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Russert denies discussing agent

Contradicts Libby's version of phone call

NBC journalist Tim Russert, who has a broken ankle, testified yesterday in the trial of I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby. NBC journalist Tim Russert, who has a broken ankle, testified yesterday in the trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. (Associated Press)

WASHINGTON -- NBC journalist Tim Russert testified yesterday that he never discussed a CIA operative with vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, contradicting Libby's version to a grand jury in the CIA leak investigation.

The testimony occurred as prosecutors prepared to rest their perjury case against Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff.

Russert, the host of "Meet the Press," testified about a July 2003 phone call in which Libby complained about a colleague's coverage. Libby has said that, at the end of the call, Russert brought up war critic Joseph Wilson and mentioned that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA.

"That would be impossible," Russert testified yesterday. "I didn't know who that person was until several days later."

That discrepancy is at the heart of Libby's perjury and obstruction trial. He is accused of lying to investigators about his conversations with reporters regarding Wilson's wife, CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson .

During Libby's grand jury testimony in 2004, he said Russert told him "all the reporters know" that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. Libby now acknowledges that he had learned about Plame Wilson a month earlier from Cheney but says he had forgotten about it and learned it again from Russert as if new.

Libby subsequently repeated the information about Plame Wilson 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 information from government sources.

Plame Wilson's identity was leaked shortly after her husband began accusing the Bush administration of doctoring prewar intelligence on Iraq. The controversy over the faulty intelligence was a major story in mid-2003. Given that news climate, defense lawyer Theodore Wells expressed skepticism about Russert's account.

"You have the chief of staff of the vice president of the United States on the telephone and you don't ask him one question about it?" Wells asked. He followed up moments later with, "As a newsperson who's known for being aggressive and going after the facts, you wouldn't have asked him about the biggest stories in the world that week?"

"What happened is exactly what I told you," Russert replied.

Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has spent weeks making the case that Libby was preoccupied with discrediting Wilson. Russert, who arrived in court on crutches because of a broken ankle, was scheduled to resume testifying today. Prosecutors said they plan to rest their case after his testimony.

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