Jeff Toobin of The New Yorker comments on the likely strategy of the Lewis Libby defense team in the Plame investigation:
At the trial, Libby’s team will try to undermine the journalists’ credibility by challenging them on everything from sloppy note-taking to evidence of bias. “This guy is on trial for his freedom, and it’s not his job to be worried about the rights of the witnesses against him,” a person close to Libby’s defense team said. “There are going to be fights over access to the reporters’ notes, their prior history and credibility, and their interviews with other people. By the time this trial is over, the press is going to regret that this case was ever brought.”
And how much damage might Libby's team be able to do? I have no idea, and part of the answer will depend on how much latitude the judge allows the defense in deposing witnesses from the media. However, as a matter of SPECULATION, readers might be interested in my guesses as to just how badly the Libby trial might damage the stature of the news media.
Are those enough caveats? Then on to the guesswork - the case can be made that the Libby trial will become the trial of the (new) century and shatter the credibility of the media in a way that makes RatherGate look as embarrassing and unimportant as on on-air sneeze.
Very briefly, here are the three main points:
(1) It *MAY* be the case that Tim Russert and Andrea Mitchell of NBC News are conspiring to conceal misleading and possibly perjured testimony by Tim Russert to Special Counsel Fitzgerald. Since that testimony was central to the indictment and resignation of the Vice President's Chief of Staff, this little glitch in Russert's testimony has had dramatic (and unforeseen) consequences.
Their *POSSIBLE* motive - the protection of other sources, possibly including (I am serious) Alan Greenspan and Dick Cheney.
(2) The NY Times will take a hit when (*IF*) Nick Kristof is forced to admit that he was aware of Valerie Plame's CIA connection prior to the publication of the Novak column, and that he had previously used Ms. Plame as a source for some columns. Since Mr. Kristof's columns of May 6 and June 13 2003 triggered the Wilson story, his previously undisclosed involvement will raise eyebrows. To say the least.
(3) The Washington Post will find another Bob Woodward on their hands when (*IF*) Walter Pincus is forced to admit that the Plame leak he received on July 12 2003 was *not* his first leak of the news that Wilson's wife was at the CIA. [UPDATE: SUbsequently denied by Pincus to CJR] We will learn (I am *GUESSING*) that Mr. Pincus was apprised of her status through State Department (or possibly CIA) sources back in June 2003. Why did he keep quiet, and how did the WaPo miss this? Well, why did Woodward keep quiet? Source protection.
Are all three of these scenarios going to unfold as I suspect? Presumably not. But if the Libby team gets lucky with even one of them, the Libby trial will be deeply problematic for Fitzgerald, and for the media. And for the rest of us, perhaps these ideas can help some enterprising journalists re-direct their attention and break (or close out) these possible stories.
Clearly the most dramatic allegation I am making involves Russert and Mitchell, so let's start there.
Through the summer of 2005 bloggers picked at and questioned the NBC press release "explaining" Tim Russert's testimony to Fitzgerald:
During the interview, Mr. Russert was asked limited questions by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald about a telephone conversation initiated by Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's Chief of Staff, in early July of last year. 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.
Please (said bloggers, not to mention Adam Liptak of the Times) - enough with the surname and the job description ("operative"), and answer a simpler and more relevant question - did you tell Libby anything about Wilson's wife being at the CIA?
Well. Mr. Russert resolutely avoided that question on his own "Meet The Press". However, the subject came up twice when he and Brian Williams covered the news of the Libby indictment. What did Mr. Russert say?
His first pass was this:
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.
And for a second attempt:
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.
