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Washington Journalism on Trial

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, February 8, 2007; 1:34 PM

If you're a journalist, and a very senior White House official calls you up on the phone, what do you do? Do you try to get the official to address issues of urgent concern so that you can then relate that information to the public?

Not if you're NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert.

When then-vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby called Russert on July 10, 2003, to complain that his name was being unfairly bandied about by MSNBC host Chris Matthews, Russert apparently asked him nothing.

And get this: According to Russert's testimony yesterday at Libby's trial, when any senior government official calls him, they are presumptively off the record.

That's not reporting, that's enabling.

That's how you treat your friends when you're having an innocent chat, not the people you're supposed to be holding accountable.

Many things are "on trial" at the E. Barrett Prettyman federal courthouse right now. Libby is the only one facing a jail sentence -- and Russert's testimony, firmly contradicting the central claim of Libby's defense, may just end up putting him there.

But Libby's boss, along with the whole Bush White House, for that matter, is being held up to public scrutiny as well.

And the behavior of elite members of Washington's press corps -- sometimes appearing more interested in protecting themselves and their cozy "sources" than in informing the public -- is also being exposed for all the world to see.

For Russert, yesterday's testimony was the second source of trial-related embarrassment in less than two weeks. The first came when Cathie Martin, Cheney's former communications director, testified that the vice president's office saw going on Russert's "Meet the Press" as a way to go public but "control [the] message."

In other words: Sure, there might be a tough question or two, but Russert could be counted on not to knock the veep off his talking points -- and, in that way, give him just the sort of platform he was looking for.

Russert's description of how he does business with government officials came when prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald asked him whether there were "any explicit ground rules" for his conversation with Libby.

According to someone taking meticulous notes at the courthouse yesterday, Russert replied: "Specifically, no. But when I talk to senior government officials on the phone, it's my own policy our conversations are confidential. If I want to use anything from that conversation, then I will ask permission."

In his cross-examination, defense attorney Theodore Wells sounded incredulous that Russert wouldn't have asked Libby some questions. After all, former ambassador Joseph Wilson had gone public just four days earlier with his provocative charge that the administration manipulated intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs to justify an invasion of Iraq. Wilson had done that in a New York Times op-ed -- and on "Meet the Press" itself.

"You have the chief of staff of the vice president of the United States on the telephone and you don't ask him one question about it?" Wells asked. "As a newsperson who's known for being aggressive and going after the facts, you wouldn't have asked him about the biggest stories in the world that week?"

Russert replied: "What happened is exactly what I told you."

Howard Kurtz writes in today's Washington Post that Russert "emerged relatively unscathed yesterday."

But I think Kurtz was more dead-on in his CNN show on Sunday when he broke from the role of neutral moderator and said: "Well, here's my two cents. I mean, anonymous sources are absolutely vital for investigative reporting for the exposing of corruption, health and safety problems, and that sort of thing. But journalists have gotten so promiscuous on granting anonymity on routine political stories that it makes us look bad. "

Arianna Huffington had this to say on PoliticsTV.com after Russert's testimony: "This assumption that somehow any conversation with a government official is automatically assumed to be highly confidential . . . gives the sense to the average citizen that this is a kind of club, to which government officials and major news reporters belong. And that anything discussed between them is automatically off the record, no matter whether it is of public interest or not."

As Neil A. Lewis and David Johnston write in the New York Times, Wells "also challenged Mr. Russert about initial efforts to avoid testifying. Mr. Russert had said in an affidavit that it was a matter of journalistic principle to refuse to divulge his conversation with Mr. Libby. But Mr. Wells, who also displayed this affidavit on-screen, noted that when Mr. Russert was first reached by telephone by an F.B.I. investigator, weeks before the affidavit, he spoke freely about it."

On her eponymous blog, Huffington writes: "During Wells' cross, it came out that when Russert was initially contacted by the FBI in November 2003, he freely told the agent interviewing him, Agent Eckenrode, everything that he later spent months trying to avoid telling to the federal grand jury investigating the leaking of Valerie Plame's identity. . . . The question is, Why? . . .

"Why claim the confidential nature of the Libby call as a reason not to testify, when he had failed to claim any confidentiality privilege during his FBI interview? . . .

"And why, since Russert had already told the FBI, didn't he deem it his journalistic duty to also tell the public?"

Who's the Real Journalist?

Eric Boehlert writes for the liberal Media Matters Web site that "Fitzgerald has consistently shown more interest -- and determination -- in uncovering the facts of the Plame scandal than most Beltway journalists, including the often somnambulant D.C. newsroom of The New York Times.

