we were all wrong. If your sources are wrong, you are wrong. I did the best job that I could.”
Not a Clear-Cut Decision to Fight - Keller says: “I wish it had been a clear-cut whistle-blower case. I wish it had been a reporter who came with less public baggage.” Times reporter Todd Purdom says: “Everyone admires our paper’s willingness to stand behind us and our work, but most people I talk to have been troubled and puzzled by Judy’s seeming ability to operate outside of conventional reportorial channels and managerial controls. Partly because of that, many people have worried about whether this was the proper fight to fight.” For her part, Miller says she intends to take some time off and perhaps write a book about her ordeal. She says she wants to get back into investigative reporting, and continue to cover “the same thing I’ve always covered—threats to our country.” [New York Times, 10/16/2005]
Criticism of Miller, Times - The next day, columnist Norman Solomon will write, “It now seems that Miller functioned with more accountability to US military intelligence officials than to New York Times editors.” Solomon also notes that in her July 8, 2003 meeting with White House official Lewis Libby (see 8:30 a.m. July 8, 2003), Miller expressed frustration at the government’s refusal to allow her “to discuss with editors some of the more sensitive information about Iraq.” Solomon writes: “There’s nothing wrong with this picture if Judith Miller is an intelligence operative for the US government. But if she’s supposed to be a journalist, this is a preposterous situation—and the fact that the New York Times has tolerated it tells us a lot about that newspaper.” Solomon also notes that Miller’s claim of “analysts, the experts, and the journalists who covered them” were “all wrong” about Iraqi WMD is itself wrong. “Some very experienced weapons inspectors—including [the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency] Mohamed ElBaradei, [former chief UN weapons inspector] Hans Blix, and [former UN weapons inspector] Scott Ritter—challenged key assertions from the White House,” he writes. “Well before the invasion, many other analysts also disputed various aspects of the US government’s claims about WMDs in Iraq.… Meanwhile journalists at some British newspapers, including The Independent and The Guardian, raised tough questions that were virtually ignored by mainstream US reporters in the Washington press corps.… [T]he Times did not ‘fall for misinformation’ as much as jump for it. The newspaper eagerly helped the administration portray deceptions as facts.” [CounterPunch, 10/17/2005] Liberal columnist and blogger Arianna Huffington provides a long list of reporters and publications who “didn’t get it wrong” on Iraqi WMD. She quotes reporter Joe Lauria, a veteran foreign affairs reporter who writes for the London Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, and the Boston Globe, who told her: “I didn’t get it wrong. And a lot of others who covered the lead up to the war didn’t get it wrong. Mostly because we weren’t just cozying up to Washington sources but had widened our reporting to what we were hearing from people like Mohamed ElBaradei and Hans Blix, and from sources in other countries, like Germany, France, and Russia. Miller had access to these voices, too, but ignored them. Our chief job as journalists is to challenge authority. Because an official says something might make it ‘official,’ but it doesn’t necessarily make it true.” [Huffington Post, 10/21/2005]

Entity Tags: Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Douglas Frantz, Bill Keller, Arthur Sulzberger, Arianna Huffington, Jill Abramson, Judith Miller, Norman Solomon, New York Times, Todd Purdom, Joe Lauria

