Libby Case Not Pretty for Politicians or Media

At the trial of Lewis Libby — the former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney — reporters appeared as heroes, as goats, as witnesses — and it all made for a pretty uncomfortable spectacle for the media to watch and to be part of.

NBC News Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert, best known for his role as host of Meet the Press, described his stint on the witness stand this way: "Lyndon Johnson once said it's a heck of a lot easier to throw grenades than it is to catch them, and was he right."

Juror Denis Collins said Tuesday that Russert's testimony was a key element in convicting Libby on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in the investigation of his role in leaking the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, had denounced the White House's rationale for invading Iraq. And the evidence presented during the Lewis "Scooter" Libby trial showed the lengths to which the Bush administration would go to discredit a critic.

But it also showed the complicated and sometimes unsavory ways the press itself operates in the nation's capital.

Here's our first and perhaps clearest lesson: When a journalist who swears to protect an anonymous source goes up against a determined federal prosecutor, the prosecutor wins.

Robert Zelnick, a former Pentagon correspondent for ABC News, says there should be federal legislation to give reporters protection against having to give up sources.

"My sense is that something very precious between sources and reporters is under a more sustained attack than it has ever been before," Zelnick said.

A lot of reporters testified before the grand jury and in open court about their conversations with people who had been anonymous sources. And Zelnick, now a professor at Boston University, says that means a lot of people won't go off the record on other stories.

"I think reporters are the net losers," he said. "And I think when reporters are the net losers, then the public is the net loser."

Judith Miller, then of The New York Times, spent 85 days in jail to protect Libby, but ultimately relented, because she said she was finally convinced she had his permission to do so.

Matthew Cooper, late of Time magazine, had sworn he wouldn't reveal who told him that former diplomat Joseph Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. Then, at the last minute, he admitted it was presidential adviser Karl Rove. Cooper had already testified about talking to Libby.

Libby was acquitted of lying to FBI agents about his conversation with Cooper. In fact, neither Libby nor Rove nor anyone else who leaked Plame's name was ever charged with the crime of exposing an undercover CIA agent's identity.

A second lesson of the case was described by David Corn, Washington Editor of the liberal magazine The Nation.

"Reporters were shown to be human," he said. "They had memory lapses — they couldn't always read their notes afterwards."

And, as Corn noted, other failings were more substantive. Miller left The New York Times after editors concluded she hadn't been candid with them about conversations with Libby — a claim Miller bitterly rejects.

Bob Woodward of The Washington Post later apologized to his editors for not telling them about being the first to receive the leak. Richard Armitage, then deputy secretary of state, told him about the Plame-Wilson connection. Woodward didn't want to get caught up in the inquiry, but it blindsided his own paper once he was.

Lesson number three: Reporting the news in a town filled with powerful people with secrets isn't always pretty.

"Journalists are used — that's part of the process — they often know that," said CNN Special Correspondent Frank Sesno. "It's sometimes dangerous, because if you're used, and you don't know that, and you use bad information, you mislead your audience."

Reporters held off on writing about Plame until the conservative columnist Robert Novak printed her name.

But that leads to a final lesson. However many times this White House has claimed it doesn't care what the mainstream media publishes or broadcasts, it really, really does. That's why Libby carefully monitored the coverage of Wilson's criticism of the war. It's why Libby told reporters about Wilson's wife at the CIA. And, ultimately, that's why he found himself in the sights of the special prosecutor.

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