"Indeed, for long stretches, the special counsel easily supplanted the timid D.C. press corps and become the fact-finder of record for the Plame story. It was Fitzgerald and his team of G-men -- not journalists -- who were running down leads, asking tough questions and, in the end, helping inform the American people about possible criminal activity inside the White House.

"It's true that Fitzgerald's team had subpoena power that no journalist could match. But reporters in this case had a trump card of their own: inside information. Sadly, most journalists remained mum about the coveted and often damning facts, dutifully keeping their heads down and doing their best to make sure the details never got out about the White House's obsession with discrediting former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV by outing his undercover CIA wife, Valerie Plame. . . .

"In a sense, it was Watergate in reverse. . . .

"And that's why the Plame investigation then, and the Libby perjury trial now, so perfectly capture what went wrong with the timorous press corps during the Bush years as it routinely walked away from its responsibility of holding people in power accountable and ferreting out the facts."

More to Come

Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press: "To show jurors that I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby is believable, attorneys for the former White House aide are trying to undercut the credibility of reporters from some of the nation's largest media outlets.

"Libby's attorneys were to resume questioning the memory and scruples of NBC News reporter Tim Russert on Thursday and have said their first batch of witnesses will all be journalists called to rebut other journalists."

The Coverage

Carol D. Leonnig and Amy Goldstein write in The Washington Post: "Tim Russert, the Washington bureau chief for NBC News, yesterday swiftly and firmly rejected I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby's assertion that the journalist revealed the identity of an undercover CIA officer to him during a telephone call in the summer of 2003.

"Testifying as the final, and perhaps most critical, prosecution witness in the perjury trial of Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, Russert recounted their conversation that July and how a 'very agitated' Libby called to complain about MSNBC's 'Hardball.' Russert said that the subject of the CIA officer, Valerie Plame, never came up and that he could not have told Libby anything about her.

"'That would be impossible,' Russert said, 'because I didn't know who that person was until several days later.'

"Libby, who faces five felony counts of lying to investigators about his role in the leak of Plame's identity, has repeatedly testified that he shared information about Plame with other reporters only after hearing it from Russert during the telephone call. Libby has acknowledged that Cheney first told him about Plame's CIA job, in mid-June, but said that he had forgotten the information by the time he heard it from Russert."

Earlier yesterday, the jury heard the last several hours of Libby's audiotaped grand jury testimony.

Leonnig and Goldstein write that "Fitzgerald repeatedly pressed Libby to explain any role the vice president may have played in the leak. . . .

"In response to each question, Libby can be heard on the tapes carefully choosing words that would not implicate Cheney, and saying he could not recollect whether the vice president suggested they make Plame's CIA role public."

Seth Stevenson blogs for Slate: "Let's assume for a moment that Libby made up his story. Why on earth would he have done so? Here's the prosecution's theory: Libby really learned about Valerie Plame from Vice President Dick Cheney (and other government sources). And he then passed Cheney's information on to various reporters (including Matt Cooper of Time and Judy Miller of the New York Times). Libby worried that this leak constituted a crime (revealing the identity of a covert CIA agent), and that both he and Cheney might face criminal charges for it. So, when the FBI questioned him about it, he said he was simply passing on a tidbit that he'd learned from Tim Russert. If it came from Russert, and not Cheney, there would be no problem. (Fitzgerald describes this as Libby switching the story from 'an official to a non-official source.')

"Why did Libby think he could concoct a fake conversation with Russert, yet never have Russert contradict him? Because Libby assumed that Russert, as a member of the press, would protect Libby as a source. And in fact Russert did try to get out of testifying -- fighting his subpoena on the grounds that testifying would have a 'chilling effect' on his ability to get sources to talk to him. Unfortunately for Scooter, Russert lost this battle. And now he's here in court, calling Libby a liar."

Libby's Grand Jury Testimony

As promised, the prosecution released the transcripts and tapes of Libby's grand jury testimony as presented to the jury.

Here is the text of Libby's March 5, 2004, grand jury testimony. Here is the text of his March 24, 2004, grand jury testimony.

And here, exclusively as far as I can tell, is the full audio from March 5 and the full audio from March 24.

The New York Times Web site has audio excerpts, including passages during which Libby describes why he went to Judith Miller, describing his disputed conversation with Tim Russert, and describing his conversation with Karl Rove

The Associated Press has excerpts depicting tension at the White House and Libby on Russert.

Cheney's Reaction

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "Vice President Dick Cheney seemed surprised in 2003 when told where his chief of staff had learned the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame.

" 'From me?' Cheney asked, tilting his head, according to the grand jury testimony of the aide, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, who is on trial on charges of perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI. . . .