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

Judith Miller, center, enters the courtroom. Her lawyer Robert Bennett is escorting her inside.Judith Miller, center, enters the courtroom. Her lawyer Robert Bennett is escorting her inside. [Source: Kevin Wolf / AP]Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who spent 85 days in jail trying to avoid testifying to the grand jury investigating the Valerie Plame Wilson identity leak (see July 6, 2005), testifies in the trial of former White House aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby (see January 16-23, 2007). Miller testifies that Libby told her in confidence that the wife of a prominent critic of the Iraq war, Joseph Wilson, worked at the CIA (see June 23, 2003, 8:30 a.m. July 8, 2003, and Late Afternoon, July 12, 2003). Libby has testified that he first learned of Plame Wilson’s CIA status three weeks later, from reporter Tim Russert (see July 10 or 11, 2003 and March 24, 2004). [CBS News, 1/25/2007; Washington Post, 7/3/2007]
'Perverted War of Leaks' - During their first meeting, Miller testifies: “Mr. Libby appeared to me to be agitated and frustrated and angry. He is a very low key and controlled guy, but he seemed annoyed.” Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald asks, “Did he indicate what he was annoyed at?” Miller replies, “He was concerned that the CIA was beginning to backpedal to try to distance itself from the unequivocal intelligence estimates it had provided before the war.” She goes on to say that Libby had called the CIA’s action “a perverted war of leaks.” During their subsequent meetings, Libby exhibited an increasing irritation with the idea that the CIA would leak information to put distance between itself and earlier estimates of Iraqi WMD capabilities. According to Miller: “He said that nobody had ever [sic] come to the White House from the CIA and said, ‘Mr. President, this is not right.’ He felt that if the CIA had had such doubts, they should have shared them with the president.”
Outing Plame Wilson - Miller testifies that Libby broached the subject of Joseph Wilson’s trip to Africa (see February 21, 2002-March 4, 2002) during their first meeting. At the time, Wilson was still criticizing the administration anonymously (see May 6, 2003), and few outside Washington knew who he was. Miller says that Libby began by calling Wilson “that clandestine guy,” and only later began referring to him by name. Miller testifies, “He [Libby] said the vice president did not know that Mr. Wilson had been sent on this trip” (see March 5, 2002). Libby told Miller that Cheney did not know of Wilson and “did not get a readout” on Wilson’s findings. As “an aside,” Miller testifies, Libby told her during their first meeting that Wilson’s wife “worked in the bureau.” Miller says at first she was not sure what he was referring to, and speculated that “the bureau” might mean the FBI, but, she says, “it became clear that he was referring to the CIA.” Libby never indicated whether Plame Wilson was a covert official, but during the second meeting, he told her (incorrectly) that Plame Wilson worked in WINPAC, the Weapons Intelligence, Non-Proliferation, and Arms Control Center of the CIA. Libby, Miller testifies, viewed the entire Wilson trip as “a ruse—that’s the word he used—an irrelevancy.” She confirms that during their second meeting, Libby took the unprecedented step of having her identify him in her reporting as “a former Hill staffer,” an apparent attempt to mislead readers into thinking the information he was providing to her was coming from someone who used to work in Congress. Miller testifies that she wanted to write about Plame Wilson being a CIA official, but her editor at the Times, Jill Abramson, refused to allow it. [Marcy Wheeler, 1/30/2007; National Review, 1/31/2007]
Leaking NIE Material - Miller says that Libby began providing her with sensitive information culled from the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE—see October 1, 2002) during their second and third meetings. Libby told her that the classified information from the NIE was even stronger in its support of Iraqi WMD claims than what he was giving her. Miller wasn’t sure if the information Libby gave her was classified or unclassified. [Marcy Wheeler, 1/30/2007]
'Refreshed' Memory with Notes - Fitzgerald shows Miller that in her initial testimony before his grand jury (see September 30, 2005), she failed to mention her first discussion of Plame Wilson’s identity with Libby on June 23. Miller claims that she refreshed her memory of that first discussion from her notes of the meeting, which she found in a shopping bag near her desk at the Times, and clarified her testimony in a later appearance (see October 12, 2005).
Defense Focuses on Self-Contradictions - During the defense’s cross-examination, Libby’s attorney William Jeffress hammers at Miller over her seemingly contradictory testimony, sometimes eliciting testy responses. Miller tells the court that her memory “is mostly note-driven,” and that rereading the notes “brought back these memories” of the June 23 meeting. [Marcy Wheeler, 1/30/2007; Marcy Wheeler, 1/30/2007; Marcy Wheeler, 1/30/2007; National Review, 1/31/2007; MSNBC, 2/21/2007] Author Marcy Wheeler, observing the proceedings for the progressive blog FireDogLake, notes that Miller seems extremely nervous and fidgety under Jeffress’s cross-examination. [Marcy Wheeler, 1/30/2007] Miller’s January 30 court testimony ends almost an hour ahead of schedule after Jeffress attempts to ask her about other sources besides Libby with whom she may have discussed Wilson. Miller’s attorney, Bob Bennett, objects, saying questions about other sources are off limits. Judge Reggie Walton dismisses the jury for the day and listens to arguments for and against the line of questioning. Jeffress tells Walton, “I think she’s going to say she couldn’t remember which is very important to her credibility.” Defense lawyer Theodore Wells adds that it is important to have Miller answer the question because it would cast doubt on her testimony. “This is classic 101 [witness] impeachment,” he says. Walton will rule against the line of questioning, agreeing with Fitzgerald that quizzing Miller about her information on Iraqi WMDs is irrelevant to the charges pending against Libby. [Marcy Wheeler, 1/30/2007; Wall Street Journal, 1/31/2007]
'I Just Don't Remember' - The next day, Jeffress continues to aggressively cross-examine Miller. She tells the court she is not completely sure she learned of Plame Wilson’s identity from Libby before she learned it elsewhere, giving Libby’s lawyers an avenue to challenge her memory and her credibility. Miller now says she cannot be “absolutely, absolutely certain” that she first heard about Plame Wilson from Libby. As with earlier government witnesses (see January 23-24, 2007, January 24-25, 2007, January 24, 2007, and January 29, 2007), the defense lawyers challenge Miller’s memory and recollection of events. Jeffress notes that she misspelled Plame Wilson’s name in her notes, identifying her as “Valerie Flame.” Miller shows signs of irritation during the cross-examination, at one point repeating loudly: “I just don’t remember. I don’t remember.” [Marcy Wheeler, 1/30/2007; New York Times, 1/31/2007; Marcy Wheeler, 1/31/2007; New York Times, 2/4/2007]

