As expected, NBC's Tim Russert will have a starring role in any trial of Scooter Libby's. Friday's indictments alleges Libby testified that he learned about Valerie Plame's identity during a July 2003, phone conversation with Russert. Russert testified that was not true because he and Libby never discussed Plame. Based on that discrepancy the grand jury indicted Libby for perjury. What's telling is that for more than a year, Russert, free to discuss his testimony publicly, never disclosed that key discrepancy himself. He didn't just bury the lead, he buried the whole story. This summer an NBC spokesperson, asked about Russert's testimony and his ongoing silence, insisted, "We have been very transparent with our position." Transparent, as in Russert refuses to discuss any of this?
The spokesperson was referring to the NBC statement released last Aug. 9, 2004, after Russert agreed to answer special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's questions. The statement included two key points:
1. "As NBC News previously reported, Mr. Russert was not a recipient of the leak, which resulted in the public disclosure of the name and CIA employment of Valerie Plame, the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson.
2. "Mr. Russert told the Special Prosecutor that, at the time of that conversation, he did not know Ms. Plame's name or that she was a CIA operative and that he did not provide that information to Mr. Libby. Mr. Russert said that he first learned Ms. Plame's name and her role at the CIA when he read a column written by Robert Novak later that month."
But if NBC wanted to be "transparent," why didn't the network issue a statement that made clear Russert and Libby never even discussed Plame? Why was that glaringly important point, which would have caused Libby some discomfort prior to the indictment (as well as advanced the story in 2004), why was that left unsaid? Why, during an election year, didn’t Russert appear on "Meet the Press" and say, 'Based on questions posed by special prosecutor Fitzgerald, it seemed clear Libby had testified that he and I spoke about Plame in July 2003, when in fact we did not.'
And last July when Bloomberg Newsfirst reported that the testimony of Libby and Russert did not match up, why didn't Russert, who carefully cultivates an image of straight shooter, come forward and try to clear the air? If NBC's lawyers didn't want Russert to talk publicly, he should have said so. If Russert didn't want to embarrass Libby politically , he should have said so. But NBC shouldn't pat itself on the back for being transparent when its carefully worded 2004 statement, now read in hindsight, seems to have been designed to mislead and obfuscate a key issue at hand.
UPDATE: This morning's obligitory Russert puff piece in the New York Times ("He now wields as much influence as any single working journalist in Washington") completely fails to mention the deceptions in play, but does contain one helpful nugget, which adds to the context surrounding Russert's ongong silence: Libby's boss, VP Cheney, has appeared on Russert's "Meet the Press" no fewer than 10 times since being sworn.