Feb. 7, 2007 -- The "Scooter Libby" trial got its star witness today.
Tim Russert, the host of NBC's "Meet the Press," testified Wednesday that he never talked about CIA operative Valerie Plame with former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
That directly contradicts Libby's statements to a grand jury in 2004, in which he said that Russert brought up war critic Joseph Wilson and mentioned that Wilson's wife, Plame, worked for the CIA.
The contradictory testimony is a blow to the defense, which has tried to build a case that Libby was used as a scapegoat by the Bush administration.
Patrick Fitzgerald, the federal prosecutor who has been probing how Plame's identity was leaked to the press, asked Russert, "Did you tell Mr. Libby that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA?"
"No, I didn't know that," the newsman replied.
Russert's testimony today focused on a July 10, 2003 telephone call he had with Libby. Russert said that Libby called to complain about the MSNBC program "Hardball" and comments that were made on that show about Libby and Cheney.
"Libby was firm and direct," Russert testified. "Libby said, 'What the hell's going on with "Hardball?" Dammit, I'm tired of hearing my name over and over again. I want it to end.'"
Fitzgerald then asked, "Did you discuss the wife of Ambassador Wilson on that phone call?"
"No," Russert responded. "That would be impossible…I didn't know who that person was until several days later."
Russert continued, "If he had told me that…I would've asked him how he knew that, why he knew that, what's the significance of that? And then I would discuss with my superiors if we could air something like that."
Russert then testified about how he learned the name of Joseph Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame. "I read the Washington Post…I picked up the paper…got to the op-ed page…and there was a column by Robert Novak…it talked about Joe Wilson's wife, a CIA agent, who was involved with the trip."
"And I said 'Wow, look at this…This is really significant…This is big," Russert said, recalling his initial reaction.
Russert continued, "I asked people at work what we know about it, why we didn't have the story."
Fitzgerald then asked the reporter, "Did anyone in your news division know about the story?"
Russert told him, "No. Quite the contrary."
Under cross-examination, which will continue tomorrow, Russert offered terse responses to Libby defense attorney Ted Wells.
"Wouldn't you try to get information from the vice president's chief of staff when you were on the phone?," Wells asked, regarding the conversation. "You're a reporter. That's what you do, right?"
Russert responded, "I was very much in a listening mode. He was agitated. He wanted action on MSNBC. There was no new information being offered. I very much took his call in the spirit he was offering. It was more of a viewer complaint call."
He asked Russert if he had any recollections about discussing Valerie Plame on the phone with Libby.
"I have recollection," Russert said. "I did not know about Mrs. Wilson until Monday morning when it was in Novak's column."
Then Wells began grilling Russert about statements he initially made to the FBI about his conversation with Libby in November 2003.
"Do you recall saying to the FBI you could not rule out the possibility you had such an exchange with Mr. Libby?" Wells asked.
"I didn't know it, I couldn't possibly have known it," Russert responded, later adding that he did not know at the time who Plame was.
Wells then tried to discredit Russert and NBC by pointing out that Russert freely discussed the Libby conversation with the FBI, while the NBC network resisted a subpoena by the grand jurors.
Russert testified that when he spoke to government officials on the phone he would treat the conversation as confidential.
Wells tried to ask why he was talking to the FBI about his call with Libby. Russert said that he viewed it as "imperative" because Libby had told the FBI that Russert told him about Wilson's wife.
The defense also spent considerable time trying to establish Russert's poor memory.
Wells questioned him about Russert's failure to remember a call from a local Buffalo reporter who wrote a story criticizing Russert's performance as moderator of a debate between Rick Lazio and Hillary Clinton.
"I just want to ask about your faulty memory," Wells said.