- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2007


NBC’s Tim Russert deflected criticism of his ethics and credibility as he completed a heated second day of cross-examination yesterday in the trial of former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby Jr.

Mr. Russert, who testified that he never discussed outed CIA operative Valerie Plame with Mr. Libby, was the final prosecution witness before special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald rested his three-week-old perjury and obstruction case. Mr. Libby’s attorneys will begin calling witnesses Monday.

The journalist was subjected to the kind of interrogation he usually reserves for guests on his Sunday television show “Meet the Press,” as attorneys flashed excerpts of his previous statements on a video monitor and asked him to explain inconsistencies.

A law school graduate, Mr. Russert was asked to explain why he willingly told an FBI agent about a July 2003 conversation with Mr. Libby, then gave a sworn statement that he would not testify about that conversation because it was confidential.

“Did you disclose in the affidavit to the court that you had already disclosed the contents of your conversation with Mr. Libby,” asked Theodore Wells, one of Mr. Libby’s attorneys.

“As I’ve said, sir … ” Mr. Russert began.

“It’s a yes or no question,” Mr. Wells interrupted.

“I’d like to answer it to the best of my ability,” Mr. Russert said.

“This is a very simple question. Either it’s in the affidavit or it’s not,” Mr. Wells said. “Did you disclose to the court that you had already communicated to the FBI the fact that you had communicated with Mr. Libby?”

“No,” Mr. Russert said.

Mr. Wells wants to cast Mr. Russert as someone who cannot be believed and who publicly championed the sanctity of off-the-record conversations but privately revealed that information to investigators. Mr. Russert said he viewed the FBI conversation and testimony to prosecutors differently.

Mr. Russert’s credibility is under fire because he and Mr. Libby tell very different stories about a July 2003 phone call that is at the heart of the case. The question of whom to believe could be a critical jury room issue.

Both men agree that Mr. Libby called Mr. Russert to complain about a colleague’s news coverage. Mr. Libby says that at the end of the call, Mr. Russert told him “all the reporters know” that Mrs. Plame, the wife of a prominent Iraq war critic, worked for the CIA. Mr. Russert testified that part of the conversation never occurred.

“That would be impossible,” Mr. Russert testified Wednesday. “I didn’t know who that person was until several days later.”

Mr. Libby subsequently repeated the information about Mrs. Plame to other journalists, always with the caveat that he had heard it from reporters, he has said. Prosecutors say Mr. Libby concocted the Russert conversation to shield himself from prosecution for revealing classified information from government sources.

Mr. Libby’s attorneys say Mr. Russert knew about Mrs. Plame from colleagues David Gregory and Andrea Mitchell. Mrs. Mitchell said in an interview that she and other reporters knew Mrs. Plame worked for the CIA, but she later recanted that statement. Mr. Wells had hoped to play clips of Mrs. Mitchell discussing her statements on “Imus in the Morning” on MSNBC.

Mr. Fitzgerald successfully argued that the tapes not be played.

“We might as well take ‘Wigmore on Evidence’ and replace it with ‘Imus on Evidence,’ ” Mr. Fitzgerald said, referencing the classic treatise on evidentiary law. “There’s no Imus exception to the hearsay rule. This has no business in a federal court.”

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