2002 Devroy Forum presentation
Thank you. I just want to say one thing first, which is: Mark, whom I have known for a long time, is here as Ann's husband and because of all of the work he has done to get the fellowship going. But I just want to say he is a hell of a reporter, which I knew initially, and it's only since I've gone back to covering foreign policy that I keep running into his tracks and seeing that he has already been where I think it would be a great idea to go. And so he is really one of the very finest reporters covering U.S. foreign policy right now.
Ann was a really good teacher — but you had to learn fast
Thank you so much for having me. I am so proud and pleased to be here in the fifth year of the Devroy Forum and Fellowship. I am glad that you have invited me to see your beautiful campus, and I am extremely proud that you have given me the opportunity to honor Ann. You heard a little bit about Ann from what Dave Gordon said, and there were some things written about Ann in there. I will tell you just briefly about my first encounters with Ann. I had been the correspondent in London. Even though I had worked for The Washington Post for a long time, I never really covered Washington. I mean, U.S. politics to me was sort of, I don't know, I would rather be gone somewhere. And I had always worked overseas, and I just did not know anything about American politics or even American government, as quickly became apparent to the people who were supposed to work for me when I took this job. Ann was just finishing up a stint as the political editor on the national desk and having just finished the elections of 1988, and I think, basically, correct me if I'm wrong, she hated it. She hated being the editor and really wanted to get back to reporting, which is what she did almost the minute I got back there. I really don't think we got along very well at first, because she had me sussed out. I mean, she knew that I was kind of winging it and didn't really know too much about what people really felt was the bread and butter of The Washington Post. And I kind of found out how little I knew when I went to the first politics meeting as we planned for the 1990 election, which was in January of 1990 that we had this first meeting. It was over at Bob Kaiser's house, who was the AME at the time when I was the national editor. And everybody sat there, and Broder was there, and Devroy was there, and they were all — they had a routine for how they planned a big election campaign, and everybody was getting into it and talking in a language that was just totally foreign to me. And I had nothing to contribute. I was terrified to ask a question, because I thought that they would correctly assume that I was stupid and didn't know anything about what they were doing. But I must say that Ann was a big reason for why I learned. Ann was not a kind teacher or a patient teacher, but she was a really good teacher, and you had to learn fast, or she basically would leave you behind. I think that, as I quickly realized, Ann was the absolute most valuable commodity an editor could have. She never missed a story. She was never beaten on a story. She was never wrong in a story. And I think that all of you who have been editors and worked in newsrooms know how completely valuable that is, and that is one of the many reasons why we miss her so much.
I was surprised after September 11th ... when I went back to reporting, I was covering kind of what I defined as global issues, which was basically whatever interested me in the world, which happened to also be some place where I wanted to go. And so it was a fabulous life, and they came to me after September 11th, and ... the day that it happened and for weeks afterward, like everyone else, (I) was kind of jumping in and doing stories. But they came and said, 'Look, we really need another person to do foreign policy, and specifically to do it from the White House.' It occurred to me how amusing Ann would find that to have me actually covering the White House. I haven't found it all that amusing, but it certainly has been interesting.
