IN THE LIVES of public figures, there are make-or-break moments when one has a nanosecond to...

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IN THE LIVES of public figures, there are make-or-break moments when one has a nanosecond to choose candor or caution. When advisers counsel a politician to fake laryngitis before speaking from the gut.

But John Miller did not have a posse of political advisers on hand last September when the cameras were rolling at the State Department and he was face-to-face with a hard-nosed investigative reporter. The reporter came bearing videotape showing that Miller and his boss, Secretary of State Colin Powell, had been made fools in the international community by one of America’s rich allies in the Middle East.

Miller, President George W. Bush’s ambassador for human-trafficking issues, had just publicly given his seal of approval to the United Arab Emirates. Home of several internationally famous camel races, the U.A.E. had officially banned the kidnapping and abuse of young boys as camel jockeys for millionaire enthusiasts. Miller had lauded the country as “a model for the region.” Powell offered praise, too.

Now Miller was facing Emmy-winning TV correspondent Bernard Goldberg. Goldberg’s crew from HBO Sports had just returned from the U.A.E., where they had gone undercover to examine the lives — and deaths — of the littlest riders.

As Miller watched their tape, the images unfolded; tiny boys, some as young as 3, skinny and scared, rode and fell from camels as trainers screamed. They slept six to 10 in a room on the floor, or outside on the sand; if their weight passed 50 pounds, they were discarded. A 6-year-old trampled by a camel had been sent back to Pakistan in a box.

Kidnapped from their homes or sold by their families in Pakistan, or Bangladesh, they had no way to escape and no place to go if they did. One 7-year-old showed his bruised rear end, where he had been sodomized by his trainer.

“When you look at that what do you think?” Goldberg asked.

Quietly, shaking his head slowly, Miller denounced the “slavery” of the little boys.

But when Goldberg pressed him on the U.A.E.’s role as an ally, Miller turned feisty. “I will tell you this. From what I know of the president and the secretary of state’s feelings about the slavery issue, the fact that a government is a friend or an ally is not gonna keep this government from speaking out.

“And it isn’t gonna keep me from speaking out,” he said.

The interview could have been a disaster for Miller’s credibility. But when the show ran a month later, Goldberg declared Miller “a real straight shooter.”

Recently, Goldberg elaborated: “I’ve only interviewed about 20 million people in my time. He was furious that he’d been lied to about this. He just came through as the real deal.”

THE REAL DEAL. Of course.

You may remember John Miller. Twenty years ago, he was a mild-mannered Republican congressman representing the 1st District in Seattle. He was sincere, intellectual, decent. And perhaps just a bit of a milquetoast.

Today, Mr. Milquetoast storms the back alleys of Calcutta, the gutters and red-light districts of Cambodia and Indonesia with a team of true believers from the State Department and human-rights groups, asking young girls about being forced into prostitution, listening to them describe indescribable acts, looking to change their futures.

His constituents now are Arab domestic maids and Russian construction workers forced into servitude in places as different as Kuwait and Israel.

The crusader’s cause is quite fashionable now. Christian conservatives have embraced the mission as a natural extension of their moral agenda. Orthodox Jews have joined in, along with Southern Republicans and New York Democrats, Hollywood stars, arch-feminist Gloria Steinem and born-again ex-congresswoman Linda Smith of Vancouver, Wash.

Bush and his White House advisers on religious issues began pulling moral themes as part of a crossover political-cultural agenda in 2001, and they pounced on trafficking as a win-win, thrusting a fledgling Clinton concept into the limelight. Miller’s advent at TIP, the Trafficking In Persons Office, was intended to raise the program’s profile. The title “ambassador” was a White House signal that Bush was taking diplomacy in a new direction. With a kinder, gentler Condoleezza Rice as the new boss at State since January, it’s touting humanitarian issues, democracy, women’s rights and AIDS relief.

The TIP office is presented as a success story. Nearly 90 nations have signed agreements to stop trafficking, and other countries prosecuted some 3,000 offenders last year. Miller’s office has even bucked centuries of unspoken military tradition by persuading the Pentagon to pledge it will enforce a long-standing ban on U.S. troops overseas visiting brothels.

But if naiveté is considered a virtue, John Miller may be among the purest men alive.

Does “the real deal” have any real power?

And even if the White House is behind him, some question what Miller can actually accomplish as the official scold.

First, some human-rights groups, AIDS activists and politicians complain that Miller is White House window dressing for President Bush’s push to promote his personal Christian agenda around the globe. For instance, the White House recently demanded that AIDS organizations sign a pledge against prostitution before they receive federal grants. This infuriated health groups trying to organize sex workers to push for condoms and health care to control HIV.

On top of that, Miller is treading on some State Department toes with a target list of traffickers that reads like a who’s who of America’s sweethearts: Israel, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait; the Netherlands and United Nations peacekeepers.

