By Carol D. Leonnig and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 8, 2007
Tim Russert, the Washington bureau chief for NBC News, yesterday swiftly and firmly rejected I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's assertion that the journalist revealed the identity of an undercover CIA officer to him during a telephone call in the summer of 2003.
Testifying as the final, and perhaps most critical, prosecution witness in the perjury trial of Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, Russert recounted their conversation that July and how a "very agitated" Libby called to complain about MSNBC's "Hardball." Russert said that the subject of the CIA officer, Valerie Plame, never came up and that he could not have told Libby anything about her.
"That would be impossible," Russert said, "because I didn't know who that person was until several days later."
Libby, who faces five felony counts of lying to investigators about his role in the leak of Plame's identity, has repeatedly testified that he shared information about Plame with other reporters only after hearing it from Russert during the telephone call. Libby has acknowledged that Cheney first told him about Plame's CIA job, in mid-June, but said that he had forgotten the information by the time he heard it from Russert.
Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald has argued that Libby fabricated the story about learning the information from Russert in the July 10, 2003, telephone call to protect himself from criminal charges. Passing along gossip from a reporter would not be a crime, but disclosing a CIA officer's classified status to reporters after learning it from the vice president could be.
Prosecutors spent three years investigating whether senior Bush administration officials deliberately revealed Plame's status to punish her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. The CIA had sent him to Africa in 2002 to investigate reports that Iraq had been trying to buy nuclear material there. Wilson found no evidence of the activity and in July 2003 accused the administration of twisting his findings to justify going to war. Eight days after he went public with his accusations, his wife's name and CIA role were revealed in a syndicated column by Robert D. Novak.
In 11 minutes of direct testimony, Russert offered a vivid description of his telephone call with Libby, and said it rapidly "evolved into a consumer complaint." Russert said Libby, who was then Cheney's chief of staff, was upset that "Hardball" host Chris Matthews had said in two broadcasts that the vice president was responsible for Wilson's mission to Niger for the CIA and had made negative remarks about Libby.
"What the hell is going on with 'Hardball'?" Russert quoted Libby as having asked him. "Damn it. I'm tired of hearing my name over and over again. What is being said is not true."
In addition to testifying that he had not mentioned Plame to Libby, Russert said that Libby did not bring her up, either.
Russert said he first learned about Plame and her CIA job from the Novak column on July 14, and said "Wow" when he read it. He testified that if Libby had mentioned to him during their phone call four days earlier that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA, he would have pursued it, asking questions about how Plame's job might relate to Wilson's accusations against the White House.
"That would be a significant story," he said.
Under cross-examination, defense attorney Theodore V. Wells Jr. pressed Russert to say that he had, in fact, asked Libby about Wilson, because the former ambassador had become a major figure in the news. Russert said that he had not, and that he had been "in listening mode" during the call.
"What happened is exactly what I told you, sir," Russert said. "I did not know" about Plame. "I did not talk about it."
Jurors heard Russert's testimony on the same day they listened to Libby say in his own words that he had the utmost respect for Russert as a journalist. Libby's admiring description of Russert came in audiotapes of his March 2004 grand jury testimony, the last of which were played in court yesterday morning. Libby said it meant more to him to hear the information from a reporter he considered so credible.
"Tim Russert, in my view anyway, is one of the best of the newsmen, the most substantive," Libby testified. "It struck me that not only did he know this, and I didn't know it, but he also thought it was important."
In portions of the tapes played yesterday, Fitzgerald repeatedly pressed Libby to explain any role the vice president may have played in the leak. During Libby's two grand jury appearances in March 2004, the special counsel asked whether Cheney believed that Plame was the reason the CIA sent Wilson on the mission to Niger, and whether he considered Wilson unqualified or biased. Fitzgerald also pressed Libby on whether Cheney suggested or implied that he should tell journalists that Wilson is married to a CIA officer.
In response to each question, Libby can be heard on the tapes carefully choosing words that would not implicate Cheney, and saying he could not recollect whether the vice president suggested they make Plame's CIA role public.
In his grand jury testimony, Libby said that as the CIA leak investigation was beginning in September 2003, he knew the probe would look at more than just which administration official leaked the name to Novak. He said he was aware that the president had asked administration officials to come forward.
Libby said he privately went to the vice president twice to ask whether Cheney wanted to know all the details of his conversations with reporters about Wilson and Wilson's wife in late June and early July.
"I would have been happy to unburden myself of it," Libby testified. "He didn't want to hear it. . . . I have no problem telling him what happened."
But he said Cheney shook his head no. "You don't have to," Libby recalled his boss telling him.
Libby's attorneys have argued in the trial that Libby had no motive to lie because he believed the investigation was focused solely on identifying Novak's source.