No reporter has matched Ann's ability to get information
I thought of Ann last fall when I was in the office on a Saturday with my colleague, Walter Pincus. Walter had gotten a tip that there was a tape of Osama Bin Laden that was in the possession of the White House, in which he talked at some length about the attacks of September 11th, and this was described as the ultimate smoking gun. And we had quite a bit of detail about what was on it. And it was my job, after we had done a little more reporting, and found out more about the tape, to try to get the White House to talk about it. I was really tearing my hair out. I mean, it was a Saturday. I couldn't find anybody. I was told that only Karen Hughes, the president's counselor, was allowed to talk about this. And I sat there, and I thought about Ann, because Ann sat very close to where the desk was, the editor's desk, and we would all be transfixed at least once a day at her refusal to take no for an answer. She had a robust voice and spent a lot of time on the telephone, and any of you who have heard stories about her, in addition to my stories tonight, have no doubt heard about her great persistence. And it didn't matter whom she was talking to. I mean, it could be the president. It didn't matter. She would start out, she would joke with them, she would try to cajole them, and, ultimately, she would basically just bully them if she had to. And her voice would raise in volume, and she would make it clear to them that it was their obligation and responsibility as public servants to cough it up, (to) just tell the truth. On this particular story on this Saturday, we — as I said — had most of the facts, and I was doing what most journalists do, which is to make people I wanted to tell me something think that I knew more than I in fact did know, so that they would not feel bad about telling me even more. And I had several conversations throughout the day, and I tried to cajole, and that didn't work. I tried to joke, and that didn't work. I tried to call them back a million times, and that didn't work. I remember thinking to myself, 'Now, what would Ann have done here?' And I had been doing the White House, at that time, for about two months. I really couldn't bring myself to work up a big head of rage against them and to really be tough in my dealings with them, but I thought: 'Well, this is it. This is the time when it is needed.' And I got up my most authoritarian voice, and I started demanding. I wanted to talk to the most senior person there was. I wanted a more specific response. People were walking by my office looking in and wondering what was going on. The end of this story is that it didn't work. They wouldn't tell me anything. Actually, we ended up getting what we needed from sources in different parts of the government, and we in fact did publish the story the next day. But I wondered afterward as I thought about it whether it was my technique or my lack of technique, but I really wasn't capable of doing 'a real Devroy' in dealing with the White House, or whether this particular White House was a really tough nut to crack. I guess I've concluded it's a combination of both.
I have yet to see any reporter match Ann's ability for getting information when she wanted to get it, but I would have loved to have seen how she handled the current administration and whether she would have changed her tactics or the way she approached them. The Bush White House is the ultimate 'message White House.' That means they decide what the message is about any subject on any given day, and woe be it to any official who wavers from that message or speaks to the press without authorization from any of the very few people who are authorized to give authorization. They are not particularly interested in explaining themselves. They don't even particularly care if you understand what it is they are doing on any given day on any given subject. In fact, I think they actually prefer it if you don't understand, as long as you repeat whatever it is they have decided the message should be on any given day. This is not peculiar to this administration, at least in terms of intent. Every administration wants to control its message. It wants to prevent leaks, and it wants to give the impression of competence and unity at all times. But this was a massively abrupt change, certainly from the Clinton administration, which, if anything, probably went too far in the other direction, at least by the end. They loved to talk. Boy, did they love to talk. When the current administration came in, not only did they not talk, (but also) it was made clear to us that no one below the level of cabinet secretary would be exempt from paying a pretty heavy price, if in fact they were ever tempted to talk to the likes of us about anything that strayed from the official line. In the White House itself, the national security adviser and her deputy basically speak by appointment only, and these appointments are made through the press office and only when they choose to respond to a request or question, which is by no means always. Below them, their very senior directors who handle geographic and subject areas on the NSC staff, those people traditionally have been available to speak to reporters, I think, through certainly every administration that I've ever known about as a reporter, on a background basis. Those people are not allowed to speak on that basis to reporters that are covering the Bush White House unless they are specifically authorized by people above them, and then, only if a press assistant is in the room or is listening in on the telephone. It's virtually the same in all executive departments.