Miller even finds himself at odds with one of the most reputable philanthropic organizations in the world, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, because it has given money to an Indian sex-workers union that Miller and others say is part of the problem.

Finally, Miller may be trying to help prostitutes and indentured servants find a way out. But for hundreds of thousands in poverty, prostitution and servitude is a way out.

Miller acknowledges the skeptics, the critics: “I understand what you are asking, can we really make a difference?” he says. “I looked into the face of a girl who was rescued. Do I tell her that her other life wasn’t so bad?”

Miller always wanted to save the world. Now he’s doing it — one child, one housemaid, one hooker at a time.

IN MILLER’S frenetic efforts to find his mission, he bounced from cause to case, occasionally dropping out of sight. Friends would ask: “Whatever happened to John Miller? They should have asked: “Whatever didn’t happen to John Miller?”

He’s been a lawyer and a Seattle City Councilman, a TV commentator, state attorney general candidate, baseball columnist and wanna-be baseball-team owner. He’s also been a conservative think tank-er, Yeshiva teacher, late-blooming father, John McCain supporter and, now, ambassador.

When many people think “ambassador,” they think Gregory Peck in “The Omen,” a debonaire diplomat with graying temples, tall and erect in sartorial splendor. That is not John Miller.

He’s tall, but he walks with his neck pitched forward, cranium bent, giving the impression he’s in a hurry to charge into the next briefing head first. At 67, his hair is thinning. The furrows of his sloping brow are deep enough to bowl in; he fidgets; in meetings, he repeatedly removes his wire-rimmed glasses and replaces them absentmindedly.

But when he talks, he is commanding. His huge hands swing wildly as he makes a point, causing staffers to surreptitiously move coffee cups and microphones aside. His hazel eyes sparkle when he gets animated, and his smile isn’t the coy stuff of diplomacy, it’s open and wide. A laugher’s smile.

Miller was destined for Seattle from the fourth grade. He was in Public School 6 in Manhattan, and the geography lesson that day was on Puget Sound.

“It looked wonderful,” says Miller. “It said the climate was ‘temperate.’ I looked up ‘temperate’ and said, ‘That’s where I’m going to live.’ “

That night his New Yorker mother told him he’d fuggeddaboudit in two weeks.

This is John Miller: He went to his room, marked it on the calendar for two weeks hence, and a fortnight later announced again his intention to live there. When he was finishing Yale Law School, he jumped at an offer from a firm in Seattle.

And so Seattle welcomed the son of Russian-Ukrainian Jews, the GOP moderate with a Sierra Club-friendly environmental agenda.

Miller hooked up with GOP progressives such as Bruce Chapman, and worked for good-government initiatives on the City Council.

Next, he became a commentator for KIRO-TV. It wore him down. “I panicked that one morning I would not have anything to say — and they would only let me fall back on baseball just so much.”

Ah, baseball. In the early 1980s, Miller was teamed with George Weigel to produce a baseball column for The Seattle Weekly. Today, Weigel is one of the world’s best known conservative Catholic scholars. They spent spring training with the Mariners, but they didn’t produce Proust.

Miller careened back into politics in 1984, and won the 1st District Congressional seat. He became a leader of the Human Rights Caucus. When Microsoft and Boeing were lobbying for most-favored-nation status for China, Miller lectured their executives over human-rights abuses there.

In 1988, his good-guy instincts almost cost him re-election. His opponent, Seattle teachers-union president Reese Lindquist, unleashed a nasty TV ad linking Miller’s stand on drug sentencing with a body in a morgue.

“We’d heard a lot of rumors about Lindquist,” recalls Miller’s former press secretary, Anna Perez. There were allegations that Lindquist, married with children, was too interested in teenage boys. “People were trying to give us information,” but Miller wouldn’t let the staff pursue it, says Perez, now PR chief for NBC Universal. In 1992, Lindquist pleaded to soliciting sex from a minor. That same year, Miller bowed out of politics. He was 54, tired of commuting coast to coast, and he and his wife, June, had adopted a little boy.

During his “missing years,” Miller became involved with the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based conservative-leaning think tank, and headed its board from 2000-2002. He also unsuccessfully attempted to buy a farm team and make his field of dreams in Kitsap County. In 2002, Miller was teaching at the Northwest Yeshiva High School on Mercer Island when he learned that the Bush White House wanted him to head the Trafficking In Persons Office. The approval was held up for several months after the White House noticed that Miller had been a McCain supporter in the 2000 presidential primary, but it was finally OK’d. Last year, he and his wife divorced. They remain friends. There was no one else, he says. Just his job.

So, while many diplomats party hop after work, Miller schleps on the Metro to his spartan apartment in an Arlington high-rise canyon and grabs the five-buck stroganoff special at a nearby noodle cafe.

