NBC's Russert to Take Stand at Libby Trial

As prosecutors wrap up their perjury case against Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief-of-staff, journalist Tim Russert is expected to support a claim that Lewis "Scooter" Libby lied to a grand jury investigating the exposure of a CIA operative's identity.

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And a jury in a Washington courtroom will be hearing from a witness who is normally seen on TV. The prosecution is expected to wrap up its case in the trial of Lewis Libby with the testimony of NBC's Tim Russert. Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, is charged with lying to a Grand Jury and to the FBI in the course of a CIA leak investigation.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: Tim Russert's testimony today is key to the prosecution's case because Libby testified repeatedly before the Grand Jury that it was Russert who told him that the wife of Bush administration critic Joseph Wilson worked for the CIA. Russert, however, flatly denies that and says he didn't know that Wilson's wife worked there. The prosecution's theory of the case is that Libby lied when he said he got the information from Russert, that he lied to cover up his own role in disclosing Mrs. Wilson's identify to reporters.

Libby's account of what happened is that he first learned about Wilson's CIA wife from the vice president, then forgot about it over the next month, and thought he learned about it for the first time when Russert told him. But in tapes played yesterday, Libby struggled with questions put to him before the Grand Jury that was investigating the leak. His interrogator was prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, whose questions became more insistent and more skeptical as the hours wore on. Libby's Grand Jury testimony has now been contradicted by President Bush's one-time press secretary, by the vice president's one-time press officer, by top officials from the CIA and State Department, and by two reporters.

Libby said he'd forgotten about Mrs. Wilson's CIA identify on July 6, 2003 when her husband, former Ambassador Wilson, published an op-ed piece in The New York Times accusing the administration of twisting intelligence to justify the Iraq war. The piece provoked an uproar. The White House had to recant 16 words - words about Saddam Hussein's attempt to buy uranium - that had been in the president's speech justifying the war.

Vice President Cheney had an underlined copy of Wilson's piece affixed to his desk, and ordered Libby to start contacting reporters to rebut it. He even got the president to de-classify a part of a National Intelligence Estimate that contradicted Wilson's conclusions, and ordered Libby to leak it.

On July 8th, Libby met with New York Times reporter Judith Miller at a hotel coffee shop. She has testified that he told her about Mrs. Wilson's CIA identity and that he asked that the information be attributed to a Capitol Hill staffer. In the Grand Jury, Libby denied that and said he didn't even know then that Wilson had a wife. His answer was much the same to questions about others who've testified about conversations they had that week with him about Mrs. Wilson.

Prosecutor Fitzgerald: Are you telling the Grand Jury, as you sit here today under oath, that you didn't discuss Wilson's wife with the vice President? You didn't discuss her with the press secretary, Ari Fleischer, the day after the op-ed appeared and you had lunch with him? You don't remember your own press officer, Cathy Martin, telling you that she had learned about the wife from the CIA?

Libby insisted that he did not remember having such conversations; that he didn't know about Mrs. Wilson until July 10th or 11th, when he says Russert told him.

The Grand Jury tapes played yesterday provide a rare insight into the Bush administration and how it operates. At one point, Libby described a frustrated Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley ordering him to leak the National Intelligence Estimate that Libby had already leaked on Cheney's orders. So why didn't he tell Hadley that? Libby replied that the vice president was at the meeting, too, and if Cheney wasn't telling Hadley, well, certainly, Libby wasn't either.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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