A deal that special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald cut last year for NBC "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert's testimony may shed light on the emerging White House defense in the Valerie Plame leak case. The agreement between Fitzgerald and NBC avoided a court fight over a subpoena for Russert's testimony about his July 2003 talk with Dick Cheney's top aide, Lewis (Scooter) Libby. The deal was not, as many assumed, for Russert's testimony about what Libby told him: it focused on what Russert told Libby. An NBC statement last year said Russert did not know of Plame, wife of ex-ambassador Joseph Wilson, or that she worked at the CIA, and "he did not provide that information to Libby." This now appears significant: in pursuing Russert's testimony, Fitzgerald was testing statements by White House aides--reportedly including Libby--that they learned about Wilson's wife from reporters, not classified documents. Libby's lawyer did not respond to requests for comment. A source close to Karl Rove, who requested anonymity because the FBI asked participants not to comment publicly, says the White House aide--who passed info about Wilson's wife to Time's Matt Cooper--only knew about her CIA job from either a reporter or "somebody" who heard it from a reporter; he can't remember which or who. Rove did not initially discuss his talk with Cooper with the FBI, but later volunteered info about it and called agents' attention to a subpoenaed e-mail he had written to national-security aide Stephen Hadley mentioning the conversation, the source said.

The emerging White House defense is important in light of recent attention on a classified State Department memo that had key info about Wilson's wife. The memo, dated June 10, 2003, was labeled top secret at the top of the first page; a paragraph referring to "Valerie Wilson" at the CIA had the letters SNF in front of it, for "Secret No Foreign," meaning the info is secret and can't be shared with any foreign national, says a government official who reviewed it but asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the material. The memo was taken by Secretary of State Colin Powell aboard Air Force One during a trip to Africa in July 2003, and Fitzgerald has questioned White House aides about who saw it. Fitzgerald has been said to be investigating whether any aides violated the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act--which makes it a felony to disclose the identity of a covert CIA employee: it requires showing the violator knew the agent's undercover status. (The State memo makes no reference to that.) But the CIA's initial "crimes report" to the Justice Department requesting the leak probe never mentioned that law, says a former government official who requested anonymity because of the confidential material involved. Fitzgerald may be looking at other laws barring the disclosure of classified info or the possibility that current or former White House aides made false statements or obstructed justice.