The subject was also discussed on the little-known "Tim Russert Show" on CNBC, when Mr. Russert joined with his Washington Bureau colleagues to discuss the Plame investigation. A transcript is available at Lexis, but I have extensive excerpts here:
RUSSERT: And I am Washington bureau chief, so I was a manager, in effect. He [Lewis Libby] called me to complain about something that he had been watching on MSNBC, and he was rather agitated about it and wanted to make his views known, as a viewer, and I duly noted it and said, `You know, you should call the correspondent directly, or you could call Eric Sorenson'--who was then the head of MSNBC--`or Neal Shapiro'--then head of NBC News--`or I'd be glad to share this information.' I gave him some phone numbers, I believe. He then says that I shared with him the name of Valerie Plame and that she worked for the CIA. I didn't know who Valerie Plame was; I--therefore I didn't know that she could have worked for the CIA. I wish I had. I--Mr. Libby didn't share it with me, although he obviously had confirmed it with other reporters, and to this I wonder why.
The same weak story - he didn't know the name, so he could not have provided any information to Libby.
Baffling. We will return to the question of just what Mr. Russert told Special Counsel Fitzgerald, but let's stay with this "Tim Russert Show" broadcast for a moment and ponder a related question - regardless of whether he discussed it with Libby, had Mr. Russert heard rumors, allegations, or reports that Wilson's wife was at the CIA?
Andrea Mitchell has been mortifying herself on the Don Imus show trying to disavow her Oct 3, 2003 statement that, among reporters covering the intelligence community and tracking the Niger story, it was "widely known" that Joe Wilson's wife was at the CIA.
But if she knew, then she might have mentioned it to her boss, Tim Russert. In fact, this exchange from the "Tim Russert Show" (emp. added) is nonsensical *unless* the reporters involved suspected that there was some sort of "Wilson and wife" backstory:
RUSSERT: Well, that's exactly right. "Meet"--Joe Wilson had been on "Meet the Press" on Sunday, which you [Andrea Mitchell] moderated because I was on vacation.
RUSSERT: I came back after that interview, after The New York Times piece, and there was a discussion about Joe Wilson and I didn't know very much. And then when I read Novak's column the following Monday, I said, `Oh, my God, that's it. Now I see. It's his wife, Valerie Plame, CIA, sent him on the trip. Now I understand what everybody was trying to figure out.'
...RUSSERT: ...when I read it in Novak, boom.
Boom, there it was. But why? If Mr. Russert had no knowledge of a "Wilson and Wife" connection, his reaction should have been "Huh?". What, we wonder, was everybody at NBC trying to figure out in the week before Novak's column?
And if there was something that the NBC newsroom was trying to figure out, Mr. Russert might well have taken the opportunity when Libby called to ask him about it - there is convincing speculation that Libby called to complain about Chris Matthews and his coverage of Wilson, Libby, and the Niger trip, so Mr. Russert would hardly have been changing the topic.
Well. One might think (As I did) that the question of whether Russert testified that he passed to Libby a tip about a Wilson's wife being at the CIA was rendered moot by the Libby indictment, which address this point directly and repeatedly. For example:
33. It was further part of the corrupt endeavor that at the time defendant LIBBY made each of the above-described materially false and intentionally misleading statements and representations to the grand jury, LIBBY was aware that they were false, in that:
a. When LIBBY spoke with Tim Russert of NBC News on or about July 10, 2003:
i. 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; and...
Emphasis added - evidently, whatever Mr. Russert said was sufficient to convince Mr. Fitzgerald, and the text here refers to "wife" not "Plame".
However... since that indictment, two circumstances have left me wondering about Mr. Russert's testimony.
First, the surprise appearance of Bob Woodward as a mystery leak recipient gave new information about just how far a reporter might go to avoid a subpoena.
And secondly, Ms. Mitchell's two ghastly appearances on Don Imus were wildly unconvincing. I think she was telling the truth (or at least, was a lot more convincing) in Oct 2003 when she said Ms. Plame's identity was widely known amongst the right subset of reporters. So why is she backpedaling now? To avoid a subpoena, like Bob Woodward?
Leaving us where? The most likely scenario is still that Tim Russert told God's truth to Fitzgerald. However...
