Tim Russert is promoting his new book, backed only by the power of the MSNBC media machine. Good luck, Tim!
Since there is a chance he will be caught outside of his protective cocoon while doing promotional interviews, I wanted to prepare a simple question for Tim, with the goal of clearing up once and for all any lingering confusion about his role in the Valerie Plame case.
With any luck a moment may come when the chit-chat about the new book lags a bit and some intrepid interviewer, casting about for a conversational hook, asks this question. And I welcome feedback - let's sharpen the question together down in the comments.
[UPDATE: Was that first attempt I offered a question or a filibuster? Good point! Here is something quicker:
Mr Russert - without any hedging about whether you actually knew her name, did you mention Ambassador Wilson's wife to Lewis Libby when you talked with him just prior to the Robert Novak column? Or had you heard unconfirmed rumors about Wilson's wife?]
Here we go with some background, phrased as a question in the event that Tim is handcuffed to the stage:
Tim, last summer and fall you were criticized for not being forthcoming about your role in the Valerie Plame investigation. Apparently you talked to Lewis Libby (who is now under indictment), and his version of your conversation is different from yours - he claims that you told him "all the reporters knew" that Ambassador Wilson's wife was at the CIA, and you apparently, testified to something different. So different, in fact, that it is now one of the perjury counts against Libby.
However, the NY Times and various critics noted that your actual public denial was a little elusive - you said, and I am quoting the NBC News press release, that you "did not know Ms. Plame's name or that she was a C.I.A. operative and that [you] did not provide that information to Mr. Libby".
What your critics pointed out, without a response, was that publicly denying knowledge of her name and that she was a CIA operative is not at all the same as denying that you told Libby that Wilson's wife, whose name may have been unknown to you, worked at the CIA in a role unknown to you.
And let's just blurt out a question:
So, could you clear that up for us now - prior to reading Robert Novak's column on July 14, 2003, had you heard rumors or allegations that Joe Wilson's wife worked at the CIA in some capacity? And did you mention this possibility to Libby?
Thanks very much.
Now, I am not optimistic we will get a clear answer. And some may wonder why I even ask - as I argued last fall, despite his public coyness, Russert did give a deposition to Special Counsel Fitzgerald, who did return an indictment in part on the strength of Russert's testimony. Surely, one might have thought, if the prosecutor was satisfied that was the end of it.
But now I wonder - a recent court filing excerpted a bit of Russert's deposition and guess what? The same odd construction, denying knowledge of her name, appears in the deposition. Here we go, excerpting from a May 8, 2006 motion to quash a subpoena of Andrea Mitchell (p. 3):
See Levine Decl. Ex. A (NBC’s public statements) [ed - p. 73 of 83 page .pdf]; In re Grand Jury Subpoena, Judith Miller, 438 F.3d 1141, 1180 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (Tatel, J., concurring in judgment) (describing and quoting Mr. Russert’s sworn testimony) (citations omitted) (brackets in original):
In his deposition, describing Plame’s employment as a fact that would have been “[v]ery” significant to him – one he would have discussed with NBC management and potentially sought to broadcast – Russert stated, “I have no recollection of knowing that [Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA], so it was impossible for me to have [told Libby] that.” Asked to describe his “reaction” to Novak’s July 14 column, Russert said, “Wow. When I read that – it was the first time I knew who Joe Wilson’s wife was and that she was a CIA operative…. [I]t was news to me.”
That appeared in a footnote to this opinion in the Miller subpoena case (p. 73) which was released with eight previously redacted pages restored in December 2005.
So - without knowing just what is in those ellipses, I am back to wondering if, just maybe, Sly Old Tim slipped one past Patrick Fitzgerald. His goal would have been to avoid disclosing any actual source for a such a leak. (If I had to guess, I'd say Russert was actually protecting Andrea Mitchell - chivalry isn't dead.)
Russert has a law degree, stage presence, and a great reputation, so this little ploy is hardly beyond his ability. And the best speculation is that Libby called Russert to complain about Chris Matthews coverage of Ambassador Wilson's trip to Niger, so it is not as if a comment about Wilson's wife would have come out of the blue.
But why speculate? Someone ought to ask him.
MORE: Various carefully crafted and eerily similar Russert denials here.
STILL MORE: "I have no recollection of knowing" she was at the CIA, said Mr. Russert. Well, fine, but so what? I have a specific recollection of *NOT* knowing whether Russert discussed Wilson's wife with Libby, yet I am still able to articulate a question about it (subject, of course, to a charitable definition of "articulate".)
So, does Russert's testimony hinge on what it means to "know" something? *IF* Russert had heard rumors about a spousal link - if, for example, Andrea Mitchell had said to Russert, "I have heard a rumor that Wilson's wife is at the CIA and was involved with his trip but I can't confirm it" - would Russert "know" that it was true? I think he would recollect knowing that it was an unconfirmed rumor.
But as a journalistic tactic, feigning superior knowledge to induce a subject to open up is well-established. Can one imagine Russert, once he happens to have Libby on the line, saying, "C'mon, Scooter, all the reporters know about Wilson's wife, you're not keeping a secret, tell me about it".
Oddly, I can imagine just that. But I don't know it.
Furthermore, the rest of Russert's story, in which he describes the actions he would have taken if he had "known" about a link, is irrelevant in the "stray rumor" scenario - is he really suggesting that if he had heard one stray accouint of a spousal link, he would have alerted the top brass, and so on? Why wouldn't he file it somewhere in his mental "To Be Checked Out" list? Or does he immediately discuss every rumor he hears with NBC management? Please.
ALTERNATIVE VIEW: Russert forgot! It just was not that important to him, so all he knows now is that he did not do other things, such as alerting his boss, that would have been appropriate if he "knew". But can he rule out the "stray rumor" scenario? Not really, since he can't remember forgetting something that maybe he never knew.
That may help him duck a perjury charge, but... if he forgot, maybe Libby did too.