Russert cross-examination winds up case against Libby

TV host denies personal bias against former vice presidential aide

February 09, 2007|By Richard B. Schmitt | Richard B. Schmitt,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The government rested its perjury case yesterday against I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, clearing the way for Libby's lawyers to launch their defense of the former vice presidential aide.

The government's case concluded with a second day of testimony by Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert.

Russert earlier testified that, contrary to what Libby had told a federal grand jury, he did not tell Libby about CIA operative Valerie Plame in the summer of 2003 when her husband, former envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV, was emerging as a critic of the Bush administration's war plan in Iraq.

The conversation is one of three involving journalists that Libby allegedly lied about to investigators probing how the identity of Plame became public. The alleged lies form the core of the perjury and obstruction of justice case against Libby.

`Like Christmas Eve'

Russert spent most of yesterday responding to questions about his credibility, including accusations by the defense that he had a personal bias against Libby and that he misled a federal court about an interview he gave to the FBI about the Plame investigation.

Defense lawyer Theodore Wells Jr. showed the jury a videotape of an interview that Russert gave to radio talk show host Don Imus on the morning that Libby was indicted by a federal grand jury in Washington in October 2005.

Responding to questions from Imus, Russert was heard to say on the tape: "It is like Christmas Eve. ... Santa Claus is coming. ... What is going to be under the tree?"

Wells said the tape suggested that Russert was jubilant at the thought that Libby might be indicted, reflecting a bias he held against Libby for entangling him in the leak case.

Russert responded, under questioning, that he did not recall the appearance and that he did not know at that point whether Libby would be charged. He said the atmosphere was one of anticipation over a major news event developing rather than a feeling of ill will about Libby and his fate.

"Any possibility that Mr. Fitzgerald is Santa Claus?" Wells asked Russert, referring to special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.

"I'm sorry?" Russert replied.

Wells asked the question again and Russert replied that no, he did not consider the prosecutor to be that figure. Wells also asked Russert whether he considered presents under the tree to mean an indictment of the former White House aide. Russert replied that he did not consider that the case.

"You looked very happy on the tape, didn't you?" Wells said.

"I think that was a still photo," Russert responded.

Russert initially resisted a subpoena seeking his testimony in the case in 2004, based on concerns that it would chill his ability to gather news and utilize confidential sources.

A federal judge ordered him to testify.

On Thursday, Wells cited an affidavit that Russert filed during the subpoena challenge, citing his need to maintain confidential sources. He also cited an earlier FBI interview that Russert had given in November 2003.

Wells asserted that Russert was misleading the court because he had already spoken to investigators about Libby.

Russert responded that he did not consider that to be inconsistent because in the FBI interview he was only confirming information the FBI already had obtained. He said he felt obliged to correct misstatements Libby had made about their conversation.

Source of information

Russert's testimony that he did not give Libby information about Plame is crucial.

Prosecutors allege that Libby made up the account that he heard about Plame from reporters when, in fact, he had learned it from officials, including his then-boss, Vice President Dick Cheney. Releasing classified information from official sources, as opposed to reporters, could be a felony under federal law.

Russert testified that he did not learn about Plame until her identity was revealed in a July 14, 2003, column by Robert Novak. That came eight days after Wilson published a New York Times op-ed article accusing the administration of twisting prewar intelligence in Iraq.

Libby's lawyers are expected to launch their defense Monday.

Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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