Sept. 11 affected coverage of the administration
The top person, or his designee, would answer questions if he chose to, and usually he did not. And everyone else could only speak with specific authorization and usually with a kind of monitor in the room. Well, this originally got a lot of laughs in the Washington press corps, as you can imagine. They are a pretty cynical bunch. It wasn't the first White House, as I said, to start out with a very strict system of message management, but the assumption was, I think based on experience, that they all kind of succumb sooner or later, either because cabinet officials disagree with each other so much and so strongly that they turn to the press to get their own message either to the president, or even to each other, or because we thought we were just too smart for them to maintain this kind of discipline. Too many reporters know too many people in the government, usually because the latter are career officials we've dealt with in previous administrations and there are relationships in Washington – you know people over a period of years as they switch around jobs and you switch around jobs. Well, that kind of disintegration of message discipline actually did start in the administration last summer. And it was just starting to get underway for all the usual reasons, and then came September 11th. And suddenly discipline was reasserted with a vengeance, and arguably with very good reason. We all know about loose lips sinking ships, and I think that no one wanted us to be in the position of endangering what was already a very dangerous situation. I think those of us who were reporting on the attacks and what came afterwards were just like most Americans. We were in a bit of a daze. We were grateful that an apparently strong government with apparently firm and good ideas about what to do to combat this sudden deadly threat was in charge. There were lots of questions to ask about who had done this and where they had come from and why, and we all asked them all around the world. But I think very few journalists thought it was appropriate or even interesting for most people to question what the administration was doing about them.
There was a brief period in mid to late October, late October, I guess, when the military offensive in Afghanistan appeared to be flagging, and it looked like the strategy was wrong or something had gone wrong. Stories started saying, you know, they don't know what they're doing, they've picked the wrong strategy, and all of a sudden as if by magic, the Taliban folded, and we had won at least this early part of the war. By early November, it seemed to prove that the administration had in fact known all along what it was doing and that it had succeeded. There really weren't any questions again for several months until the president gave his 'axis of evil' speech during the State of the Union in late January, and that coincided with the first reports of large numbers of civilian casualties from U.S. air strikes. Reporters were crawling all over Afghanistan by that time, ours from The Baltimore Sun and from many, many newspapers, not only from this country. And a number of them were reaching towns and villages where civilians spoke of bombs dropping on their homes and their friends' and their families'. It was here, I think, or at least I thought at the time — I'm not sure if I still do — that the downside from the government's point of view of strict message management, or stonewalling, if you want to put that spin on it, became apparent, with the White House unwilling to explain its reasons for singling out at least two of the three 'axis of evil' countries and threatening their continued existence or its plans for the third country, Iraq. Reporters turned to others who were unhappy about the language and what they thought it meant. These included most of our allies in the world, in Europe, in the Arab nations and in Asia. And within barely a week, the White House, which had pretty much refused up to that point to expand on the president's remarks, felt obliged to offer a more complete explanation about the 'axis of evil.' In most cases, that explanation was that neither we nor our allies had understood the nuances behind that very un-nuanced speech and that of course, no military action would be taken without allied consultation. In the case of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, sources of information were restricted to the very highest and the very lowest levels. Secretary Rumsfeld frequently addressed the issue in public by simply denying that it was an issue. The accuracy of American weapons was unimpeachable, he said repeatedly. He said that this war had had fewer civilian casualties than any other, which I think was something that was later proven manifestly untrue, even compared to the Kosovo campaign. But Rumsfeld said they had hit what they intended to hit, and if some people appeared to have been innocent civilians, well, that perhaps was the fault of reporters who are a bit too gullible and unschooled in the deviousness of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. If someone got hit, Rumsfeld implied, it was because perhaps they deserved it. At the other end of the military chain were the spokesmen for CENTCOM, the U.S. military Central Command, that manages the war from its headquarters in Tampa, Fla. Conversations with them generally ran along the lines of you would ask about a report, whether something had been announced by the United Nations or the International Red Cross, or that your own reporters had seem and talked to people about. And they would say, 'well, we use extensive intelligence and surveillance before deciding what to target. Therefore, if we hit something, it must be the right thing, because we use extensive intelligence and surveillance.' And if a hapless reporter would ask whether anyone from U.S. forces had actually checked on the ground afterward, the answer was usually that there was no need to, because we use such intensive intelligence and surveillance when they were choosing targets. In other words, we chose carefully; if we hit it, it must be right. The problem was most people below Rumsfeld and above the CENTCOM people knew that this was not totally true. They knew, as all of us know, that war is hell, and that mistakes happen everyday. Actually, I think Rumsfeld knows that too. So he came off appearing as if he simply didn't care about so-called collateral damage. And yet there were a lot of people in the middle, below Rumsfeld and above the CENTCOM spokesman, the ones who actually know the limitations of smart weapons, and the difficulty of choosing precise target information gathered from miles in the sky or from people on the ground whose trustworthiness is limited at best. They weren't allowed to talk it. It seemed to me to be a very counterproductive policy. I don't know of any journalist who believed or believes that the U.S. military intentionally targeted civilians, but in fact they hit a huge number of civilians, or that they were simply careless. I think that if they had chosen to explain a bit more about it, about how they did their targeting, about how careful they were, and even if they had said that they regretted collateral damage, the stories perhaps would have been written in a different way and would have slacked off long before they did. But I think the administration may actually be on to something for the moment, at least. While concern about terrorism remains almost as high as the president's popularity, it seems to be, from their perspective, at least, the best way to do things.
