The special counsel investigating whether the Bush administration illegally leaked the name of a CIA operative has questioned a second journalist about conversations with Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, officials said Monday.
NBC News said its Washington bureau chief, Tim Russert, was interviewed Saturday by prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald in connection with a conversation Russert had last summer with top Cheney aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.
The network said Russert, host of “Meet the Press,” was asked “limited questions” about a telephone conversation that the White House aide had initiated in early July last year. Libby had disclosed the conversation to the FBI.
The network said in a statement that Russert told Fitzgerald during the interview that he did not know Valerie Plame’s name or her identity as a CIA operative until reading Robert Novak’s syndicated column published July 14, 2003.
NBC officials had previously said that Russert was “not a recipient of the leak.”
Fitzgerald is investigating whether anyone in the administration broke a federal law prohibiting intentional identification of an undercover operative by disclosing information about Plame to Novak.
Plame is married to former State Department envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV, a critic of the Iraq war, who in a recent memoir speculated that Libby was “quite possibly the person who exposed my wife’s identity.”
Novak’s disclosure of Plame’s name and her employment at the Central Intelligence Agency came eight days after Wilson, in an op-ed column in the New York Times, criticized the Bush administration’s use of prewar intelligence about Iraq’s interest in purchasing uranium.
Russert is the second journalist who has acknowledged answering questions from Fitzgerald about phone conversations with Libby, and the second to deny that the Cheney aide had tipped them off about Plame.
A representative of the Washington Post said in June that one of the paper’s reporters had recounted a similar conversation with Libby and that Plame’s name did not come up.
A spokesman for Libby said that the White House was continuing to cooperate in the investigation but declined further comment, referring questions to the Justice Department, which also declined comment.
Saturday’s interview came after a federal judge in Washington ordered Russert and Matthew Cooper, a correspondent for Time magazine, to respond to questions from Fitzgerald.
In May, Fitzgerald had subpoenaed the testimony of the two journalists before a federal grand jury investigating the leak, but the two news organizations fought the requests in court, citing the 1st Amendment. Their bid was denied by U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan in an order dated July 20 and made public Monday.
Hogan ruled that Cooper and his employer were in contempt of court but suspended any sanctions pending an appeal.
Jim Kelly, managing editor of Time, said the magazine would appeal the ruling. If Time loses, Cooper could be jailed under Hogan’s order until he agreed to testify before the grand jury, and the magazine could be fined $1,000 a day.
NBC issued a statement saying the network made Russert available under an agreement where he was not required to appear before the grand jury and was not asked questions that would have required him “to disclose information provided to him in confidence.”
“Mr. Russert told the special prosecutor that, at the time of that conversation, he did not know Ms. Plame’s name or that she was a CIA operative, and that he did not provide that information to Mr. Libby,” the NBC statement said.
“Mr. Russert said that he first learned Ms. Plame’s name and her role at the CIA when he read a column written by Robert Novak later that month.”