Entity Tags: Joseph C. Wilson, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Reggie B. Walton, Marcy Wheeler, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Judith Miller, Theodore Wells, Robert T. Bennett, Jill Abramson, Tim Russert, William Jeffress, Valerie Plame Wilson

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Jill Abramson (left) testifies under questioning by defense counsel William Jeffress, as lawyers look on.Jill Abramson (left) testifies under questioning by defense counsel William Jeffress, as lawyers look on. [Source: Art Lien / Court Artist (.com)]New York Times managing editor Jill Abramson testifies for the defense in the Lewis Libby perjury and obstruction trial. Abramson, who served as one of former Times reporter Judith Miller’s supervisors, says that she cannot confirm elements of Miller’s testimony (see January 30-31, 2007 and January 31, 2007). Miller told the court that after speaking with Libby (see June 23, 2003, 8:30 a.m. July 8, 2003, and Late Afternoon, July 12, 2003) , she went to Abramson and suggested that the Times look into the question of whether Valerie Plame Wilson sent her husband, Joseph Wilson, on a CIA-sponsored trip to Niger (see February 19, 2002, July 22, 2003, October 17, 2003, and July 20, 2005). Defense attorney William Jeffress asks, “Did Judith Miller come to you to recommend the New York Times pursue a story about whether Ambassador Joe Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA?” Abramson replies, “I have no recollection of such a conversation.” [Associated Press, 2/13/2007; Marcy Wheeler, 2/13/2007] Abramson, who testifies for less than five minutes, says, “It’s possible I occasionally tuned her out,” and reiterates she has no memory of speaking to Miller about Plame Wilson. [New York Times, 2/13/2007]

Entity Tags: New York Times, Jill Abramson, Joseph C. Wilson, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Valerie Plame Wilson, William Jeffress, Judith Miller