THERE’S A nine-hour difference between Kuwait and Washington, D.C., and an even greater difference of opinion. A video conference has been arranged for Miller and his team to explain to Kuwait why it has landed on the bottom tier of this year’s Trafficking In Persons report, an annual review of all nations’ efforts to curtail traffickers. The three-tier TIP rankings rankle some countries. As the screen opens, a huddle of irritated journalists is staring back from Kuwait City. The trafficking crisis in Kuwait is so bad that Bangladeshi servants and construction workers recently rioted in front of their embassy, seeking help to escape employers or get paid.

But the Kuwaiti journalists jump on Miller. They want to know: Who is the U.S. to tell us what we should do inside our country?

The aim, Miller finally tells them, is to “create discussion.”

That’s all?

No, Miller explains later. “We hope they will respond to the “name and shame” factor.

For instance, Japan and Korea were embarrassed to land low on an earlier list.

Japan was issuing “entertainment” visas to tens of thousands of Philippine women. “I mean, how many ‘dancers’ do they need to import?” Miller asked. Japan passed laws against trafficking. But the TIP report was trashed in the Saudi press. And inside the State Department there were tense meetings over its ranking.

On the new TIP list, the U.A.E. shot from first tier to third. “We were duped last year,” Miller explains.

The U.A.E. responded by pulling in a powerful Republican lobbyist, former Minnesota Rep. Vin Weber, to jawbone Miller. Weber says he and Miller are working with the U.A.E. on a plan to get them re-upgraded. The U.A.E. has been negotiating a free-trade agreement and doesn’t want TIP sanctions to get in the way.

But here’s the realistic issue facing “the real deal.” The U.A.E. is an important staging area for America in the Middle East. U-2 spy planes are based there, and it risks terrorist attacks to act as a go-between with Arab leaders. Miller says, “It always comes down to Realpolitik versus real rights. But it’s not a ‘piddly’ issue. This is human rights. Playing favorites is not an option.”

Still, the question begs: Once the report comes out, does anything really happen? A tier-three country gets three months to show a desire to improve its status or the U.S. may impose sanctions.

Or not.

Only tiny Equatorial Guinea and Venezuela, whose president is disliked by the Bush administration, have faced them.

JOHN MILLER MINCES no words. The Gates Foundation is, he says, “unintentionally, underwriting the enslavement of children” in India.

Girls and boys are in demand in bordellos, he explains, because brothel owners want disease-free workers for their clients. Condoms are supposed to be provided, but pimps and madams tell clients that for a few rupees more, they can go rubber-free. Plus, there’s always a market for virgins.

The Gates Foundation set up a $200 million program in 2003 to prevent the spread of AIDS in several countries, including India. Grantees include sex-worker associations.

“They are very well-intentioned,” says Miller. But he claims that one Gates grant recipient, the DMSC, the sex workers union of Calcutta, is really helping brothel owners maintain control in the red-light district.

In fact, in January 2004 while Melinda Gates was visiting India, union members attacked Calcutta police attempting to rescue a 14-year-old prostitute who was being held against her will, according to The Times of India.

Miller was so annoyed with DMSC, he met with Bill Gates, Sr., wrote an op-ed piece in The Seattle Times and sent Gates a letter last February.

“Many DMSC members are older prostitutes (who) become madams or brothel owners themselves and rely on revenues generated by children,” he said. “There is also evidence that the DMSC leadership has strong contacts with organized crime.”

The foundation’s representative, Dr. Helene Gayle, says a million dollars went to the DMSC before the new $200 million project, and that the focus should be on the overall work that is done.

“You do everything you can to see that you are not supporting a group that is in league with the people who enslave the girls,” she said. But she did not explain how the foundation vetted the union.

Still, for many impoverished people, it is better to be inside a brothel than outside one, begging.

Prostitutes are protesting in the streets of Korea for their rights. Belgium wants to join the Dutch in legalizing prostitution to curb violence and AIDS. There are marches in India for it.

What could be wrong with helping groups who want to organize sex workers and better the conditions for prostitutes?

Miller’s answer: “Look, for hundreds of years there was a group of well-intentioned reformers who said, ‘We must get the slaves better mattresses, ventilation, doctors, food, and register the slaves.’ They reported back to the queen of England that the slaves were happy.

“They were right in trying to improve conditions. But that cannot be a substitute for abolishing slavery.”

He sighs. “I know our embassies have other things on their plate. Freedom and slavery is not always at the top of the agenda.”

He pauses. “You think I’m naive? Maybe. Maybe.”

But, he adds, “It shouldn’t be naive to want to do the right thing.”

Alicia Mundy is The Seattle Times Washington, D.C., correspondent. Alan Berner is a Times staff photographer.