"Libby describes finding in his own handwritten notes a reference to Cheney saying in mid-June 2003 that the wife of war critic Joseph Wilson worked at the CIA. The reference by Cheney was more than a month before Plame was outed in a newspaper column.

"Libby told the grand jury that before finding the note, at the start of the criminal investigation into the leak of Plame's name, he had thought it was NBC newsman Tim Russert who first told him about Wilson's wife.

"Under questioning before the grand jury by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, Libby said he went to Cheney with the new information.

"Libby said that before reading his own notes, he had told Cheney he first learned the information from Russert. And he wanted to set the record straight with his boss, he said.

" 'He didn't say much, something about 'from me?' Libby told the grand jury. The vice president 'tilted his head, something he does commonly, and that was that,' Libby recalled."

David Corn blogs for The Nation: "The note was a big deal. Libby was claiming he had known nothing about Wilson's wife until his conversation with Russert. But here was indisputable documentation that Cheney had informed Libby weeks before that -- and proof that Cheney had been gathering his own information on the Wilsons and the trip Joseph Wilson took to Niger for the CIA to check out the allegation that Iraq had sought uranium there."

As for Cheney's reaction, Corn writes: "Tilted his head? What did that mean? Libby had no more of an explanation. . . .

"Libby's grand jury testimony contained other intriguing nuggets. At one point, he noted that then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz had leaked portions of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's WMDs to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. . . . Libby, in turn, talked to Wolfowitz about doing so because he didn't 'have as good a relationship with the Wall Street Journal as Secretary Wolfowitz did.' (When the Journal ran an editorial quoting the NIE and insisting that Bush had been right to cite Iraq's alleged attempt to buy uranium in Africa, the paper's editorialists asserted 'this information...does not come from the White House.')

What Did Bush and Cheney Say?

Joe Conason writes in the New York Observer: "At long last, the fog of mystification generated by the Bush administration and the Washington media is lifting, so that everyone can see clearly why I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby is on trial and why his prosecution is important. Whether the jury eventually finds the former White House aide innocent or guilty of perjury, the evidence shows that his bosses George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have misled the public from the very beginning about the vengeful leaking of Valerie Plame Wilson's C.I.A. identity. . . .

Conason calls attention to Cheney and Bush's interviews with prosecutors during the summer of 2004.

"[R]eports indicate that Mr. Bush, accompanied by private counsel, wasn't placed under oath during his interview. But even if neither he nor Mr. Cheney was sworn during those encounters, that wouldn't excuse them from telling the truth. To do otherwise would expose them to prosecution for making false statements to federal investigators -- a felony -- as well as possible counts of conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

"Did the President ask Mr. Libby to take the fall for others in the White House? Did the President know the extent of the Vice President's involvement in the effort to ruin the Wilsons? When did he learn what Messrs. Cheney, Libby, Rove and Fleischer had done to advance that scheme?

"Most important, did Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney tell the truth when Mr. Fitzgerald and his investigators interrogated them about those issues? That is the inescapable question at the bottom of this case -- and sooner or later, the Congress and the press must demand answers."

On Climate Change

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Felicity Barringer write in the New York Times: "At a time when his policies on global warming are under scrutiny from environmentalists, President Bush this week cloaked himself in another environmental issue: conservation. He used his budget, and his bully pulpit, to announce a 10-year, $1 billion commitment in taxpayer money to enhance national parks, which have been limping along with limited money. . . .

"Despite the praise for its effort on parks, the administration found itself on the defensive Wednesday -- so much so that the White House felt compelled to issue an ' open letter on the president's position on climate change.'

"In the letter, Mr. Bush's top science and environmental advisers challenged news media reports that suggested that his concern about climate change was new. 'Beginning in June 2001,' they wrote, 'President Bush has consistently acknowledged climate change is occurring and humans are contributing to the problem.'

"The letter cited a June 2001 statement in which Mr. Bush quoted the National Academy of Sciences saying an increase in Earth's temperatures was 'due in large part to human activity.' But it failed to finish the quotation, in which he went on to say it was unclear how much 'natural fluctuations in climate' played a role, whether further climate change was inevitable and what, if anything, could be done about it."

In fact, the issue with Bush has not been that he hasn't acknowledged climate change -- it's that he hasn't acknowledged that the problem is manmade. And as far as I know, he still hasn't.

Here's the transcript of Bush's remarks yesterday about national parks.

Snow Makes More Stuff Up

Here's an eye-popping claim from yesterday's press briefing by Tony Snow.

Snow was talking about various climate-change initiatives supported by the administration, when he said: "We're talking about nuclear development, which is now championed by, among others, Greenpeace."

