Tim Russert In The Hot Seat

Thursday, February 8th 2007, 5:37 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ NBC's Tim Russert got the sort of ``Meet the Press'' interrogation he usually gives to his guests as attorneys Thursday flashed excerpts of his previous statements on a video monitor and asked him to explain inconsistencies.

Russert is the final witness for the prosecution in the perjury trial of former White House aide I. Lewis ``Scooter'' Libby. The broadcast journalist, who hosts the Sunday network television interview show, found his own scruples questioned during his second day on the witness stand.

Russert seemed uncomfortable at times as Libby's attorneys asked him to explain why he willingly told an FBI agent about a July 2003 conversation with Libby, then gave a sworn statement saying he would not testify about that conversation because it was confidential.

``Did you disclose in the affidavit to the court that you had already disclosed the contents of your conversation with Mr. Libby,'' Libby's attorneys Theodore Wells asked.

``As I've said sir ... `` Russert began.

``It's a yes or no question,'' Wells interrupted.

``I'd like to answer it to the best of my ability,'' Russert said.

``This is a very simple question. Either it's in the affidavit or it's not?'' Wells asked. ``Did you disclose to the court that you had already communicated to the FBI the fact that you had communicated with Mr. Libby?''

``No,'' Russert said.

Wells wants to cast Russert as someone who cannot be believed, who publicly championed the sanctity of off-the-record conversations but privately revealed that information to investigators. Russert said he viewed the FBI conversation and testimony to prosecutors differently.

Russert's credibility is under fire because he and Libby tell very different stories about a July 2003 phone call that is at the heart of the case. The question of which to believe could be a critical jury room issue.

Both men agree that Libby called Russert to complain about a colleague's news coverage. Libby says at the end of the call, Russert informed him that the wife of a prominent war critic worked for the CIA. Russert testified that part of the conversation never occurred.

``That would be impossible,'' Russert testified Wednesday. ``I didn't know who that person was until several days later.''

Libby subsequently repeated the information about Plame to other journalists, always with the caveat that he had heard it from reporters, he has said. Prosecutors say Libby concocted the Russert conversation to shield him from prosecution for revealing information from government sources.

Wells has questioned Russert about other phone conversations he couldn't remember, inconsistencies between his current account and FBI notes of an agent's original interview with him, and the likelihood that he would've let such a high-ranking official off the phone without fishing for some news.

Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has said he will rest his case after Russert testifies.

Among the first witnesses defense attorneys want to call is Russert's colleague, Andrea Mitchell. Mitchell was scheduled to challenge her subpoena Thursday but the hearing was postponed.

Libby's attorneys will take a similar approach to undercut the credibility of former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who testified that Libby revealed Plame's identity to her. Defense attorney William Jeffress said he intends to call Miller's former boss, Times managing editor Jill Abramson, to try to refute Miller and question her credibility.