You are herecontent / The Journalist
TV Newsman Is His Own News in the Leak Case
By TODD S. PURDUM
New York Times
Published: October 31, 2005
WASHINGTON, Oct. 30 - On any given Sunday, the cream of Washington officialdom presents itself for confession before Tim Russert, a big, bluff lawyer-turned-journalist who may be the capital's most intimidating interlocutor outside a courtroom or Congress. Vice President Dick Cheney, not a chatty guy, has been his guest no fewer than 10 times since taking office.
But on this particular Sunday, the news compelled Mr. Russert to turn his trademark attention to an atypical topic: himself.
Tim Russert of NBC News during a taping of "Meet the Press" on Sunday.
"Inside the C.I.A. leak indictments, including the role of journalists, including yours truly," Mr. Russert intoned in no-nonsense staccato before a commercial break halfway through "Meet the Press," NBC News's top-rated Sunday morning interview program.
Mr. Russert has moderated it for nearly 14 years, and with it he now wields as much influence as any single working journalist in Washington.
For Mr. Russert, who is also NBC's Washington bureau chief, turns out to be a pivotal ear-witness to the only crime so far charged in the inquiry into the disclosure of a C.I.A. agent's classified identity that has consumed the intersecting circles of news organizations and politics in which he has been a prominent player for years.
It was Mr. Russert's 20 minutes of sworn testimony to the special prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, in a Washington law office on a summer Saturday in 2004 that helped undermine the account of Mr. Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby Jr.: that Mr. Russert first told him that Valerie Wilson, the wife of Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former ambassador and a sharp critic of the Bush administration's rationale for war with Iraq, worked at the C.I.A.
The five-count grand jury indictment against Mr. Libby charges that he called Mr. Russert "on or about July 10, 2003" (four days before Ms. Wilson's identity became public in a column by Robert D. Novak) "to complain about press coverage of Libby by an MSNBC reporter" (by all evidence, Chris Matthews of "Hardball") and "did not discuss Wilson's wife with Russert" at all.
In a telephone interview on Sunday afternoon, Mr. Russert acknowledged some discomfort with his unusual role in the case, in which Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and Judith Miller of The New York Times have also contradicted Mr. Libby's account under subpoena. "We hate being in the middle of what we're reporting on," he said. "But it is what it is."
Mr. Fitzgerald is clearly counting on the credibility of the 55-year-old Mr. Russert, a popular figure who cut his teeth in Washington more than 25 years ago as an aide to the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, as a crucial witness against Mr. Libby at any trial. But he would be far from the only one.
According to the indictment, Mr. Libby talked about Ms. Wilson's identity with at least six other people in the government, including Mr. Cheney, before talking with Mr. Russert, who says he learned about Ms. Wilson's name by reading Mr. Novak's column (and, good newshound that he is, he said he was irked not to have known it before). All those people have also told their stories and could be called to the stand.
If the charges in the indictment are true, it is by no means clear why Mr. Libby would have told investigators and the grand jury in March of last year that Mr. Russert was his source, except that he might have believed that Mr. Russert and the other journalists involved would not testify.
Mr. Libby's lawyer, Joseph A. Tate, has said that "Mr. Libby testified to the best of his honest recollection on all occasions" and cited the passage of time as a possible explanation for contradictory accounts. After getting waivers from Mr. Libby, all of the other journalists eventually testified, though Mr. Russert managed to avoid the protracted legal battles over the terms of such testimony that brought far more attention to Mr. Cooper and to Ms. Miller, who served 85 days in jail.
Mr. Russert declined to discuss the circumstances of his testimony in much detail beyond the official statements he and NBC issued at the time, and he largely confined himself to repeating those statements on the air on Sunday. But there is evidence he may have faced a somewhat easier decision than Mr. Cooper and Ms. Miller, because Mr. Libby was calling him not as a confidential source but as an angry viewer, upset about one or more MSNBC cable programs a day or two before his call.
On "Hardball" on July 8, 2003, for example, Mr. Matthews blamed Mr. Libby and others in the White House for failing to warn President Bush that a reference in his State of the Union speech that winter about Iraq trying to buy uranium from Niger was wrong. Mr. Wilson, a former ambassador to Gabon, had just published an Op-Ed article in The New York Times in which he said he had been sent to Niger by the C.I.A. the previous year to investigate an intelligence report about a possible uranium sale, and concluded that it was "highly doubtful."
