Libby's Attorneys Pick at Russert's Account of Leak

NBC's Tim Russert is being cross-examined by defense attorneys in the perjury trial of former White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Russert and Libby have told very different stories about a 2003 phone call that is at the heart of the case.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The government rested its case today on the perjury trial of Lewis Libby, the former top aide of Vice President Dick Cheney. Federal Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has presented a series of witnesses aimed at proving that Libby lied to the FBI and a grand jury when he denied leaking the name of an undercover CIA agent.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg is at the federal courthouse here in Washington, D.C. She joins us now. Nina, what kind of case has the government been able to make against Libby?

NINA TOTENBERG: Well this has been really a very straightforward case. I think before this case started, the sort of conventional wisdom was that it was a very difficult case for the prosecution to make because it's charging perjury and obstruction, but not what's called a substantive count. That is, the defendant is accused of lying and obstructing justice, but he's not charged with an underlying crime that he was trying to cover up.

So that's a hard thing to show for any prosecutor. But Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has put on what appears on the surface to be a simple case, but of course, any case that looks that simple has been hard to be put together. And there had been 10 witnesses in 10 days, and I've got to tell you that most of those days have been consumed by cross-examination. And we've heard from CIA witnesses, State Department witness, several White House witnesses, three reporters, and almost all of those witnesses, by and large, have contradicted the account that Mr. Libby gave to the grand jury and to the FBI.

NORRIS: And as to Mr. Libby, when does the defense start it case and what do you expect?

TOTENBERG: Well, we don't know yet. It's supposed to start its case on Monday. The prosecution rested today. Mr. Libby, we still don't know if he's going to take the witness stand. I would guess that there are going to be several prongs of the defense case.

First, there's going to be the prong, which is this guy was so busy. He was the vice president's national security adviser and chief of staff. He had to consume every day hundreds of pages of classified materials. He was going to dozens of meetings. He was the vice president's point man on tons of things. And he can't be expected to remember everything. And he forgot a lot. And that he was giving you the on his honest to God recollection when he testified before the grand jury and the FBI, and the fact that he forgot a bunch of things he may have been told by other people doesn't mean that he wasn't telling the truth.

The second prong is going probably be an effort at confusion. We're going to have a lot of press witnesses. It may be that we hear from the vice president himself talking about everything from national security to how busy Mr. Libby was. If the prosecution's case was this is simple, the defense's case has got to be this is so complicated. You can't put a guy in jail for something that is this nuanced and complicated.

NORRIS: Listening to the testimony and in particular the cross examination, Nina, does it seem like the press is also on trial here along with Lewis Libby?

TOTENBERG: Well, we've already had three reporters and we're probably going to have at least a half dozen more. Let's just put it this way. The press doesn't look all that great. It turns out that our notes are sloppy. Our memories are pretty poor. Tim Russert was cross-examined today and he said he couldn't remember a particular appearance of his the morning before Libby's indictment was announced. He said look, I'm on the air all the time. I just don't remember one appearance from another. And the defense lawyer, the lead defense lawyer, was frankly dubious.

NORRIS: Thank you, Nina.

TOTENBERG: That was NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. And you can read and hear extended excerpts of Lewis Libby's testimony to the grand jury at our Web site, NPR.org.

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Prosecution Rests Case in Libby Trial

In Depth

Hear and read excerpts from I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's grand jury testimony, which was released on Wednesday.

The prosecution on Thursday finished making its case in the perjury trial of former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

Libby is accused of obstructing a federal investigation into the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity. Over the last three weeks, jurors saw a parade of prominent journalists and government officials take the stand. They all contradicted Libby's account that he learned of Plame's identity from Tim Russert of NBC.

Plame is married to Joseph Wilson, a prominent critic of the White House's case for war with Iraq. In 2002, Wilson went on a fact-finding mission to Niger, to determine whether Iraqi officials had attempted to obtain nuclear materials there — a claim made by President Bush in his Jan. 28, 2003, State of the Union address. But Wilson concluded otherwise, and he made his conclusions public in a July 6, 2003, op-ed piece in The New York Times.

The last prosecution witness was Russert himself. Under direct examination, Russert described receiving a "viewer complaint" phone call from Libby about MSNBC's coverage of Wilson's criticisms. According to Russert's testimony, Libby was agitated.

Russert said that Libby, who was Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff at the time, said, "What the hell's going on with Hardball, dammit? I'm tired of hearing my name over and over again. What's being said is not true."

Libby claims that during this call, Russert identified Wilson's wife as a CIA employee. Russert told the jury, "That would be impossible, because I didn't know who that person [Valerie Plame] was until several days later."

The prosecution took only 10 minutes to question Russert. In contrast, the defense questioned him for several hours over two days.

Defense lawyer Ted Wells tried to undermine Russert's credibility. He highlighted a public memory failing that Russert had four years ago, when the NBC Washington bureau chief failed to recall contacting a critic at the Buffalo News.

The cross-examination was often combative. At one point, Wells told Russert, "I asked you a very simple question. I'd like an answer."

Wells wanted to know why Russert talked freely with FBI investigators about a conversation he had with Libby, but fought a subpoena to testify before a grand jury about the same subject. Russert said that with the FBI, he corrected a factual error. In contrast, he said, a grand jury appearance could turn into an open-ended fishing expedition.

Later in the session, Russert sat quietly on the witness stand as the defense played a clip of his appearance on the Imus in the Morning show the day of Libby's indictment. Russert told Don Imus, "It was like Christmas Eve here last night. Santa Claus is coming tomorrow. Surprises! What's going to be under the tree?"

Defense lawyers want to use that clip to demonstrate animosity between Russert and Libby. The difference between the men's stories is at the center of this trial, so the outcome of the case could hinge on which of the two the jury finds more credible.

Recordings Key to Case Against Libby Released

Scroll down for audio and transcript excerpts of Libby's testimony before the grand jury.

Tim Russert leaves court. Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Tim Russert Testifies

In testimony before the Libby trial jury Thursday, NBC journalist Tim Russert flatly contradicted Libby's story – heard in the newly released grand-jury testimony recordings — about when the vice president's former chief of staff first learned about CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity. Russert and Libby have offered very different accounts of a July 2003 phone that is at the heart of the case.

A jury in Washington, D.C., has spent the week listening to audio recordings of former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's testimony before a grand jury in March 2004.

These recordings – in which Libby allegedly lies under oath – are at the heart of the prosecutor's case against Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff. Libby is accused of obstructing a federal investigation into the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity by lying to a grand jury and FBI agents. Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, was a prominent critic of the White House's justification for war with Iraq.

The judge in the Libby case took the unusual step of releasing the audio recordings of Libby's eight hours before the grand jury. These recordings are now available publicly. Here are some of the highlights:

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