Suppose Mr. Russert had been told by Ms. Mitchell that Wilson's wife was at the CIA. We can further suppose that she gave him her source, although that is not critical to this scenario.
Mr. Russert is not thrilled by his obigation to testify to Fitzgerald; if he admits that he passed a tip to Libby, the next question from Mr. Fitzgerald will be obvious - how did Mr. Russert learn that?
Mr. Russert can not claim that Andrea Mitchell is a confidential source, now can he? So he can go to jail, or give up her name and let her think about the prospect of jail time.
Or he can waltz around the question and give Mr. Fitzgerald an answer that fools him into thinking he has cooperated. Is the Special Counsel that dumb, or Mr. Russert that clever? I find either hard to believe - other accounts say that Fitzgerald is pretty good about asking the same question several times and several ways. However, Russert only talked to Fitzgerald for twenty to thirty minutes, so he wasn't exactly sweating under the bright lights. And *maybe* Fitzgerald was not viewing Russert as a hostile witness, and overlooked a cleverly phrased equivocation.
Who knows? Presumably the transcript would make it clear.
And might Mr. Russert have flat out lied to protect Andrea Mitchell or the rest of the NBC newsroom? That is probably past the border of "Absurd". However, one man's perjury is another man's Clintonian dodge - maybe Mr. Russert meant to tell "the truth", delivered his carefully spun version, and slipped it past Fitzgerald. Now, however, in the cold light of the transcript his attorneys are muttering about perjury. If you think that is inconceivable, then I don't think that word means what you think it means.
And the motive to take these extreme steps? Basic source protection may be the full explanation. However, Ms. Mitchell *may* have an even more dramatic problem, and a greater incentive to avoid questioning by Mr. Fitzgerald.
I happen to believe she was well positioned to receive a leak from sources in the State Department. But could she have multiple sources?
Just suppose - what if a senior Administration official wanted to wave the press away from Wilson and the Niger story. Maybe Gerald Ford's chief of staff mentioned to Gerald Ford's Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors that the press was looking in the wrong direction, and told him why. Improper? Not necessarily - knowledge of the US political outlook is part of the Fed Chairman's job, yes? And I bet he has adequate security clearances.
So. *MAYBE* Dick Cheney mentioned it to Alan Greenspan, who passed this nugget to his wife. I'm not even far out on a limb here - per Newsday, Fitzgerald subpoenaed
a list of those in attendance at the White House reception on July 16 for former President Gerald Ford's 90th birthday. The White House at the time announced the reception would honor Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, but said the event was closed to the press.
Do you suppose that Dick Cheney, Alan Greenspan, and Ms. Mitchell would all be there? I bet Alan was. And wouldn't the former chief of staff appear at his old boss's event?
We have more speculation - Ms. Mitchell admitted on the "Tim Russert Show" that she had been question by FBI investigators, although she has not hastened forward to characterize her cooperation. In fact, as we noted in this post, she now seems to be, uhh, misremembering the level of her cooperation with the investigation.
Here she is on "Tim Russert", just before James Taranto of the WSJ unearthed the old transcript of her Oct 3, 2003 show:
MITCHELL: You know, I should have spoke--'cause there's been a lot blogged about all of this--I was called by the CIA because it was erroneously reported in The Washington Post that I was the recipient of the leak before Novak's column came out, and I had not been. So I was never questioned because I simply told the FBI--and, you know, NBC put out a statement that night--that I had not been a recipient of the leak; in fact, I had learned about it from Novak's column like everyone else. Then after the fact, a lot of us had gotten calls and conversations with people, you know, `Hey, how about the Novak column?' But that was after the fact.
And here she is on Imus in November:
IMUS: Have you been subpoenaed?
MITCHELL: No, no - not at all.
IMUS: Have you ever - have you talked to Fitzgerald informally?
MITCHELL: No - in no way. I was - I didn't have any knowledge about this. You know, one of the things that happened was that the Washington Post wrote an inaccurate story in the middle of this whole period, saying that I was one of the six people who had been leaked to before the Novak column. And that's how my name first got into this.
