Confidentiality: She chose jail. But is she a heroine?

The case of New York Times writer Judith Miller has confounded legal and press figures in the US. By Andrew Buncombe
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The Independent Online

In an unlikely turn of events Miller, 57, a Pulitzer Prize winner, was jailed last week after refusing to reveal the identity of an anonymous source. Her case is extraordinary for several reasons: not only did Miller not write anything that her source told her but another journalist who did publish "leaked" information is still at large and writing his column. Added to that is the entire question of what legal protection journalists should receive, along with allegations that the Bush administration has used journalists as tools of propaganda to cover- lies and falsehoods.

"It's a very odd affair, very strange," said Brooks Jackson, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and now a director of the Annenberg Public Policy Centre of the University of Pennsylvania. "And it's very difficult to see reporters in jail, especially when there is a question as to whether a crime has been committed."

Just what is going on? To understand the context of Miller's incarceration - where the alleged 11 September "20th hijacker", Zacarias Moussaiou, is a fellow inmate - one must return to the summer of 2003, the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and the failure to discover the much hyped WMD. Joseph Wilson, a former US ambassador to Africa, revealed in The Independent on Sunday and The New York Times that a claim by President Bush that Iraq had been seeking to buy uranium from Africa to restart nuclear programme was demonstrably false.

Wilson travelled to Africa at the request of the CIA and showed the claims were false and that documents they were based on - the so-called Niger memos - must have been forgeries. As a result, the Bush administration was forced to issue an embarrassing apology.

Weeks later, Robert Novak, a columnist with close links to the administration, claimed in a column that two "senior administration officials" told him Wilson had been sent to Africa at the suggestion of his wife, an undercover CIA agent. He also named Wilson's wife - Valerie Plame - and in doing so may have committed the federal offence of outing a covert operative.

The oleaginous Novak was not the only journalist who spoke to government sources about Wilson's wife. Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and Miller were among a handful of other reporters who spoke to sources. And when the Bush administration - under growing pressure to do something about the leaked information - asked the Justice Department to investigate, Miller was one those reporters federal investigators wanted to speak to.

Adding to the interest in the case is the possible identity of the source. Karl Rove, the president's senior adviser and Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the Chief of Staff for Vice-President Dick Cheney, have both been the focus of speculation. Both have admitted speaking to reporters but deny identifying Plame.

The case has been in and out of the courts for more than a year. After Time magazine buckled it was just Miller left refusing to cooperate. "I cannot break my word just to stay out of jail," she told the court. "The freest and fairest societies are not only those with independent judiciaries but those with an independent press."

There are many layers to this affair. Many have complained that journalists need legal protection to protect their sources. "I find this case a troubling, confusing and contradictory experience for both the judicial branch as well as the journalism environment." said Aly Colon, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Journalism Institute in Florida.

And yet even in po-faced Washington, where journalists take themselves terribly seriously, some commentators have claimed that the publicity for the prestigious New York Times and its self-awarded reputation as champion of the truth can only be good. Some have even suggested that Miller - who ironically wrote a series of articles about Iraq's purported WMD arsenal - may be seeking atonement to repair her damaged reputation.

But most people are simply bewildered. If the Justice Department's special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald really does know - as he claims - the identity of Miller's source, what is to be gained by jailing her? Others are angry that in a city where unadulterated information is already difficult to obtain, fewer sources will be willing to come forward and speak to journalists.

Wilson, who wrote in a memoir that he wanted to punch Novak for outing his wife, said: "Clearly the conspiracy to cover-up the web of lies that underpinned the invasion of Iraq is more important to the White House that coming clean on a breach of national security."