Tim Russert, Me And The CIA Leak Case

He was a lawyer and too smart, too cautious to say anything. So he would just roll his eyes when we passed at the NBC News building on Nebraska Avenue or run into each other at parties around town. Tim Russert landed in the messy CIA leak case even before I did. Russert tragically died a year ago--too young, much beloved. I was friendly with Tim, through journalism and Pat Moynihan, and friends in no way that was particularly special except for one weird bond: We shared a legal docket and were scheduled to be put in contempt of court together.


 

Russert was central to the CIA leak case although he was never a recipient of the dreaded leak of Valerie Plame's identity. It was Russert's show, Meet the Press, where former Ambassador Joseph Wilson aired his complaint that he'd been sent by the CIA  to Niger to investigate the claim that Saddam Hussein was seeking to buy yellowcake to make nuclear weapons. Andrea Mitchell was actually hosting that week. The big thing was this: It was Tim Russert who had that conversation with Scooter Libby where Libby complained about what he considered Chris Matthews biased coverage of the administration and the start of the war. It was that conversation, which Libby later falsely told aFBI agents and a federal grand jury that he found out about Valerie Plame's identity, from Russert. It was a baroque, absurd lie that put Russert, the mayor of Washington media, into the middle of the case.

For a time, Russert's case and mine moved through the courts together until his legal team, led by Lee Levine, a media lawyer wise enough to know the difference between defending a client and a principle, wisely found a way out of the mess. Russert managed to give a deposition to special prosecutor Pat Fitzgerald without having to go into contempt of court. He settled. My legal team kept fighting. But eventually every reporter called in the case from Bob Novak to Judy Miller to Bob Woodward wound up testifying. We all got there eventually. Tim got there earlier.

Friends of Tim tell me that the case took a lot out of him. After all, once he was out of legal jeopardy himself, the case against Libby centered on his tale of his conversation with Russert. So poor Tim  was center stage for the better part of four years and not in the way that he liked. What's more some of the inner workings of NBC News emerged during the case. Famously Mary Matalin had told Libby to complain to Russert about Chris Matthews. According to Libby's notes Matalin said "Tim hates Chris...." That couldn't have been easy to live with.

What I do know is that Russert was unfailingly kind to me during the whole case, sending attaboy notes and otherwise being protective, supportive and not in the goofy way that most reporters were at the time.  Journalism and organized crime are probably the only two professions where pissing off a federal prosecutor is a badge of honor. Tim wasn't into grandiose First Amendment posturing. He did what he could to protect his conversaiton with Libby even though it was more viewer complaint than confidential source. Like Walter Pincus of The Washington Post, he found a way out of a thorny mess and he did so with grace and aplomb and a lot of compassion for those of us who didn't get out of the brambles so easily. There are many reasons to mourn Tim's passing but the kindnesses he showed me was one I thought worth bringing to light.

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Matthew Cooper is a managing editor (White House) for National Journal.

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