Mr. Matthews said on the air, "Somebody's to blame here, and it's a very high level."
Mr. Libby testified to the grand jury about his conversation with Mr. Russert on March 5 and March 24 last year, and Mr. Russert was subpoenaed in May. NBC issued a statement at the time saying, "Russert was not the recipient of the leak," and vowed to fight the subpoena in federal court because of what it said was the potential chilling effect on its ability to cover the news. On July 20, 2004, the court rejected the network's arguments (although it did not make the decision public until Aug. 9) and on Aug. 7 Mr. Russert answered "limited questions" posed by Mr. Fitzgerald, an NBC statement said at the time.
Under an agreement with the prosecutor, NBC said, Mr. Russert did not go before the grand jury, and was not asked questions that would have required him to disclose information provided in confidence.
Chris Matthews of "Hardball" may have been the subject of a call by I. Lewis Libby Jr.
Timeline of the Leak: All Events
A trip by Joseph C. Wilson IV to Niger nearly four years ago was the beginning of a series of events now being investigated by a special prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald.
White House Letter: Latest White House Scandal Has Clinton Veterans Feeling the Pain, All Over Again (October 31, 2005)
White House Memo: Intrigue Has Familiar Ring for Libby and Associates (October 31, 2005)
Congress: Senate Democratic Leader Urges Bush to Apologize Over C.I.A. Leak Case (October 31, 2005) Steve Capus, the acting president of NBC News, said in a telephone interview Sunday that he was quite confident of Mr. Russert's ability to analyze the case on the air, despite his unusual role as a part of it. Mr. Cooper and Ms. Miller have each written first-person accounts of their own involvement.
"I feel that what we've done to date is a model of how we're going to handle this," Mr. Capus said. "We have tried to be as open as possible." He added: "I'm very comfortable with how Tim has handled himself."
As anyone who has ever watched his program during football season knows, Mr. Russert was born in Buffalo, and also worked as an adviser to former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York early in his tenure in Albany. It seems clear that some of his sharp-eyed instincts for covering the political world were honed while he worked in it, though he himself gives equal credit to "four years of Latin and going to law school."
Mr. Russert's wife, Maureen Orth, is a writer for Vanity Fair. Their son, Luke, is a student at Boston College.
Mr. Russert moves easily in the worlds of official and social Washington, in which politicians and reporters sometimes find themselves on the same playing field.
But Mr. Russert never goes out on Saturday nights, preferring to attend the 4 p.m. Catholic Mass at Georgetown University Hospital's chapel before preparing for his program.
Mr. Russert was appearing live on MSNBC with the anchor Brian Williams shortly before 1 p.m. Friday when NBC's legal correspondent, Pete Williams, who was Mr. Cheney's press secretary at the Pentagon more than a decade ago, began reading aloud from the indictment and mentioned Mr. Russert's name.
"Tim, this will be an interesting conversation," Brian Williams said. It was then that Mr. Russert first acknowledged that Mr. Libby had been calling not to explain but complain.
In the telephone interview, Mr. Russert said he had not had any particular prior relationship with Mr. Libby, and that there were "other people in the vice president's office I talk to much more regularly." He said important guests like Mr. Cheney and President Bush, who appeared during the election campaign last year, came on "Meet the Press" because "we have a significant audience."
Some of Mr. Russert's colleagues have reacted sharply to the charges about Mr. Libby's actions. On "Hardball" Friday night, Tom Brokaw, the retired NBC anchor, said of Mr. Libby: "In all the years I've been covering Washington scandals, this is the clumsiest case of lying I've ever been witness to," and said Mr. Libby "concocted this scheme, beginning by trying to set up Tim Russert."
But Mr. Russert said that he had been careful not to go beyond the facts, using the reprinted written quotations and snippets of video that are part of his patented technique. "What I did this morning is went through, very carefully, what's in the allegations, what I said, what the other reporters said," he said. "I'm not going to be judgmental."