I've always liked Judy Miller. I have often wondered what Waugh or Thackeray would have made of the Fourth Estate's Becky Sharp.
The traits she has that drive many reporters at The Times crazy -- her tropism toward powerful men, her frantic intensity and her peculiar mixture of hard work and hauteur -- have never bothered me. I enjoy operatic types.
Once when I was covering the first Bush White House, I was in The Times's seat in the crowded White House press room, listening to an administration official's background briefing. Judy had moved on from her tempestuous tenure as a Washington editor to be a reporter based in New York, but she showed up at this national security affairs briefing. At first she leaned against the wall near where I was sitting, but I noticed that she seemed agitated about something. Midway through the briefing, she came over and whispered to me, ''I think I should be sitting in the Times seat.'' It was such an outrageous move, I could only laugh. I got up and stood in the back of the room, while Judy claimed what she felt was her rightful power perch.
She never knew when to quit. That was her talent and her flaw. Sorely in need of a tight editorial leash, she was kept on no leash at all, and that has hurt this paper and its trust with readers.
She more than earned her sobriquet ''Miss Run Amok.'' Judy's stories about W.M.D. fit too perfectly with the White House's case for war. She was close to Ahmad Chalabi, the con man who was conning the neocons to knock out Saddam so he could get his hands on Iraq, and I worried that she was playing a leading role in the dangerous echo chamber that Senator Bob Graham, now retired, dubbed ''incestuous amplification.''
Using Iraqi defectors and exiles, Mr. Chalabi planted bogus stories with Judy and other credulous journalists. Even last April, when I wrote a column critical of Mr. Chalabi, she fired off e-mail to me defending him.
When Bill Keller became executive editor in the summer of 2003, he barred Judy from covering Iraq and W.M.D. issues. But he acknowledged in The Times's Sunday story about Judy's role in the Plame leak case that she had kept ''drifting'' back. Why did nobody stop this drift? Judy admitted in the story that she ''got it totally wrong'' about W.M.D. ''If your sources are wrong,'' she said, ''you are wrong.'' But investigative reporting is not stenography.
The Times's story and Judy's own first-person account had the unfortunate effect of raising more questions. As Bill said yesterday in an e-mail note to the staff, Judy seemed to have ''misled'' the Washington bureau chief, Phil Taubman, about the extent of her involvement in the Valerie Plame leak case.
She casually revealed that she had agreed to identify her source, Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff, as a ''former Hill staffer'' because he had once worked on Capitol Hill. The implication was that this bit of deception was a common practice for reporters. It isn't.
She said that she had wanted to write about the Wilson-Plame matter, but that her editor would not allow it. But Managing Editor Jill Abramson, then the Washington bureau chief, denied this, saying that Judy had never broached the subject with her.
It also doesn't seem credible that Judy wouldn't remember a Marvel comics name like ''Valerie Flame.'' Nor does it seem credible that she doesn't know how the name got into her notebook and that, as she wrote, she ''did not believe the name came from Mr. Libby.''
An Associated Press story yesterday reported that Judy had coughed up the details of an earlier meeting with Mr. Libby only after prosecutors confronted her with a visitor log showing that she had met with him on June 23, 2003.
This cagey confusion is what makes people wonder whether her stint in the Alexandria jail was in part a career rehabilitation project. Judy refused to answer a lot of questions put to her by Times reporters, or show the notes that she shared with the grand jury.
I admire Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Bill Keller for aggressively backing reporters in the cross hairs of a prosecutor. But before turning Judy's case into a First Amendment battle, they should have nailed her to a chair and extracted the entire story of her escapade.
Judy told The Times that she plans to write a book and intends to return to the newsroom, hoping to cover ''the same thing I've always covered -- threats to our country.'' If that were to happen, the institution most in danger would be the newspaper in your hands.