NEW YORK - NBC News says it has tried to be thoroughly forthcoming about Tim Russert's role in the CIA leak case but has not told its most visible Washington correspondent to avoid discussing the ongoing political scandal.
"There is no need for him to recuse himself," acting NBC News president Steve Capus said Monday. "Tim Russert is not on trial."
A conversation between Russert and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, is central to the case against Libby, who was indicted Friday for lying to FBI agents and a federal grand jury. Libby said he learned the identity of a covert CIA officer married to a Bush administration critic from Russert; NBC's chief Washington correspondent said they never discussed it.
During a special report announcing Libby's indictment, NBC News viewers saw anchor Brian Williams - who normally calls on Russert for expert analysis - question him about his role in the case.
"Mr. Libby had called NBC and me as bureau chief in July not to leak information but to complain about something he had seen on a cable television program," Russert said. "And that was the extent of it."
Russert said he didn't learn CIA agent Valerie Plame's name until several days after the conversation when he read it in a story by columnist Robert Novak.
"What (Russert) did on Friday was the equivalent of Judy Miller in The New York Times writing about what went on, or Matt Cooper of Time magazine writing about his involvement," Capus said. "I think that people wanted to hear what his involvement was. I also believe that the indictment has been written in such a way that it supports what Tim has been saying for years now about his involvement."
NBC said that was consistent with how it reported when Russert was subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury investigating the leak, and when he was eventually interviewed under oath by the special prosecutor.
Russert, host of "Meet the Press," also discussed his role in the case on Sunday's show. He repeated his version of the conversation and when he learned about Plame. "Meet the Press" also aired a statement from Libby's lawyer, who noted how one person's recollection or memory of events does not always match those of other people.
"I think he's gone out of his way to explain his role, to do so in a straightforward manner," Capus said. "He's not tried to hide."
Still, it put NBC News in a delicate situation. Normally, a reporter's involvement in a news story would lead a news organization to assign others to discuss the story; yet the story has taken on an importance to the administration that it's hard for a Washington correspondent of Russert's influence to avoid it.
Taking Russert off the story would be "penalizing a man needlessly," Capus said.
But Capus said NBC News will continue to watch and ponder Russert's role as the story develops, including any possible trial with Libby where Russert might have to take the stand.