WASHINGTON - NBC newsman Tim Russert's credibility came under fire in the CIA leak trial Wednesday, and he may be called back to the witness stand.
Russert, who testified last week, is a key witness in the perjury and obstruction case against former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Attorneys for Libby asked a judge to let them show jurors three video clips that seem to contradict some of Russert's testimony.
If Russert is called back, that could extend the trial. Defense attorneys had planned to rest their case Wednesday without calling Libby or Vice President Dick Cheney.
Russert testified last week that he never discussed CIA operative Valerie Plame with Libby. Libby told investigators that Russert asked about Plame and said "all the reporters" knew she worked at the CIA. That dispute is at the heart of the case. Libby is accused of making up the Russert call to cover up other conversations he had with reporters and obstruct an investigation into the leak of Plame's name.
Libby's attorneys have tried hard to discredit Russert. Their most recent effort does not directly undercut Russert's story. Rather they involve testimony over the arrangements that prosecutors made in exchange for Russert's cooperation.
Russert was not forced to go before a grand jury. Rather, he was allowed to testify in an interview with his lawyer present. As Libby's attorneys tried last week to cast that as favorable treatment, Russert , a law school graduate and former Senate counsel , said he was unaware that grand jury witnesses are not allowed to have attorneys present.
Libby's attorneys found three old television clips that suggest Russert did know. In those clips, Russert describes the grand jury that was investigating members of the Clinton administration. In them, he notes that witnesses are not allowed to have attorneys in the room when they testify.
U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton said he'd decide later Wednesday whether to allow the tapes into evidence. If he does, he said, he'll have Russert back on the stand to explain the apparent inconsistencies.
"It does touch on his credibility," Walton said. "His credibility, it seems to me, is crucial to this case. He's probably, if not the most important, one of the most important witnesses."
Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said Libby's attorneys had their chance to cross-examine Russert and wanted a "do over." Russert was cross-examined for five hours after offering about 15 minutes of direct testimony. Fitzgerald said it doesn't matter to the case what Russert knew about grand jury procedure and said Russert should not be recalled.
Defense attorney Theodore Wells said Russert got special treatment that encouraged him to cooperate against Libby. Wells wants to use the tapes to show Russert was trying to conceal that.
Russert's credibility is under fire because he and Libby tell very different stories about a July 2003 phone conversation. Both men agree that Libby called Russert to complain about a colleague's news coverage. Libby says at the end of the call, Russert told him that Plame, 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 last week. "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 classified information from government sources.
Associated Press writer Michael J. Sniffen contributed to this report.