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Robert Kaiser

Bob Kaiser

Bob Kaiser, associate editor and senior correspondent of The Washington Post

Bob Kaiser has worked at The Post since 1963, when he worked as a summer intern while still a college student. He has served as a special correspondent in London (1964-67), a reporter on the city desk in Washington (’67-’69), foreign correspondent in Saigon (’69-’70) and Moscow (’71-’74). He returned to the national staff in Washington and worked as a reporter for seven years, covering labor, the U.S. Senate, the 1980 presidential campaign and the first Reagan administration.

In 1982 Kaiser became associate editor of The Post and editor of Outlook, a Sunday section of commentary and opinion. He also wrote a column for the section. From 1985 to 1990 he was assistant managing editor for national news. From 1990 to 1991 he was deputy managing editor, and from 1991 to 1998 served as the paper’s managing editor. He began his current assignment in September, 1998.

Kaiser is the author or co-author of six books: Cold Winter, Cold War (1974); Russia, The People and the Power (1976); Great American Dreams (with Jon Lowell, 1978); Russia from the Inside (with Hannah Jopling Kaiser, 1980); Why Gorbachev Happened (1991); and The News About The News; American Journalism in Peril  (with Leonard Downie Jr., 2002). The News About The News won Harvard University’s Goldsmith prize for the best book of 2002 on politics and the news media. Kaiser’s work has also appeared in the New York Review of Books, Esquire, Foreign Affairs and many other publications. He has been a commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered, and has appeared often on television, on Meet the Press, the Today show and other programs. His dispatches from Moscow won the Overseas Press Club award for best foreign correspondence of the year in 1975. In 2003 he won the National Press Club prize for best diplomatic reporting of the year.

Born in Washington, D.C., Kaiser graduated from Yale College in 1964. He received a masters degree from the London School of Economics in 1967.


2007 Devroy Forum presentation

The 2007 forum presentation featured a live television broadcast conversation with Washington Post assistant managing editor Woodward. The Post's associate editor, Kaiser, was in Eau Claire to join in the conversation. Both journalists took questions from the audience after their presentation.

Robert Kaiser: Let’s vote on Woodward’s tie, pretty good I think, huh? 

Bob Woodward:  Can you hear me?

Robert Kaiser: Yes, it’s great

Bob Woodward:  I see looking at this, it looks like I’m in the Witness Protection Program from the (laugh) Penitentiary at Louisburg. 

Robert Kaiser:  We know better.  Thanks Bob, for making yourself available.  He’s actually in San Antonio, is that right?  Texas.

Bob Woodward: That’s correct.

Robert Kaiser: But we worked out this wonderful technological marvel, so he’d be with us tonight.  When I was asked to pick a topic for tonight, it occurred to me that I should pick something that Ann would have enjoyed both hearing and also agree with.  So I picked this mischievous title, “Why It’s Important for the Press to Reveal the Government’s Secrets.”  It’s a little bit of a cheeky way of putting it, and I’m happy in a question period which I hope will be a long and lively to go further into what I really mean by that.  But I do think that all of us who grew up at the Washington Post in what we sometimes call the Woodward Era are very conscious that our reputation is an institution, was largely built on one of the great triumphs of journalists and uncovering the secrets of the government, the Watergate Affair. Ben Bradley, our great leader who taught both of us Bob’s most of the tricks that we know, thought this was by far the most important job that any of us would ever have and I think we agree with him.  A lot of you have heard accusations from this administration, from critics of the press that somehow we’re doing something really bad by revealing secrets that are classified, top secret or worse or higher, this is somehow a terrible sin that we’re committing and I don’t want to suggest that it couldn’t be a sin, if we found out today the hiding place presumably somewhere in Pakistan of Osama Bin Laden and reported in tomorrow’s Washington Post, here’s where Osama is hiding.  That would be a really dumb thing to do and I think a violation of our obligations under the First Amendment, to be responsible in our approach to our work.  But we don’t know where Osama Bin Laden is hanging out any better than the CIA does unfortunately, so we’re not going to reveal that secret tonight or in tomorrow’s paper.  The argument over whether or not this is okay whether it’s appropriate for journalists to publish things that the government says are top secret or secret or whatever is hardly new.  In fact, if I were to describe in a nutshell what’s been the situation in Washington, in the 43 ½ years that I’ve been at the Washington Post, the answer would involve that fact.  This constant struggle between a government that’s trying to hide things from the public and a press that’s trying to find them out and why is that a constant, because finding things out is our job.  I don’t think obviously everybody doesn’t agree with us about this, but I don’t think you’d find many journalists who would disagree with the proposition that the reason the founders have the good sense to include a First Amendment in the constitution was to protect the ability of outsiders to hold powerful officials accountable for the way they use their power.  Our great editor now Lynn Downey coined the phrase years ago, “accountability reporting” and that’s what we’re proud of doing all the time at the Washington Post and accountability reporting is just that.  It’s reporting that shows you the citizens what the government is doing in your name and allows you to decide whether or not that’s an appropriate thing to do.  Lots of facts in Washington are secret, classified secret stamped, put in files, put under headings that say no dissemination, no foreign dissemination, limited distribution and so on.  But secret isn’t the same as really sensitive as we’ve learned again and again and again in our careers.  I made a list recently of the things we learned, we have learned about the war in Iraq, which were classified secret.  Let me read you the list.

