WASHINGTON, D.C.—On Feb. 13, just minutes before 10 a.m., New York Times managing editor Jill Abramson entered Courtroom No. 16 in the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse, in Washington, D.C.
There, Ms. Abramson became the latest celebrity journalist to take the stand in the perjury trial of former Vice Presidential aide I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby.
The previous day of the trial leaned heavily on the Pulitzers and included the testimony of several establishment fixtures: The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus and Bob Woodward, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak, and The Times’ chief White House correspondent, David Sanger.
Next to them, Ms. Abramson was hardly a star. But for a small segment of the viewing public—the one that became obsessed with The New York Times’ entanglement in the Libby prosecution—her testimony was pretty much the most important.
While Ms. Abramson now currently serves as The Times’ managing editor in New York, it’s her previous job—that of D.C. bureau chief during the tumultuous summer of 2003—that’s pushed her back into the spotlight.
It was in July 2003 that Valerie Plame, wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, was outed as a C.I.A. agent, sparking a chain of events through Washington’s corridors of power up to the current trial.
Judith Miller, a former Times reporter who spent 85 days in prison in 2005 for refusing to testify in the case against Mr. Libby, has said that she wanted to pursue a story about Mr. Libby’s efforts to leak Ms. Plame’s identity, but that Ms. Abramson had turned her down.
Although Ms. Abramson has challenged that assertion publicly, now the defense hoped she would do so under oath.
Dressed in a long black skirt, chocolate brown blazer, and black heels, Ms. Abramson strode past the roughly 50 spectators assembled in the back rows, which included establishment journalists not testifying, like Time’s Joe Klein.
She next moved past Mr. Libby, seated with his half-dozen attorneys, and also past special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald—the man whose dogged efforts led to Ms. Miller’s incarceration in Alexandria, Va.
“I think people will be focusing more on what Jill is going to say than David,” said a Times D.C. bureau staffer shortly after Mr. Sanger’s Feb. 12 testimony, which focused on the notion that Mr. Libby never mentioned the former C.I.A. agent in a July 2003 conversation. However, said a Times D.C. bureau source, Ms. Abramson’s testimony “is a matter of huge concern and speculation.”
And what did Ms. Abramson have to say?
Well, in just four short minutes on the stand, Ms. Abramson didn’t have the opportunity to say much. However, for the defense, the testimony was sought to impugn Ms. Miller.
Ms. Abramson sped through her career’s impressive trajectory, from editor of Legal Times to Wall Street Journal reporter to Washington editor at The Times, and then to bureau chief.
Regarding her interaction with Ms. Miller, Ms. Abramson said that she was not Ms. Miller’s main editor, nor was Ms. Miller a member of the Washington bureau at that time.
Ms. Abramson’s account of that time was that Ms. Miller was doing a companion piece on prewar intelligence, reporting on the “fruitless hunt for W.M.D. in Iraq.”
She was next asked about Mr. Wilson’s July 6 Op-Ed piece in The Times, about his assignment to investigate whether Iraq sought to acquire yellow-cake uranium in Niger.
“It caused a stir,” said Ms. Abramson, who mentioned that The Times subsequently had its own reporters “chasing the story.”
Next: Did Ms. Miller speak to Ms. Abramson about reporting a piece on “whether Joe Wilson’s wife works for the C.I.A.?”
“I have no recollection of such a conversation,” said Ms. Abramson.
Members of the press section started whispering audibly. With that, the defense rested.
Debra Bonamici took over for the prosecution and asked a question that provoked a few chuckles in the press section. At the time in question, he said, had Ms. Abramson “tune[d] out” the reporter?
“It’s possible that I occasionally tuned her out,” Ms. Abramson replied.
Ms. Abramson’s response, then, fell short of her earlier wholesale rebuttal of Ms. Miller’s claim.
The New York Times itself published a piece on Oct. 16, 2005, taking up the question.
The article, headlined “The Miller Case: A Notebook, A Cause, a Jail Cell and a Deal,” written by Don Van Natta Jr., Adam Liptak and Clifford Levy, quoted Ms. Miller and Ms. Abramson thusly:
“Ms. Miller said in an interview that she ‘made a strong recommendation to my editor’ that an article be pursued. ‘I was told no,” she said. She would not identify the editor.
“Ms. Abramson, the Washington bureau chief at the time, said Ms. Miller never made any such recommendation.”
Roughly four minutes had passed since the beginning of her testimony, and Ms. Abramson left the courtroom.
It was the perhaps the shortest testimony in the trial. And in the White House, it might not have meant much. Considering the brevity of Ms. Abramson’s testimony, it’s surprising that her attorneys tried to prevent her from taking the stand.
The Times D.C. bureau had been bracing for something else. Several staffers told The Observer that Ms. Abramson’s testimony could be “painful” if it conjured up the heavily scrutinized journalism of the Times Washington bureau in the run-up to the Iraq War. But that obviously wasn’t on the defense’s agenda, so it never came up.
On Feb. 8, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, who is presiding over the case, ruled that Ms. Abramson would have to testify, despite the objections from The Times’ counsel and Washington, D.C., attorney Charles Leeper.
That same day, Ms. Abramson was down in her old D.C. bureau stomping grounds, having met with her attorneys. Mr. Sanger, who had also recently lost his own attempt at fighting a subpoena, said he spoke to Ms. Abramson that day.
But Mr. Sanger’s day on the stand came four days later, the same morning that a piece he co-wrote led the paper, on multilateral talks over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Perhaps testifying wasn’t too much of a stain on Mr. Sanger, since he co-wrote the lead story on Feb. 13, too.
Mr. Sanger declined to give specifics, considering that he could get called back to the stand. However, he said of the media-circus atmosphere during the Libby trial: “It clearly gives people a deeper understanding of how we do what we do. I’m not sure that’s all bad.”
For The Times, the upcoming arrival of former Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet, the new D.C. bureau chief, has fueled optimism among the staff, despite the dredging-up of old bureau ghosts across town in the court.
But does this put things to rest for The Times?
“The whole Iraq War W.M.D. case has been full of unexpected turns at every moment,” said Mr. Sanger. “I would be foolish to say we’ve heard the last of it.”