NBC News has a problem with the Fitzgerald indictment and the Libby case. There are a couple of different themes in play here, but they all revolve around Tim Russert and an apparent decision by NBC to cooperate with the prosecutor rather than break news.
The indictment of Lewis Libby pits the word of Mr. Libby against that of three reporters: Matt Cooper of TIME, Judy Miller, currently with the NY Times, and Tim Russert of NBC News.
However, Matt Cooper is a bit player in this indictment, and his memory did not appear to be reliable when he testified to the grand jury about whether he and Karl Rove discussed welfare reform. Let's assume for a moment that he will not be a strong witness.
And Judy Miller? The Times recounted factual disputes with two of her editors (IIRC), and her own account of her notes and memories was opaque - she wrote "Valerie Flame", but didn't know where she got that, she wrote "Victoria Wilson", but didn't know why, she may have had other sources, or maybe not... let's imagine that she will be a disaster for the prosecution.
Which brings us to Tim Russert, one of America's most highly regarded television journalists. Mr. Russert has been criticized through the summer and fall for failing to give a public accounting of his role in the Plame investigation (Arianna Huffington has a terrific timeline).
Let's note the explanation from the NBC press release from Aug 2004 that careful readers found to be so vexing:
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.
Ahh, but did he tell Mr. Libby that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA? As detailed by Ms. Huffington, Mr. Russert has steadfastly refused to address that.
Until recently! On the day that Fitzgerald announced the indictment, Mr. Russert seemed to go beyond that cagey press statement when speaking to Don Imus.
However, Mr. Russert also appeared on the NBC News coverage of the indictment, portions of which I TiVo'ed. And as he spoke with Brian Williams, I honestly thought I was watching The Manchurian Reporter reciting his programmed lines. Here is my humble transcript:
WILLIAMS: He [Libby] called to complains about some programming.. something that was said or covered on one of our cable news programs...
RUSSERT: Correct. And that was the extent of it. I immediately called the president of NBC News and shared the complaint, which is why it was memorable in my mind. But to the notion that I was somehow the recipient of the leak, which just wasn't the case, or that I had shared information, which I did not know. The first time I had heard of Valerie Plame and the fact that she was a CIA operative was when I read Robert Novak's column the following Monday.
Mr. Russert hewed almost perfectly to the script, so we are back at square one - did Tim Russert mention Wilson's wife, on a no-name basis, as working at the CIA, without any job description?
[MORE: Messrs. Russert and Williams covered this twice. Per Howard Kurtz, this is what Russert said the first time:
TIM RUSSERT, HOST, MSNBC's "MEET THE PRESS": The answer was no. And whether I knew Valerie Plame's name or where she worked as a CIA operative and the answer was, no. And that was the extent of it. ]
But let's add a bit to the story, even if NBC does not want to. Since Mr. Russert passed on the complaint to the president of NBC News, one might think that NBC News has some notes as to Mr. Libby's specific complaint. Did they share that information with the Special Counsel, and would they care to share that with their viewers?
Pending their response, we will rely on the very fine work of Michael Crowley at The New Republic and Jeralyn Merritt of TalkLeft, both of whom took it upon themselves to ask the tough question that eluded Mr. Williams - what, specifically, did Lewis Libby call to complain about?
Working independently, these two came to the same conclusion - Mr. Libby's ire was *probably* raised by a Chris Matthews rant from July 8 on - have you guessed? - Lewis Libby, Joe Wilson, and Niger [transcript].
My, my. Was Mr. Russert chatting about Joe Wilson and the Niger trip with Mr. Libby? Two people make the case, and I'm sold. Now, why did no one at NBC break that? And does it affect anyone's sense of the plausibility of Libby's story? Surely if Messrs. Libby and Russert were talking about Wilson, it is more likely that his wife was mentioned than if they were talking about New York Yankee baseball. And it is certainly more plausible that mr. Libby had an honest memory lapse, or a bit of confusion, if he really did talk with Mr. Russert about Joe Wilson.
This *suspected* linkage will come as a bit of news to Mr. Duffy at TIME, who reported that Mr. Libby "confected [the Russert conversation] out of whole cloth". Perhaps the cloth was not quite so whole.
So where is this headed? Judy Miller and Matt Cooper, two of the three key witnesses for Special Counsel Fitzgerald, have acted like newsman and told their story.
Tim Russert is acting like the surprise witness at a Mafia trial, hiding behind the same story NBC put out over a year ago. That may not be good for morale at NBC News. As a timely example, I note that the NY Times is endorsing the "Hardball" theory for Monday morning, which Brian Williams could have had on Friday afternoon, or Tim Russert could have broken on his own show, instead of annoying the viewers with his tap dance.
And what about the other NBC reporters? Do they have to watch their competitors break stories on this while their own news division lowers the Cone of Silence?
Let's look down the road to a possible trial, when Mr. Russert would finally take the stand. One presumes that Mr. Fitzgerald knows the answer to the critical question, since the indictment does not use the overly specific formulation relied upon by Mr. Russert, but rather refers to "Wilson's wife", as in:
As defendant LIBBY well knew when he made it, this statement was false in that when LIBBY spoke with Russert on or about July 10 or 11, 2003:
a. Russert did not ask LIBBY if LIBBY knew that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA, nor did he tell LIBBY that all the reporters knew it;...
Assuming that Mr. Fitzgerald has not made a monumental error, Mr. Russert will deliver the expected testimony, and finally get beyond his current overly-specific denial. So why is he stuck on the press release formulation now?
At a guess, Mr. Russert is cooperating with the prosecutor by not tipping his testimony, and by not contaminating the jury pool. I'll bet that is frustrating for the other reporters in the newsroom.
Ah, well. Their time may come as we approach the trial and the defense gathers evidence. Will Andrea Mitchell and David Gregory be deposed, just to see whether they knew about Wilson's wife? Why not? And if they did, can they be called to testify? In that scenario Russert's position, that he did not mention the newsroom gossip to Libby in the course of a chat about Wilson's trip, would be even less plausible.
MORE: This just in - the Todd Purdum of the NY Times endorses the "Hardball" theory, and assures us that the cover-up continues:
Mr. Russert declined to discuss the circumstances of his testimony in much detail beyond the official statements he and NBC issued at the time, and he largely confined himself to repeating those statements on the air on Sunday.
We also learn that the cover-up will continue:
Steve Capus , the acting president of NBC News, said in a telephone interview Sunday that he was quite confident of Mr. Russert's ability to analyze the case on the air, despite his unusual role as a part of it. Mr. Cooper and Mr. Miller have each written first-person accounts of their own involvement.
"I feel that what we've done to date is a model of how we're going to handle this," Mr. Capus said. "We have tried to be as open as possible." He added: "I'm very comfortable with how Tim has handled himself."
The Times is in the tank as well - the decline to print the cryptic NBC "denial" in full, although Adam Liptak's nerve did not fail him last summer.
Now, why is the Times so coy? Perhaps they have received off-the-record advice that, although Russert is cooperating with the prosecutor by not speaking, there is no story here.
Well, I like the crossword puzzle for my puzzles, and the news section for news. But the Times has puzzles everywhere.