Which was not true. They didn't check with me. They didn't call me. I was in the office all day. It was a Sunday. They wrote the story on Monday morning.
"In no way"? One might have thought that talking to the FBI investigators was a way. But maybe that interview happened before Mr. Fitzgerald took over the case in Jan 2004. Cute.
What is up with Andrea Mitchell? Retracting her statement that Wilson's wife was "widely known" top be at the CIA, ducking away from her own admission that she had cooperated with the investigation - what is she hiding, and can she hide it from Libby's defense team?
And is she dragging Tim Russert down with her?
Answers would be easy if these two submitted to some questioning from any number of reporters who would be thrilled to give Tim a ratings boost by holding down the top "Meet the Press" chair while Tim plays "guest in the hot seat". But after two years, answers are still in short supply.
Still with me? Walter Pincus and Nick Kristof will be quick. Relatively.
Mr. Pincus, who has written that he first heard about Ms. Wilson from a senior administration official in July...
Written where? Naturally, the Times won't repsond to my requests for verification of this seemingly simple and innocuous claim, but they did provoke my curiousity. Here, for example, is what Mr. Pincus wrote in the Nieman Watchdog:
On July 12, 2003, an administration official, who was talking to me confidentially about a matter involving alleged Iraqi nuclear activities, veered off the precise matter we were discussing and told me that the White House had not paid attention to former Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s CIA-sponsored February 2002 trip to Niger because it was set up as a boondoggle by his wife, an analyst with the agency working on weapons of mass destruction.
I didn’t write about that information at that time because I did not believe it true that she had arranged his Niger trip. But I did disclose it in an October 12, 2003 story in The Washington Post.
Nothing about a "first time" there, or anywhere else I can track Mr. Pincus.
Mr. Pincus was all over the Niger trip and the Wilson story in June; he was talking to all the right people at State and CIA, including, we imagine, the person who leaked to Bob Woodward; how did he avoid getting a leak?
And why, as he wrote, did he not believe the July 12 leaker's version of events? Why did he even have an opinion on whether Wilson's wife was involved in his trip? Sure, he may have checked around afterwards, but maybe he had already formed an opinion.
These are easy questions if anyone asks them. But, in the interests of avoiding a subpoena, I suspect they won't be answered by Mr. Pincus. Well, not until Libby's defense teams wants to chat.
On to Mr. Kristof and home!
Let's keep it short - in the Vanity Fair article made famous by the photo of the loving Wilson couple, we learn this about Joe Wilson's first sit-down with Nick Kristof:
In early May, Wilson and Plame attended a conference sponsored by the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, at which Wilson spoke about Iraq; one of the other panelists was the New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof. Over breakfast the next morning with Kristof and his wife, Wilson told about his trip to Niger and said Kristof could write about it, but not name him.
So Valerie Plame, CIA officer, sat and listened politely while her hubby rattled on about a trip her own department had organized. Did Mr. Kristof, trained observer, detect by the most subtle of body language that she had heard this before? Or did she blurt out, "Oh, Joe, we set it up differently, tell the man the right story", like any other wife in the world? Oh, never mind.
Let's flash forward to October 2003, following the announcement of the criminal referral and the commencement of the Plame leak investigation. Nick Kristof writes an "Everybody chill" column with these near-confessional moments:
I know Mrs. Wilson, but I knew nothing about her CIA career and hadn't realized she's "a hell of a shot with an AK-47,'' as a classmates at the CIA training "farm,'' Jim Marcinkowski, recalls. I'll be more careful around her, for she also turns out to be skilled in throwing hand grenades and to have lived abroad and run covert operations in some of the world's messier spots. (Mrs. Wilson was not a source for this column or any other that I've written about the intelligence community.)
Uh huh. We have emphasized the obvious weasel words. For example, I know Mr. Kristof is a Times columnist, but I am unfamiliar with his career; similarly, he may have known Ms. Plame as a CIA analyst without being aware of her glam past.
