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Libby Trial: Russert Ruins the Cover Story | The Nation

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Capital Games

 Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.

Libby Trial: Russert Ruins the Cover Story

After jurors in the I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby perjury trial on Wednesday heard the defendant--on tape--cite Meet the Press host Tim Russert as his alibi, the alibi, using crutches, hobbled into the Washington courtroom and shot a hole in Libby's cover story.

For three days, the jury had been listening to audio tapes of Libby's two appearances before a grand jury in March 2004, when Libby repeatedly claimed that in July 2003, before the leak appeared that outed Valerie Wilson as a CIA officer, he knew nothing about her until Russert told him that "all the reporters knew" she worked at the CIA. Libby acknowledged to the grand jurors that weeks earlier Vice President Dick Cheney had told him that Valerie Wilson was a CIA employee, but he said that he had completely forgotten this and had learned about her "anew" when Russert passed him this gossip during a phone call. It's an essential part of Libby's tale. When the FBI and a grand jury were looking for administration officials who had leaked information on Wilson to reporters--and Libby was a potential target--Libby told the Bureau and the grand jury that he had not disclosed any information gathered from official sources; he had only shared with a few reporters a rumor he had picked up from Russert. And you can't prosecute a guy for spreading gossip. Again and again, during his grand jury testimony, Libby pointed to Russert: he told me, and, boy, was I surprised.

But on the stand, Russert told the trial jurors the opposite. Questioned by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald for less than fifteen minutes, Russert said he had uttered no such thing to Libby. Russert also noted that it would have been "impossible" for him to have done so because at the time of the call--July 10 or 11, 2003, and days before Valerie Wilson's cover was blown in a Robert Novak column--he knew nothing about her. Wilson's wife never came up in the conversation with Libby, Russert testified. Libby had called him to complain that Chris Matthews, the host of Hardball was being too hard on Cheney's office (and on Libby) as Hardball covered the controversy sparked by former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's charge that the Bush administration had twisted the prewar intelligence.

Once Russert, with little elaboration, had punctured a main element of Libby's story, Fitzgerald was done with the witness. Then came Ted Wells, a Libby attorney. His mission was clear: destroy the credibility of the fellow whom earlier in the day Libby had described (on the grand jury tape) as "one of the best newsmen, one of the most substantive of the news people."

Wells took his shots. He grilled Russert about an episode in which the anchor in a 2004 interview had failed to recall a phone call he had made to a Buffalo News columnist who had criticized how Russert had moderated a debate during the New York Senate race in 2000. Wells noted that Russert has often described himself as driven to get the story first. If so, Wells wondered, how could Russert not have taken the opportunity to talk to Libby about the Wilson imbroglio (and possibly about Wilson's wife) when the vice president's chief of staff rang him up? Had he forgotten this part of the call? "Frankly, [Libby] wasn't in the mood to talk," Russert replied, noting that the Cheney aide was rather agitated about Matthews. Wells pointed out that Russert had no notes on the call and that he had told the FBI that while he believed there had been only one call perhaps there had been two. Wells was doing all he could to question Russert's powers of recall.

Wells tried a few other attacks as well. He cited an NBC News press release that was issued when Russert had challenged a subpoena from Fitzgerald. (Russert lost that fight.) The release noted that Russert had not said anything to Libby about Valerie Wilson's "role" at the CIA. Why the word "role"? Wells asked. Was it carefully chosen because Russert actually had told Libby that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA but had not said what position (or "role") she had at the agency? This word-game was a sign of desperation on Wells' part. "As I read [the press release]," Russert answered, "it includes the fact I did not know that she worked at the CIA."

Wells also suggested Russert had lied to a federal judge when Russert had filed a motion to quash Fitzgerald's subpoena of him. In a declaration to the court, Russert had said that it was crucial that he be able to maintain the confidentiality of his sources. Yet, Wells noted, Russert had already told the FBI about his conversation with Libby. In other words, so much for protecting sources. Russert explained that in his earlier conversation with an FBI agent he had responded to an allegation that Libby had made about him (when Libby had spoken to the FBI) and that he had resisted the subpoena because he did not want to be in the position of appearing before a grand jury and being asked a wide range of questions about various sources.

Russert was unflappable during Wells' cross-examination. His voice remained steady. He took his time answering the questions. He was hardly animated--not his usual Sunday morning self. (Remember, he used to be a lawyer.) He noted that after Novak disclosed Valerie Wilson's CIA identity, the NBC News Washington bureau--which he presides over--waited several days before reporting the story. "We worked diligently to vet it," he said, recalling "long and extended conversations" about the national security implications of the disclosure. That is, NBC News acted more responsibly than the Bush administration leakers.

As the court recessed for the day, Wells said he might have another two hours of questions for Russert. Does he have better stuff to throw at Russert? He had not made much of a dent. Nor had Wells done much to advance his contention (presented earlier in the trial) that Russert might have heard about Wilson's wife from an NBC News colleague--most notably, David Gregory, who may have received leaked information on her from then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. (See herefor details of that confusing subplot.)

