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Russert Testifies He Never Gave Libby CIA Agent’s Name

February 7, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Over the past three days, the jury in the Lewis “Scooter” Libby perjury trial has heard recordings of all eight hours of Libby’s testimony before a grand jury in 2004. Libby, Vice President Cheney’s former chief of staff, has been charged with lying to the grand jury during its investigation of who leaked the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

Plame is the wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson. Wilson openly questioned the Bush administration’s intelligence on attempted Iraqi uranium purchases in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

Libby originally told the grand jury it was NBC’s Tim Russert who first revealed Plame’s identity to him during a conversation on July 10, 2003. But then, a search of his notes reminded Libby that Vice President Cheney had been the first, one month earlier.

The grand jury testimony is critical to Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s case. Here’s an excerpt of Fitzgerald questioning Libby before the grand about that time line.

PATRICK FITZGERALD, Special Prosecutor: And are you telling us under oath that, from July 6 to July 14, you never discussed with Vice President Cheney whether Mr. Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA?

LEWIS “SCOOTER” LIBBY, Former Cheney Chief of Staff: No, no, I’m not saying that. On July 10 or 11, I learned — I thought anew, that the wife — that reporters were telling us that the wife worked at the CIA. And I may have had a conversation then with the vice president, either late on the 11th or on the 12th, in which I relayed that reporters were saying that.

When I had that conversation, I had forgotten about the earlier conversations in which he told me about — reflected in my notes that we went over this morning. In early June, before the Pincus article, when he had told me that the wife worked at the CIA. I had just forgotten it.

FITZGERALD: And you just affixed the person — who did you speak to on July 10 or 11 that you recalled learning again, thinking it was the first time, that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA?

LIBBY: Tim Russert of NBC News, the Washington bureau chief for NBC News.

RAY SUAREZ: But Russert, arriving at the court today on crutches because of a broken ankle, has claimed he and Libby never discussed Plame during their 2003 conversation. This afternoon, Tim Russert took the stand as the last witness for the prosecution.

Tim Russert's testimony

RAY SUAREZ: And also in the courtroom at that time, as she has been throughout the Libby trial, was Carol Leonnig of the Washington Post.

And, of course, Tim Russert was examined first by the prosecution. What did he have to say?

CAROL LEONNIG, The Washington Post: Tim Russert was a pretty compelling witness for a lot of different reasons today, but the first being that a lot of the jurors obviously have heard his voice before and recognize him. They were paying very close attention when he said that the cornerstone of Scooter Libby's defense, or his account of the events of the summer of 2003, was not only inaccurate, but implausible and impossible.

Tim Russert recounted that he had a conversation with the vice president's then-chief of staff, Scooter Libby, on or around June 10, 2003. Basically, Scooter Libby called him, had a complaint, was very angry, used some very clear and firm language, and wanted Chris Matthews and "Hardball" to stop saying that the vice president had sent someone to Niger.

Russert said, in clear and sort of absolutely firm tones: We never discussed Plame. That would have been a surprise to me. I couldn't have discussed her. I couldn't have mentioned it to him. I didn't know who she was, and I didn't know she worked at the CIA.

The cross-examination

RAY SUAREZ: Well, inaccurate, implausible, impossible, those are pretty tough words. But then Libby's defense team got a crack at Russert. What happened then?

CAROL LEONNIG: You know, I'm so glad you asked, because many -- remember that the attorneys in this case are fantastic on both sides. You have a prosecutor who's legendary, the Elliot Ness with a sense of humor. You have two of the best and most-prominent across the nation white-collar defense attorneys defending Mr. Libby.

And what we've seen mostly is Fitzgerald's work, Patrick Fitzgerald, the special counsel in this case. And throughout the government's prosecution, or at least their case in chief, you have seen the defense attorneys pick, and pick, and find places where each witness has some recollection problems, memory flaws, things they recalled better with the grand jury than they did soon after the conversations, things like that, that made the memory of these witnesses questionable.

I'd have to say that, after watching all of those moments of cross-examination, that Tim Russert may have fared the best of all of them, because there were very few glancing blows in this cross-examination. Russert continued to say, very carefully, without being boxed in: This is exactly what happened. It's a simple fact. There's nothing that's going to change it.

I'm paraphrasing, but I remember him very carefully saying, "This is the simple truth."

Russert's testimony a 'crescendo'

RAY SUAREZ: Well, does the Russert testimony tie up any loose ends for the prosecution's case or fill in key parts of the story they're trying to tell the jury?

CAROL LEONNIG: Well, you know, if you think about a trial as a movie -- well, let's put it this way -- if you think about a trial as two sides trying to put on their version of events, Fitzgerald has now been able to put on his version of events.

And he's got to tell the story in a way that's very compelling, that keeps the jury interested, and also is chronological and makes sense. And that's why Russert's testimony was, in essence, the crescendo.

Fitzgerald arranged it so that the grand jury testimony, the audiotapes of Libby in his own words, explaining his story of what happened, played right before Russert took the stand. And I don't know if this was intentional, but I can't imagine that it wasn't, when you're talking about Patrick Fitzgerald.

You hear Libby in his own words, in March 2004, say that Tim Russert was one of the most respected newsmen, in his opinion. He was very honorable, in Libby's opinion. Russert was a person who is accurate and fair. And maybe, an hour and a half later, Russert takes the stand and says, "What Mr. Libby has told you is not true."

Perjury vs. a bad memory

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Fitzgerald has charged Scooter Libby with lying, with perjury. And his defense says he just has a bad memory. How did today's court action play into those twin narratives, when each side got a chance to tell its version of the story?

CAROL LEONNIG: Well, keep in mind the two sides of the story have a lot of differences, but Russert is important for a couple of reasons. But let's go to Libby's story, which hopefully we're going to hear a lot more about in the next, say, week and a half.

Libby's story is that Cheney told him -- his boss, Vice President Cheney -- told him about CIA officer Valerie Plame when they were discussing her husband, Joseph Wilson, and his fairly sensational accusations that the administration had misled the American public about going to war.

And at that time -- Libby makes no bones about this in his testimony -- the vice president was very upset about this claim, and he thought Joe Wilson was wrong. And they had discussed the wife working at the CIA.

Libby, in his grand jury testimony, says over and over again that he learned it from Cheney, but when he started talking about it with reporters, it was after he had forgotten Cheney told it to him, and he learned it as if it were new from Tim Russert.

In other words, his boss tells him in mid-June, while they're discussing this controversy. He forgets that his boss told him. He's interacting with a lot of different people about this controversy, administration officials and reporters.

But when he start telling reporters about Valerie Plame and her identity, or reconfirming for them what they're hearing about Valerie Plame, he does it after he's forgotten his boss told him and Tim Russert has told him this information a month later, mid-July.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Carol, I need a very quick answer before we go. The defense fought very hard to keep the taped grand jury testimony out of court this time. The jury has heard a lot of Scooter Libby. Is there any indication whether he's going to testify in his own behalf?

CAROL LEONNIG: There is an indication, and it came on Monday night. You know, throughout this case, the defense has argued pretrial that it was very important to them that they have access to all sorts of classified information because they needed to help establish that this chief of staff was so overwhelmed.

In filings on Monday night, they have said that they still want to be able to introduce evidence that he had a faulty memory, but not necessarily be required to put him on the stand.

RAY SUAREZ: Carol Leonnig of the Washington Post, thanks a lot.