msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 5/23/2004 5:53:29 PM ET 2004-05-23T21:53:29

Two journalists, one from NBC News, have received federal subpoenas to face questioning about the alleged leak of an undercover CIA weapons expert’s identity, but both news organizations said Sunday they would fight the subpoenas.

The companies said the subpoenas for NBC's Tim Russert and Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper, came from a special grand jury investigating whether the Bush administration improperly disclosed the identity of the agent, Valerie Plame, after her husband, former diplomat Joseph Wilson IV, publicly challenged the White House’s claim that Iraq had been trying to obtain uranium for nuclear weapons from Africa.

Wilson has charged that officials made the disclosure in an effort to discredit him.

Plame was first identified as a CIA specialist on weapons of mass destruction by syndicated columnist and TV commentator Robert Novak last July. Novak said his information came from administration sources, but has declined to name them.

NBC and Time said the subpoenas were aimed at Cooper, and at Russert, the host and moderator of NBC's “Meet the Press.” Both have reported on the Plame controversy.

Novak’s office has repeatedly declined to say whether he has been subpoenaed or cooperated with investigators.

‘Potential chilling effect’
NBC News president Neal Shapiro said the Russert subpoena was misdirected because he was “not the recipient of the leak.” The subpoena, he said, would have a “potential chilling effect” on the network’s ability to report the news.

“The American public will be deprived of important information if the government can freely question journalists about their efforts to gather news,” Shapiro said in a statement. “Sources will simply stop speaking to the press if they fear those conversations will become public.”

Robin Bierstedt, a Time Inc. vice president and deputy general counsel, said the Time subpoena referred to two articles by Cooper and others, one on the Time.com Web site on July 17, 2003, and the other in the magazine’s June 21, 2003 issue.

Magazine to seek to quash subpoena
Time planned to file a motion next month asking that the subpoena be quashed, she said.

“It is Time Inc.’s policy to protect its confidential sources,” she said. “While we would like all of our reporting to be on the record, a promise of confidentiality is sometimes necessary to get information that would otherwise be unavailable.”

Patrick J. Sullivan, a special counsel in the grand jury inquiry, has repeatedly declined to comment on the case.

Justice Department guidelines for criminal prosecutions state that all avenues should be explored before reporters are subpoenaed or approached in an investigation. The issuing of new subpoenas for reporters may indicate that the investigation is nearing an end.

NBC News had said Friday night that it would oppose the subpoena issued to Russert, the first journalist known to have been subpoenaed in the investigation.

Novak has refused to reveal who identified Plame, saying only that the information came from two senior administration officials.

The Washington Post and the New York newspaper Newsday said last week that their reporters were asked to sit for questions in connection with the investigation but that they had not been formally subpoenaed.

Disclosing the identity of an undercover U.S. agent is a felony.

Grand jury casts wide net
At the request of the CIA, Wilson investigated allegations that Iraq had tried to obtain uranium from an African country and reported that the claim was inaccurate.

After Bush repeated the allegation in his 2003 State of the Union address as one of the justifications for going to war, Wilson wrote an editorial column in The New York Times accusing the president of operating under false pretenses.

The grand jury, which was convened after MSNBC.com and NBC News reported in September that the CIA had requested a criminal investigation of the leak, has also issued subpoenas for records of telephone calls from Air Force One during the week before Novak published Plame’s name.

Wilson identified Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, and Elliott Abrams, a Middle East specialist on the National Security Council, as the possible leakers in a book he published earlier this year. He has also accused Bush’s chief political adviser, Karl Rove, of having known about and encouraging the campaign to discredit him.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan has said that his conversations with Rove, Libby and Abrams ruled out their involvement.

NBC News is an arm of the NBC television network. MSNBC.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.

MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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