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

New York Times editor Clark Hoyt, in a column entitled “Telling the Brutal Truth,” writes of the lengthy discussions among Times editors and staffers on using the term “torture” in their reports and editorials. Hoyt writes that the term is not used in news reports, though it is in editorials. “Until this month,” he writes, “what the Bush administration called ‘enhanced’ interrogation techniques were ‘harsh’ techniques in the news pages of the Times. Increasingly, they are ‘brutal.’” He characterizes the decision to use, or not use, the word “torture” as an example of “the linguistic minefields that journalists navigate every day in the quest to describe the world accurately and fairly.” He notes that the final decision—to rely on the adjective “brutal”—“displeas[es] some who think ‘brutal’ is just a timid euphemism for torture [as well as] their opponents who think ‘brutal’ is too loaded.”
Reader Criticism - Hoyt notes that some readers have criticized the Times for its lack of “backbone” in not using the term “torture” in its reporting, with one writing that by refusing to use the term, “you perpetuate the fantasy that calling a thing by something other than its name will change the thing itself.” Others say that even using the word “brutal” is “outrageously biased.”
'Harsh' Not Accurately Descriptive - Hoyt notes that in the process of editing an April 10 news report on the CIA’s closing of its network of secret overseas prisons (see April 10, 2009), reporter Scott Shane and editor Douglas Jehl debated over the wording of the first paragraph. Jehl had written that the interrogation methods used in the prisons were “widely denounced as illegal torture,” a phrase Jehl changed to “harshest interrogation methods.” Shane argued that the term “harshest” was not strong enough, and the two agreed to use the word “brutal.” After reading the recently released Justice Department torture memos (see April 16, 2009), managing editor Jill Abramson said a new and stronger term needed to be used. “Harsh sounded like the way I talked to my kids when they were teenagers and told them I was going to take the car keys away,” she says. She, too, came down in favor of “brutal” after conferring with legal experts and Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet. But senior editors have all agreed that the word torture will not be used except in quoting others’ descriptions of the methods. “I have resisted using torture without qualification or to describe all the techniques,” Jehl says. “Exactly what constitutes torture continues to be a matter of debate and hasn’t been resolved by a court. This president and this attorney general say waterboarding is torture, but the previous president and attorney general said it is not. On what basis should a newspaper render its own verdict, short of charges being filed or a legal judgment rendered?” [New York Times, 4/25/2009]
Accusation of Bias, Semantic Games - Media critic Brad Jacobson accuses Hoyt and the Times staff of engaging in meaningless semantic wordplay instead of labeling torture as what it is, and notes that Hoyt seems to admit that public opinion, not journalistic standards, has determined what terms the Times will and will not use. Jacobson writes: “1) If the Times called techniques such as waterboarding torture in its reporting, which it should based on US and international law, legal experts, historians, military judges, combat veterans, and human rights organizations, and described, however briefly, what that torture entailed, then the use of modifying adjectives such as ‘harsh’ or ‘brutal’ would not only be superfluous but, in a news story, better left out; and 2) isn’t the Times (along with any news outlet that has failed to report these acts as torture) directly responsible in some way for inspiring the kind of response it received from readers [who objected to the term ‘brutal’]? If readers are not provided the facts—a) waterboarding is torture and b) torture is illegal—while Times editors are simultaneously ascribing arbitrary descriptors to it like ‘brutal’ or ‘harsh,’ then the Times is not only denying its readers the necessary information to understand the issue but this denial may also lead directly to accusations of bias.” He also notes that Jehl censored Shane’s story to eliminate the reference to the methods being “widely denounced as illegal torture,” and asks why Abramson discussed the matter with legal experts rather than determining if waterboarding, physical assaults, and other techniques do indeed qualify as torture under the Geneva Conventions, the Convention Against Torture (see October 21, 1994), and other binding laws and treaties. [Raw Story, 4/26/2009]

Entity Tags: Douglas Jehl, Central Intelligence Agency, Brad Jacobson, Clark Hoyt, Dean Baquet, Scott Shane, Convention Against Torture, Jill Abramson, Geneva Conventions, US Department of Justice, New York Times

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

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