The FBI agent who telephoned NBC's Tim Russert on a November morning in 2003 to ask the newsman what he knew about the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson's name had some personal business to take care of first.
He wanted to thank Russert for posing for a picture with members of the agent's family and remind the host of Meet the Press that he, the agent, had visited the set of the long-running Sunday political talk show.
It was no doubt one of the more sycophantic starts to an FBI interview in an ongoing criminal investigation. And that scene described in court Wednesday by Russert--the prosecution's star witness in the perjury and obstruction trial of Lewis "Scooter" Libby--was just another glimpse the U.S. District Court proceedings have provided into the inner workings of Washington and evidence of the multimillion-dollar newsman's influence in the nation's capital.
Libby's defense on charges he lied to investigators about when he learned about Plame Wilson hinges on his claim that he learned about the CIA wife of antiwar critic Joseph Wilson from Russert on July 12, 2003. At least a half-dozen witnesses have already contradicted that account and the hulking newsman--more accustomed to interrogating the powers-that-be than being on the hot seat himself--took the stand as the prosecution's last witness to directly refute Libby's account.
The talk show host and senior network vice president looked less than invincible when he hobbled slowly into court using a crutch to baby an ankle he broke 10 weeks ago. Libby caught his wife's eye and smiled wryly as Russert, seemingly in pain, lowered himself into the witness chair before a packed courtroom.
Though Russert occasionally used his hand to wipe perspiration from his face, he was largely implacable, insisting under repeated and aggressive questioning by defense lawyer Theodore Wells that Libby's version of events was wrong.
Russert, the master of the liftout quote on his program, challenged Wells's paraphrased version of FBI testimony--"those aren't my words," he said--and pushed the defense lawyer to put into context the newsman's own grand jury testimony, prompting Wells at one point to admonish the witness to stay focused on only the section in question.
"I can see on the next page," Russert began, with Wells snapping back: "We'll get to that."
That doesn't mean Wells didn't lay a glove in trying to undermine Russert's veracity and the quality of his memory. In fact, Russert seemed to be knocked off center when the lawyer invoked the newsman's long-honed persona as the favorite son of Buffalo and his 2004 bestselling book Big Russ and Me, a paean to his father and upbringing in upstate New York, to recall a controversial incident in 2000.
Russert's performance then as moderator at a Senate debate between candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rick Lazio had been scorched by a reporter for the Buffalo News. The newsman took great exception, and there was a back-and-forth that eventually led to a clarification by the newspaper and an apology from Russert for claiming erroneously in a Washington Post interview that he had never called the reporter.
Russert's claim Wednesday that he didn't recall much of the incident seemed disingenuous for a man so closely associated with the city and who volunteered on the stand that the Buffalo News had always treated his family kindly. (One of the newspaper's articles, offered by Wells as evidence, was headlined, "Tim, Don't You Remember?")
"Faulty recollection," Wells repeated. "Your memory failure." Russert responded that things are said and written about his performance on Meet the Press every week.
But, Wells said, the Buffalo News is your hometown paper: "You're an icon."
Responded Russert: "I'm a citizen."
Citizen Russert was also closely questioned about why he would speak freely on the telephone with an FBI agent about his converstion with Libby, and then some months later, citing source confidentiality, refuse a subpoena to testify about the same interaction before a grand jury.
Russert, who eventually testified, said the two situations were different: With the FBI agent, he was responding to Libby's own version of what transpired between the two of them, and with the subpoena, he was concerned that the prosecutor might haved been conducting a fishing expedition that could have a "chilling effect" on his ability to report the news.
Wells wanted to know if Russert had told the judge hearing the NBC subpoena challenge that he'd already discussed with the FBI his conversation with Libby. "I did not," Russert replied.
By Liz Halloran