Journalists Treated as Eyewitnesses

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 29, 2005

President Bush, who famously says he doesn't read newspapers, has often described his administration as not overly concerned with news coverage. But yesterday's indictment of Vice President Cheney's chief of staff portrays a White House that reacted angrily to media accounts and tried, with stealth and deception, to use journalists to undermine one of its critics.

At the heart of the criminal case against I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby are charges that he lied about his conversations with three reporters, and falsely told a grand jury that he had learned the identity of an undercover CIA operative from the journalists, not from Cheney and other officials.

The role of the reporters who spoke with Libby on a not-for-attribution basis -- NBC's Tim Russert, Time's Matthew Cooper and the New York Times' Judith Miller -- is so central that they will likely be called to testify if Libby's case goes to trial.

"No one likes to be in the center of these things," Russert said yesterday. "I'll do what I have to do as a citizen. It's not complicated. . . . If you tell the truth, you only have to tell it once," he said of his 20-minute deposition with special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald. Reading the indictment's account of how Libby is alleged to have lied about their 2003 conversation, Russert added, was "eye-opening."

The indictment backs Russert's account that Libby never spoke to him about Valerie Plame, the wife of administration critic Joseph C. Wilson IV, when Libby called to complain about a story carried on MSNBC. According to the indictment, Libby testified that Russert asked him whether he knew that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and, when he said he did not, that the "Meet the Press" host said that all the reporters knew it.

Robert D. Novak, the syndicated columnist who disclosed Plame's CIA job on July 14, 2003, said in a brief interview that he had hoped to write about his role yesterday but could not because Fitzgerald "left something on the table. I hope they take that off the table and I'll do it."

He was referring to the indictment's failure to identify "Official A," one of Novak's two sources on the Plame story who told Libby of his conversation with Novak on July 10 or 11. In the meantime, Novak said, he cannot comment, on the advice of his attorneys. The indictment does not mention whether Novak testified before the grand jury.

What emerges from the indictment is a picture of a Washington culture in which partisans routinely pass sensitive information to reporters under a cloak of secrecy. Wilson was originally an unnamed source, and once Libby decided to use similar tactics, Libby spent considerable time discussing media strategy with other officials, including then-press secretary Ari Fleischer. Libby was so concerned about leaving no fingerprints that he insisted Miller identify him as a "former Hill staffer," not as a senior administration official.

Libby's actions appear driven by press criticism of Bush's erroneous claim about Saddam Hussein seeking uranium from Niger, beginning with a May 6, 2003, New York Times column by Nicholas D. Kristof for which Wilson was an unnamed source. When Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus called Libby for a June 12 story on the subject, Libby had discussions within Cheney's office "concerning how to respond to Pincus," the indictment says. Pincus, who had also talked to Wilson, said he spoke twice by phone with Libby on a "background" basis but that Wilson's wife did not come up. The indictment says Cheney told his aide about Plame's job on June 12.

A week later, an online New Republic article titled "The First Casualty: The Selling of the Iraq War" quoted an unnamed ambassador -- Wilson -- as saying that administration officials knew the uranium allegations he had gone to Niger to investigate were "a flat-out lie." Libby discussed the article with his principal deputy, who asked whether information about Wilson's trip could be shared with the news media. Libby said he could not discuss the matter on a non-secure phone line.

John B. Judis, co-author of the New Republic piece, said he understood why Libby was upset by an effort "to unveil the kind of deception that had occurred before the Iraq war. Unfortunately, what it provoked on Libby's part seems to be revealing the identity of Wilson's wife."

Soon afterward, on June 23, 2003, Libby met with Miller and told the Times reporter that Wilson's wife might work at a CIA bureau.

Libby stepped up his press offensive after Wilson went public on July 6, in a Times op-ed column, a Post interview and a "Meet the Press" appearance. Two days later, he told Miller that Plame did work for the CIA.

On July 12, as he flew back from Norfolk on Cheney's plane, Libby talked to other officials about what he should say in response to inquiries from Time's Cooper and other reporters. Libby later confirmed to Cooper that Wilson's wife had been involved in sending Wilson to Niger. Presidential adviser Karl Rove had told Cooper about Plame a day earlier.

In his testimony, Libby said he believes he told Cooper he did not even know whether Wilson had a wife.

Mark Feldstein, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, said the indictment "strips bare that what reporters often learn is officially managed, spinned news. It tends to make the reporters look like receptacles for very self-interested leaks, which is how the game is often played in Washington. . . . Libby also counted on these same reporters to conceal his role in this propaganda war, knowing that they would have an instinctive desire to protect their confidential sources."

At a news conference, Fitzgerald offered his first public defense of his aggressive tactic of threatening journalists with jail for refusing to testify about their sources. Miller served 85 days before reaching an accommodation with Libby.

"No one wanted to have a dispute with the New York Times or anyone else. . . . I was not looking for a First Amendment showdown," Fitzgerald said. He added: "I do not think that a reporter should be subpoenaed anything close to routinely. It should be an extraordinary case. But if you're dealing with a crime, and what's different here is the transaction is between a person and a reporter, they're the eyewitness to the crime."

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