Wells needs to score more points in his Meet the Libby Lawyer show. Libby had based so much of his grand jury testimony on his conversation with Russert. Yet Russert pulled the rug out. His testimony was a simple conclusion to the prosecution's simple case.

Before Russert came to court, the jury finished listening to the audio tape of Libby's March 24, 2004 testimony to the grand jury. And there were passages that might cause a listener to think of Tony Soprano.

During that session, Fitzgerald asked Libby about several interactions he had with Cheney in the fall of 2003, when the leak scandal was red-hot. The news had just broken that the Justice Department was investigating the White House to determine who in the administration had leaked to Novak and other journalists about Valerie Wilson. The Washington Post had reported--perhaps not accurately--that two senior White House officials had called six reporters to leak this information as part of an orchestrated campaign to discredit Joseph Wilson after he had published an op-ed claiming he had inside information proving the White House had manipulated the prewar intelligence. Senior White House aide Karl Rove was a suspect in the investigation. So was Libby.

With a full-force firestorm under way, Libby, according to his grand jury testimony, went to Cheney and "offered to tell him everything I knew." Libby had not been a source for the Novak column. But at the time of that leak, he had talked to reporters about Wilson's wife and her CIA connection. (What he said is at issue in the trial.) He told the grand jury that he thought he ought to let Cheney know what he had done in the days before the leak. Yet Cheney, Libby recalled, "didn't want to hear." When Libby offered to disclose all to the vice president, Cheney said, "You don't have to. I know you didn't do it."

Cheney's incuriosity went further. When Libby told the vice president that he had discovered a note in his files indicating that in early June 2003, Cheney had told him that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA's Counterproliferation Division (a unit in the agency's clandestine operations directorate), the vice president barely reacted. The note was a big deal. Libby was claiming he had known nothing about Wilson's wife until his conversation with Russert. But here was indisputable documentation that Cheney had informed Libby weeks before that--and proof that Cheney had been gathering his own information on the Wilsons and the trip Joseph Wilson took to Niger for the CIA to check out the allegation that Iraq had sought uranium there.

What did Cheney say when told about the existence of this note? Fitzgerald asked. "He didn't say much," Libby replied, adding that Cheney "titled his head...and that was that." Tilted his head? What did that mean? Libby had no more of an explanation. He also testified that in the days before the leak occurred he and Cheney had discussed many aspects of Wilson's trip to Niger but that the "only part" of the controversy they had not talked about was Wilson's wife and her CIA employment. (When journalists in the media room heard Libby make this claim, several laughed.)

Libby's grand jury testimony contained other intriguing nuggets. At one point, he noted that then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz had leaked portions of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's WMDs to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. This happened after Cheney had asked Libby to get this information to the Journal. (The NIE selections may or may not have been classified at the time: it's complicated.) Libby, in turn, talked to Wolfowitz about doing so because he didn't "have as good a relationship with the Wall Street Journal as Secretary Wolfowitz did." (When the Journal ran an editorial quoting the NIE and insisting that Bush had been right to cite Iraq's alleged attempt to buy uranium in Africa, the paper's editorialists asserted "this information...does not come from the White House.")

And in his grand jury testimony, Libby noted that both he and Cheney believed that Joe Wilson had been "qualified" for his mission to Africa. White House allies have long derided Wilson as an absurd choice for the trip. Will they retract that criticism? Or do they believe Libby was not telling the truth before the grand jury?

There also was an interesting absence in Libby's grand jury testimony. At the start of the trial, Wells suggested that Libby had somehow been set up by a White House cabal that was attempting to protect Rove at Libby's expense. Wells has yet to explain how this conspiracy worked. But during both of his grand jury appearances, Libby said nothing that hinted at the existence of a plot against him.

Perhaps Wells will get to this when he starts calling defense witnesses on Thursday or Monday. With Fitzgerald wrapping up his case, it's time for Wells to put up or shut up. He's tossed a lot of theories and notions at the jury over the past three weeks. It's easy for a defense attorney to cook up alternative explanations and dangle them in front of jurors. But if Wells calls certain witnesses to the stand--say, Rove or Cheney--jurors may well expect him to make good on his previous claims that the White House, the CIA and the State Department were each out to get Libby.

Wells has signaled that he intends first to put on the stand reporters who will testify that Libby didn't say anything to them about Valerie Wilson during the period he discussed her with Matt Cooper, then of Time, and Judith Miller, then of The New York Times. That's a modest defense. Will Wells and his colleague Bill Jeffress venture further? Fitzgerald appears to have put Libby in a hole. The grand jury tapes were quite damning. One conservative columnist emailed me to say that he/she now believes Libby is probably guilty, and a conservative-leaning reporter told me that after hearing the tapes she/he had come to the conclusion that Libby was screwed. If folks sympathetic to Libby believe this, one has to wonder what the jurors think.

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DON"T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris "the most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." The Washington Post says, "There have been many books about the Iraq war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes Hubris "is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

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