And if Ms. Plame was never a source for a column, why not just say so? The particular phrasing leaves one wondering if she was a source for an article about something other than the intelligence community - North Korea's nuclear aspirations, for example.
Here is a bit more:
Third, Mrs. Wilson's intelligence connections became known a bit in Washington as she rose in the CIA and moved to State Department cover, but her job remained a closely held secret.
Meaning what? Her intelligence connections were known but her job was not? Huh?
One might almost read that as "Folks knew she was at the CIA, but did not know about her past". Do tell. And just who was Kristof's source for that? Hold on, I'm getting a name... Andrea Mitchell? Or had Mr. Kristof simply heard from several folks about her CIA link? Why wouldn't he? As far as the INR was concerned, she was a CIA liason person with nothing to hide.
Oh, well. One last straw in the wind is this: Nick Kristof broke the story of the mysterious envoy with his May 6 column, and rejoined the effort with columns in June and July of 2003.
He wrote the "Be Cool" column in Oct 2003, and then - two years of radio silence. As best I can tell from the Times archives, he did not tackle the subject of the story he broke until just before Mr. Fitzgerald was slated to announce indictments. His theme then (which included the use of the phrase "Javert") - Special Counsel Fitzgerald had gone too far.
Hmm. Bob Woodward had a similar view. He, of course, was criticized for offering his opinion without disclosing his own personal involvement in the case.
Well, maybe back in 2003 Mr. Kristof was advised by an editor that he was a bit too close to this story, and he did essentially what folks say Woodward should have done - lay low.
Again, it is an easy question to ask. In the interest of avoiding a chat with Mr. Fitzgerald, we assume Mr. Kristof will duck it. However, his time with the Libby team will come soon enough.
MORE: Nick Kristof is a roving columnist based in New York and is not part of the Times' Washington desk. However, this comment from Phil Taubman, Times Washington Bureau Chief, is a comedy classic:
In the fall of 2003, after The Washington Post reported that "two top White House officials disclosed Plame's identity to at least six Washington journalists," Philip Taubman, Ms. Abramson's successor as Washington bureau chief, asked Ms. Miller and other Times reporters whether they were among the six. Ms. Miller denied it.
"The answer was generally no," Mr. Taubman said. Ms. Miller said the subject of Mr. Wilson and his wife had come up in casual conversation with government officials, Mr. Taubman said, but Ms. Miller said "she had not been at the receiving end of a concerted effort, a deliberate organized effort to put out information."
"Generally no"!?! "Generally no" means partly yes, yes? Ooops, the Timesman forgot to ask the follow-up!
And anyway, what is this about Judy Miller having casual conversations about Wilson and his wife with government officials, plural? Yeah, she will be another strong witness for the prosecution.
Oh, this is hard-hitting, cut to the bone journalism, all right.
PLEA FOR HELP: Fellow bloggers with their personal favorite posts on these topics, don't be shy - those trackbacks are there for a reason.
ALTERNATIVELY: Russert Is A Victim! Here is a different theory - Libby, that sly fox, was casting about for an alibi in October 2003 after news of the criminal referral broke. He needed a reporter he could cite as his source, but who?
He saw Mitchell's statement that the Plame story was widely known, and checked his phone logs. Imagine his disappointment that he had no calls with Andrea.
Well, his call with Russert would have to do, then - if Mitchell knew, Russert might, right? So Libby spins a tale that Russert leaked the Plame news to him, figuring that Russert's testimony, whatever it is, will be undercut by Mitchell's story. Very clever.
Of course, that idea fails to explain Ms. Mitchell's baffling plot-twists on who knew, and her own cooperation.
UPDATE: On Pincus, from CJR:
This July 12 conversation, Pincus says, was the first time he ever heard of Valerie Plame’s CIA employment. (In previous accounts, he has not been entirely explicit about that point.)