I will tell you as one of the many journalists who has written about both of these subjects — about Iraq and the axis of evil and about civilian casualties — that they are not things the American public has wanted to hear very much about, judging from the hate mail and the spanned e-mail that all of us have gotten. We have been accused of treason, of trying to undercut the war effort and of actually helping the terrorists. I think it's our duty and our responsibility to ask questions about this, not because we're not patriotic, or because we want to undermine the war effort, or because we want to score political points against this administration or any administration. Here's the corny message here, my own message. But I think the reasons are the same as the reasons Thomas Jefferson gave more than 200 years ago in advocating a free press. Because even if people don't want to know it, information should be available to them, because democracy basically doesn't work when its citizens don't have the basic tools to make informed choices. And I will say — happily, I think — for most of the journalists in the world, that things are beginning slowly to turn around again, maybe to get back to where they were last August. Congress, left, right and center, is starting to ask questions and have opinions again. In fact, most of the criticism of the administration, at least on the foreign policy basis, has started to come from the president's right. Government officials are starting to feel a little more free in disagreeing with the message, at least as what we refer to as 'informed' or unidentified sources. It's sort of like the tautology of the CENTCOM spokesman. If we talk to them, they must be informed. And we're starting to write more about it. And far from undercutting the war effort, though the struggle against terrorism, I think it strengthens it. I think that the American public should approve or disapprove policy based on knowledge rather than fear, not knowledge of secrets that should best be left classified. And believe me, we — and I think every other newspaper working in Washington — (deal) everyday with decisions about whether publishing certain information will endanger our troops, endanger the country, and there are many, many times when things are not published. But I think that knowledge gives people confidence that their government is doing the right thing for the right reasons. Which is to say that the Bush White House has become this new fountain of information for people like us, which it has not. But again, it means, I think, that things are almost back to where they were before September 11th, when just like its predecessors, this administration was beginning to find all the people, even in their own government, don't agree all the time, and that if a policy is the right policy, it won't suffer from explanation.
Ann would pressure the president
I was in Crawford, Texas, last weekend, and a few days before the weekend covering the president's visit by the Saudi crown prince Abdullah, and on Friday night I went out to dinner in Waco with a group of reporters who cover the White House much more regularly than I do — cover the political trips and the domestic policy stuff. And they were saying that out on the stump where the president is doing a lot of politicking lately. He is out making two or three stops a week all around the country when he gives his war speech, which is always part of every speech he has given since September 11th, and which inevitably brings great cheers and applause. The applause is a little bit shorter. It is not quite as wildly enthusiastic, and there is a feeling that people are ready, not to abandon the war effort – I think there is very, very strong support still; people are still very concerned about it – but perhaps to move on a little bit more to other things that concern people.
But I would still love to see Ann Devroy sink her teeth into these people. I think, as I said, they are very, very good at what they do in terms of sticking to message, and a lot of us sometimes feel that we are really beating our heads against a wall, and even as we curse them, I think we are a little bit admiring of how they just stick to it. So that is why I would like to see Ann bring her particular skills and her determination to them, and I think that perhaps these changes I have been talking about would happen a little more quickly. Thank you.