No heroine's welcome for reporter who spent her summer in jail

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The Independent US

The sudden surrender of Ms Miller to the district attorney investigating the case, Patrick Fitzgerald - who had sent her to prison in the first place for refusing to compromise her source before his grand jury - was so important to the New York Times that the newspaper made it its lead front-page story yesterday, and continued poring over the details of her actions for many column-inches inside.

Unfortunately for the paper more questions than answers have been thrown up by Ms Miller's abrupt volte-face.

Should she be celebrated as a media martyr who stood up for the right of reporters to protect the identities of sources? Or is this to do with her - and the paper's - mistaken reporting before the Iraq war of Saddam Hussein's purported stash of weapons of mass destruction?

The furore over Ms Miller and her motivations - her name is in the headline of every single political blog in America this weekend - is in a sense a sideshow to the investigation itself.

The true importance of her having at last testified on Friday is that the probe may now almost be over. And that could spell new trouble for President Bush, already reeling from the indictment of Tom DeLay, the former Republican House leader, last week and from the fall-out from Hurricane Katrina.

If Mr Bush is worried, so will be the New York Times. It has still not fully recovered from the mis-steps in its reporting on Iraq before the 2003 invasion.

In March 2004, the paper published an astonishing mea culpa, singling out six articles that had given credence to the administration's claims about weapons of mass destruction without sufficient evidence. Four of those were written by Ms Miller. Coincidentally, it was in the pages of the New York Times that this whole saga first started. There, in the summer of 2003, a former US ambassador to Gabon, Joseph Wilson, wrote an article directly criticising Mr Bush for one claim he had made prior to the invasion - that Saddam had been trying to import uranium from West Africa to help him build nuclear weapons.

Not true, wrote Mr Wilson, who earlier had made the same disclosures to The Independent on Sunday.

The questions on the table now are these: how was it that within days of the New York Times article, a number of journalists began learning that Mr Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked undercover for the CIA? Did they hear it from White House officials? Were they breaking the law in revealing her name? And did they do it as political pay-back on Mr Wilson for making his damaging criticism of the President?

Some facts are now known, notably that the contacts in the White House who were free with Ms Plame's name appear to have included Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice-President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, and Mr Bush's ever-powerful top aide, Karl Rove.

It is not beyond anyone's imagination that both men could soon be facing criminal charges which, at the very least, would mean them leaving the White House. Doubts about Ms Miller's version of events continue to intensify. She said last week that she changed her mind because Mr Libby told her - in a letter and on the telephone - that he was releasing her from any confidentiality agreement and that she was therefore free to appear before the grand jury.

But letters exchanged between lawyers seem to show that Mr Libby made exactly the same offer to Ms Miller exactly a year ago.

Even the New York Times, in a lead editorial, was forced yesterday to ask the question: if that's the case, why did she wait until Friday to testify, and why did she spend most of her summer in a prison cell?

There is much still to be explained. It has also been reported that among those who went to visit Ms Miller in prison was the controversial US envoy to the UN, John Bolton. No one knows what his involvement in this affair might be.

Critics speculate the following, however: Ms Miller's reputation was in shreds after the Iraq invasion. Going to prison on behalf of journalists everywhere provided a good distraction.

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