`Meet the Press' moderator testifies, contradicts Libby

Russert says he didn't reveal CIA officer's identity to Cheney's aide

February 08, 2007|By Richard B. Schmitt | Richard B. Schmitt,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert testified yesterday that he never gave former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby information about the wife of a Bush administration war critic, contradicting the premise of Libby's defense of perjury charges.

Russert became the third journalist in the federal court trial to offer testimony that counters statements that Libby told investigators and a grand jury probing the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

The conversations - and alleged lies that Libby offered about them - form the crux of his perjury and obstruction indictment.

Russert recounted receiving a phone call from Libby the week after former envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV published a New York Times op-ed article July 6, 2003, accusing the Bush administration of twisting pre-war intelligence in Iraq.

Complaint call

He said an "agitated" Libby called to complain about coverage of the growing controversy on the Hardball program on MSNBC.

"`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 MSNBC program, with anchor Chris Matthews, was 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, which is run by one of the network's cable affiliates.

He said he referred Libby to other NBC officials.

Under questioning by prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, Russert said he had not discussed with Libby the wife of Wilson or 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 said he did not know about Plame until he read about her in a column written by syndicated columnist Robert Novak. That column appeared 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 whether he had conveyed that information 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 if Libby had given him the information because "that would be a significant story."

Russert recalled later reading the Novak column connecting Plame to the CIA.

"I said, `Wow! Look at this. This is really significant. This is big.' And I went to work and began to ask people I was working with what we knew about that and why we didn't have the story, because to me it was a significant development in the story."

Fitzgerald's questioning of Russert lasted barely 10 minutes. Russert had resisted testifying before the grand jury investigating the case in 2004 because of concerns that it would chill his ability to report, but he was required to answer questions by a federal judge.

Memory tested

Libby's lead trial lawyer, Theodore Wells, spent the afternoon testing Russert's memory, including an article in The Buffalo News, where Russert acknowledged forgetting a phone call he had placed to a columnist who had been critical of his work moderating a debate.

Russert's testimony strikes at the heart of Libby's defense that the vice president's aide said he learned about Wilson's wife from Russert.

The government has alleged that Libby made up the story about Russert and that he was the one spreading classified information about Plame's status, which had been supplied to him by his then-boss, Vice President Dick Cheney. That could be a federal crime.

Libby apparently believed that passing along information supplied by reporters would not violate the law, prosecutors believe.

Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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