A little while later, one reporter felt obliged to ask:

"Q. Greenpeace has signed on to nuclear?

"MR. SNOW: I think there's some Greenpeace people who are certainly advocates of nuclear power. Why? Because it's clean and it provides for energy."

But Greenpeace supporting nuclear power would be about as likely as Gandhi endorsing violence.

As the Greenpeace Web site makes clear: "Greenpeace has always fought - and will continue to fight - vigorously against nuclear power because it is an unacceptable risk to the environment and to humanity. The only solution is to halt the expansion of all nuclear power, and for the shutdown of existing plants."

Jim Riccio, a nuclear policy analyst with Greenpeace, told me this morning: "Mr. Snow is about 180 degrees off. Not only do we not support nuclear power, we certainly don't support it as an answer to global climate change."

Riccio said Snow might have been thinking of Patrick Moore, a founding member of Greenpeace who is now, according to Riccio, "a paid spokesperson for the nuclear power industry."

So was Riccio surprised by Snow's claim? Not really.

"The administration has had very little problem making up things out of whole cloth when it comes to nuclear, so to see them mischaracterizing Greenpeace's position doesn't really surprise me."

No Need for Confirmation

The liberal Thinkprogress.com Web site reports: "Last week, The Guardian reported that the Exxon-funded American Enterprise Institute was offering to pay global warming deniers to push back on the new IPCC climate change study.

"This morning, CNN incorrectly reported that during an appearance in Spain, Al Gore had blamed the White House -- not AEI -- for offering to pay the scientists. The headline read: 'Gore says Bush administration paying scientists to dispute global warming.' But hours later, the site issued a retraction saying Gore had 'responded to a question' from a reporter 'that incorrectly implied the Bush administration was making payments to scientists.' Gore was referring to AEI when he said, 'They're offering cash for so-called skeptics who will try to confuse people about what the science really says.'"

But over at the White House, the initial report was enough for a Snow riposte. "The reported remarks by the Vice President that the United States -- that the government is going out and paying money to those who dispute climate change research is just breathtakingly silly," Snow said. "I think maybe what he's done is he's mixed up a story about a think tank in Washington with government policy."

Iran Opinion Watch

Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh write in a Washington Post op-ed: "As Iran crosses successive nuclear demarcations and mischievously intervenes in Iraq, the question of how to address the Islamic republic is once more preoccupying Washington. Economic sanctions, international ostracism, military strikes and even support for hopeless exiles are all contemplated with vigor and seriousness. One option, however, is rarely assessed: engagement as a means of achieving a more pluralistic and responsible government in Tehran. . . .

"Paradoxically, to liberalize the theocratic state, the United States would do better to shelve its containment strategy and embark on a policy of unconditional dialogue and sanctions relief. A reduced American threat would deprive the hard-liners of the conflict they need to justify their concentration of power. In the meantime, as Iran became assimilated into the global economy, the regime's influence would inevitably yield to the private sector, with its demands for accountability and reform."

Javad Zarif, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, writes in a New York Times op-ed that "the United States administration is -- unfortunately -- reaping the expected bitter fruits of its ill-conceived adventurism, taking the region and the world with it to the brink of further hostility. But rather than face these unpleasant facts, the United States administration is trying to sell an escalated version of the same failed policy. It does this by trying to make Iran its scapegoat and fabricating evidence of Iranian activities in Iraq.

"The United States administration also appears to be trying to forge a regional coalition to counter Iranian influence. But even if it succeeds in doing so, such a coalition will prove practically futile, dangerous to the region as a whole and internally destabilizing for Iraq. By promoting such a policy, the United States is fanning the flames of sectarianism just when they most need to be quelled. . . .

"We all need to learn from past mistakes and not stubbornly insist on repeating them against all advice -- including the advice George Bush gave as a presidential candidate in 2000: 'If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us; if we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us.'"

Budget Watch

David Wessel writes in the Wall Street Journal: "William Gale of the Brookings Institution. . . . has been thinking a lot lately about the parallels between Mr. Bush on Iraq and Mr. Bush on the budget. . . .

"The president took the U.S. into Iraq with 'falsely rosy scenarios' about the post-Saddam landscape there, he says. Mr. Bush built his tax cuts in 2001 on a similarly unrealistic hope that the budget surplus was large enough to cut taxes without creating deficits." And so on.

Bryan Bender writes in the Boston Globe: "President Bush's proposed war budget includes many high-cost weapons that won't be operational for years, using a funding request aimed at supporting the troops to seek money for some of the Pentagon's favorite projects."

Cartoon Watch

Jeff Danziger on Libby and Russert.

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