News and events revolving around the ousting of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Buffalo News - Russert credits lesson from nun for being aboveboard in CIA case

WASHINGTON - Tim Russert credits a maxim he learned from a Mercy nun in a West Seneca parish school for helping to guide him through the reefs surrounding the CIA leak investigation now engulfing the capital.
"If you tell the truth," Russert said in an interview, "you only have to tell it once."

"I was told that early in life by Sister Lucille," he said, referring to Mercy Sister Lucille Socciarelli, one of his teachers at St. Bonaventure School.

Sister Lucille, now a Catholic hospital chaplain in Fall River, Mass., also recalls that lesson.

"Yes, that's what I taught him," she said when reached there.

"His integrity is without question," she added. "What Tim was in 1963 he is now, but only older and wiser."

Russert, chief of NBC's Washington Bureau and host of NBC's "Meet the Press" appears to be a key witness in the trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., who resigned as Vice President Cheney's chief of staff after being charged with lying to a federal grand jury investigating the leak of the name of CIA operative Valerie E. Plame.

Libby faces criminal charges based on his grand jury testimony that Russert, in July 2003, gave him the name and identity of Plame as a covert operative for the CIA.

Russert testified that he told Libby no such thing. According to the indictment, the Buffalo native's challenge to Libby's testimony is at the core of the government's case against Libby on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., noted the distinction between Russert's behavior and that of two other journalists involved in the Libby case - Judith Miller, who recently resigned under pressure as a reporter for the New York Times, and author Bob Woodward, an assistant managing editor for the Washington Post.

Miller, who served 85 days in jail before agreeing to testify about her source, apparently withheld material conversations with Libby from her editors for months. Woodward withheld his knowledge from his editor for at least two years.

"Tim immediately talked with his editor, and he did not give up his sources," Schumer said. "Tim Russert is a model for other reporters in the way he behaved in this situation."

Russert also made the special counsel subpoena him. NBC News resisted the subpoena in federal court on First Amendment grounds - maintaining that confidential sources are a key to news-gathering. The court rejected NBC's pleading and on July 20 ordered Russert to undergo questioning under oath.

Russert gave the statement under oath to special federal prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was appointed after the CIA formally complained to then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft that a federal crime might have been committed when Plame's identity was revealed.

The fact that Russert did not give up any confidential sources was easy because Russert maintains that "there weren't any in this instance."

Russert testified he first learned of Plame's identity and job when he read a Robert D. Novak's July 2003 syndicated column outing Plame.

Critics of the Novak column said the article was a White House attempt to punish Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. Wilson wrote an op-ed article in the Times earlier that month contending that President Bush misspoke in his 2003 State of the Union message when he said Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was trying to buy weapons-grade nuclear material in Niger.

Russert avoided many of the pitfalls dogging Novak, Woodward and others by promptly working through his management, being transparent and making the government go to court to make him talk, said Lee Coppola, dean of the Russell J. Jandoli School of Journalism and Mass Communications at St. Bonaventure University.

"I tend to think that reporters ought to cooperate in the investigation of serious crimes, especially when national security gets involved," said Coppola, who previously was a Buffalo News investigative reporter, an attorney and a federal prosecutor.

"But they ought to never testify other than under subpoena, and they shouldn't [testify about confidential sources] unless they are dragged in kicking and screaming." By that, Coppola said, "the government must be made to prove its need for the testimony in court and make a record that will guide other journalists and prosecutors in the future."

The Post belatedly revealed that Woodward was also tipped off in June 2003 about Plame's identity by a government official whom he would not identify. But the Post newsroom is in a turmoil because Woodward gave testimony last week without any subpoena and under circumstances that contrast with the transparency employed by NBC and Russert. Post management has not explained why it waited weeks to tell the public that Woodward had been told about Plame.

Woodward has apologized for waiting so long before telling Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. about his involvement.

Now it is likely that Fitzgerald will subpoena reporters' notes, raising another First Amendment issue.

Russert said he is not worried about that. "I don't have any notes, because nobody told me anything," he said.

Andy Alexander, chairman of the Freedom of Information Committee, American Society of Newspaper Editors, credits Russert and his attorneys (Russert also is a lawyer) for crafting "a fairly narrow field" in which to question Russert.

Newsrooms may want to review their procedures for offering confidentiality to sources and notifying employers when lawyers and prosecutors begin to stalk reporters, Alexander said.

Alexander, who is Washington Bureau chief for Cox Newspapers, said the bureau has elaborate guidelines on subpoenas, sources and confidentiality.

The Buffalo News employee manual requires that subpoenas, threats of subpoenas and credible threats of lawsuits be reported to editors immediately.


Post a Comment

<< Home