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When Tim Russert Testified Against 'Scooter' Libby

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In the wake of the passing of Tim Russert today, some will no doubt recall that he testified at the "Scooter" Libby trial -- but few, I would guess, can now remember what he said or why he was there. So here is a refresher, in the form of a portion of an AP article we carried at E&P just after that day in February 2007.

But first: On the afternoon Russert went to court, I had opened another article at E&P this way: "One of the most highly awaited moments in the 'CIA Leak' trial in Washington, D.C. arrived this afternoon just before 2:30 when NBC's Tim Russert finally took the stand, after discarding crutches (he broke his ankle not long ago)." I should note in passing that I have always followed Russert's career closely, as we grew up together, so to speak, in the Buffalo area at about the same time.

Here is an excerpt from that AP story:

Tim Russert, an unrelenting interrogator as host of NBC's "Meet the Press," said Friday it was painful having the tables turned on him by lawyers defending former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby against perjury and obstruction charges.

The day after Russert spent five grueling hours on the witness stand in Libby's trial, the NBC newsman took questions in the much friendlier setting of an interview on the set of the "Today" show with his network colleagues. Asked how it felt to be on the other end of rapid-fire questioning, Russert said, "It's a lot of easier to throw grenades than it is to catch them. I've got to tell you.

"Sitting in that witness box is very uncomfortable because on `Meet the Press' or the `Today' show, you have a chance to finish your thought and complete your sentence. That's not the case in a court of law. The defense lawyer will say, `Yes or no, yes or no' and you're trying very hard to listen intently to the question to make sure you answer as precisely as possible," he added. "Otherwise it can be played back the next day. ... It's not pleasant, I have to say."

Russert said, though, he kept a mind a lesson learned in the 7th grade, that "if you tell the truth, you'll live to remember one story, and that's what I did."

In the "Today" interview, Russert reiterated what he had said on the stand: he did not discuss the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson with Libby in a conversation they had in July 2003 and he said he did not at that time know about Valerie Plame, Wilson's wife, who was outed subsequently as a CIA operative.

"I did not know she worked at the CIA. I did not know any of that until the following Monday when I saw all in (newspaper columnist) Robert Novak's column. ... We simply did not know it. I wish we had."

Russert did say he was "stunned" when he heard that Libby said he had learned Plame's identity from him, saying, "I said that just can't be. It's impossible." Russert held to that line during cross-examination. He also disclosed -- in a well-publicized statement -- that he considered his chats with sources all off-the-record unless put on the record, the opposite of the usual journalistic approach.
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Greg Mitchell's new book is So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq. He is editor of Editor & Publisher.

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