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Russert hurts Libby's defense

He's the third journalist to testify against the ex-Cheney aide's story on Valerie Plame and who said what, when.

February 08, 2007|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — "Meet the Press" moderator Tim Russert struck at the heart of former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's defense against perjury charges Wednesday when he testified that he never gave Libby information about the wife of an Iraq war critic.

Russert was the third journalist in the trial to contradict statements Libby gave to investigators and a grand jury probing the unmasking of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Libby's conversations with reporters -- and alleged lies he told about them -- form the crux of his perjury and obstruction indictment. Libby has said that he heard about Plame from Russert, suggesting that her identity had already been disclosed by others.

Testifying in federal court, a grim-faced Russert recounted receiving a phone call from Libby the week after former envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV published a New York Times op-ed piece in July 2003 accusing the Bush administration of twisting prewar intelligence on Iraq. Russert described Libby as "agitated" and said the aide had called to complain about coverage of the growing controversy on the "Hardball" program on MSNBC, an NBC affiliate.

"What the hell is going on with 'Hardball,' " Russert recalled Libby saying. "Damn it, I'm tired of hearing my name over and over again."

Russert said Libby complained that the program and its anchor, Chris Matthews, were distorting the truth about Wilson and his allegations. Russert said he told Libby that even though he was head of the Washington bureau of NBC News, he did not have authority or responsibility over the "Hardball" program; he said he referred Libby to other NBC officials.

Under questioning by prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Russert said he and Libby had not discussed Wilson's wife -- or the fact that she worked for the CIA. "That would be impossible," Russert testified, "because I did not know who that person was until several days later."

Russert had resisted speaking with investigators out of concern that it would chill his ability to report in the future, but a federal judge ruled in 2004 that he was legally required to cooperate.

Russert was the latest journalist to take the witness stand. Former Time magazine correspondent Matthew Cooper and Judith Miller, a former New York Times reporter, previously testified for the government.

The defense is planning to call Washington Post editor and reporter Bob Woodward, among others, to testify that Libby did not tip them off to the identity of Wilson's wife.

The involvement of journalists in the trial has troubled press advocates. Miller spent 85 days in jail before agreeing to talk with investigators about Libby, whom she had considered a confidential source.

Several other journalists, including New York Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson, have been subpoenaed to testify for the defense in coming days, but they are resisting. Those moves could delay the trial. Libby's lawyers want to establish that Miller is not credible because she misled her own editors.

The appearance by Russert, a familiar face to Sunday morning news junkies, further drew back the curtain on how reporters and editors operate, and gave the trial its first real dose of star quality.

"It's fair to say you are a valuable asset to the NBC network?" asked Theodore V. Wells Jr., Libby's lead lawyer.

"I hope so," Russert replied.

Wells estimated that "Meet the Press" generated about $50 million a year in revenue; Russert agreed. U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton said Russert did not have to answer a question about his salary, which Wells suggested was more than $5 million annually.

Russert, on crutches after having broken his ankle eight weeks ago while playing with his dog, mostly kept his answers short and concise, and refused to be drawn by Wells away from his basic story about what he had not told Libby.

The defense lawyer spent more than two hours trying to put a dent in Russert's credibility, and indicated that the questioning would continue for about as long today.

Unlike with some of the other media witnesses -- including Miller, who conceded that she had forgotten a key meeting with Libby while testifying before the grand jury for the first time -- Wells had trouble eliciting potentially damaging admissions from Russert.

In contrast to Wells' lengthy probe, Fitzgerald's examination of the witness lasted about 10 minutes.

Russert testified that he did not know about Plame until he read about her in a column published by syndicated columnist Robert Novak on July 14, 2003.

Libby has asserted that four days earlier, on or around July 10, Russert told him that "all the reporters" knew that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. Libby has said that was the first time he learned about her identity.

Asked if he had said that to Libby, Russert responded: "No. I wouldn't do that. I didn't know that."

Russert said Libby did not give him the information about Plame. He said he would have remembered that because "that would be a significant story."

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