  • We learned from the Washington Post that the CIA in fact was never able to assure the White House that Saddam Hussein actually had weapons of mass destruction. 
  • We learned from the press, the Washington Post and CBS first that U.S. Soldiers had egregiously abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
  • We learned from the Washington Post that the United States had a policy of rendition, which meant rendering terrorist suspects to countries like Egypt and Jordan and others were torturous commonplace without any guarantee that the people we were turning over to them would not in fact be tortured. 
  • We learned that the United States had established secret prisons in Eastern Europe for terrorism suspects. 
  • We learned in this case from the New York Times that the National Security Agency was systematically eavesdropping without warrants when the telephone calls of countless Americans and keeping close track of telephone calls and e-mail messages sent from many, by many Americans from home and from work. 

Now my position is that you may think that these all these things that you learned as we did from the press were good policies, sensible responses to the so-called war on terror or you may have been appalled by them or you may be unsure what you think of them.  But I’d like to say that I don’t think very many of you are sorry that you know these things, at least I hope your not.  It seems to me that you would not have preferred, I hope you would not have preferred not to know them at all.  Why do I say this?  Because if a war is being waged in America’s name, Americans should understand what is being done in their name. 

The administration wants to create the impression often.  We’ve heard this again and again, so did some of our critics.  That when we print a story such as the ones I just listed, that reveal something classified secret that we’ve done so because disgruntled official or political enemy of their own has decided to leak the story to the Washington Post or the New York Times.  I want to take a minute or two to confront that canard because I think it’s so unfair to Bob Woodward and to the other great reporters on the Post who do this work.  I’ve edited a lot of stories over the years of this kind and written a few and I can tell you that a good story, take for example Dana Priest’s wonderful Pulitzer Prize winning story about the prisons and the secret prison’s in Eastern Europe.  In this case interestingly, a woman who was a Senior Executive at the CIA was fired and senior administration officials put out the word as they can do, that the reason this woman was fired because she’d been Dana’s source for this story as though all Dana had done was meet some secret person in a dark alley the way Woodward use to meet with Deep Throat and have whispered into her ear, “Here’s the story.”  It couldn’t be farther from what happened.  Dana spent months on that story; she traveled all over the world.  She talked to hundreds and hundreds of people.  I don’t know who she talked to, I don’t know who her sources were, but I know how she did the work and I know that that story like almost every great investigative story was the journalist equivalent of a castle made out of Lego’s.  A piece here a piece there, a little brick, another little brick.  Often the people that provided one or two bricks, the sources who confirmed this or made that little addition to the story possible didn’t have any idea what the shape of the final construction was going to be.  It was only Dana Priest who could put it all together in the end and provide that portrait of this fascinating story.  It just drives me nut when people say, we oh you just you heard that somebody disgruntled official leaked that to you and you put it in the paper.  It just isn’t what we do and in fact some are reluctant to make this part of the speech, but I think it’s important that people understand.  We’re very careful with these stories, sometimes we’re too careful.  Bob and I worked in the 80’s on a story about a secret program called Ivy Bells.  Ivy Bells was an incredibly successful intelligence operation, which involved a very high tech device at the time that we were able, put over and undersea cable that the Soviet Navy used to communicate between Moscow and ships at sea and we were able to read the mail in effect because of this wonderful device.  The soviets assumed that because it was an undersea cable nothing was being broadcast in the atmosphere that we couldn’t pick it up.  They were reckless in what they put on this channel and that therefore made a great intelligence.  Well, we learned about this, we wrote a story about it and William Casey, then the Director of the CIA, the subject of one of Bob’s best books, is in an uproar.  You can’t publish this, this would be terribly damaging to the National Security.  He went nuts about it, and in fact we decided we’d better not publish it and we held it back and we held it back and then after quite a long time we learned that though we were keeping it a secret from our readers, the Soviet Union knew about this for a long time.  One of the most notorious American spies Ronald Pelton had told his Soviet handlers about Ivy Bells a long many months before we learned about it.  So the secret wasn’t from the one party that was really sensitive that we had to worry about, the secret was just from Americans.  American readers, American politicians, all Americans at which unfortunately, one of the networks ABC or NBC did this story before we did and we had to be second on our own scoop because we’d held back too long.  I don’t want any sympathy for this, this was a dumb mistake on our part, but I want you to understand that we don’t just rush these things into print.  We think hard about them, and we always, always Bob is on this countless times, take what we learn to the administration of the day and say here’s what we’re going to print in tomorrow’s paper and give them a chance to make a case that we shouldn’t do it.  My candidate for irresponsible excess of these matters to be provocative is the Bush Administration and here’s some really interesting statistic.  This administration has reclassified documents you may remember about them going into the National Archives and literally retrieving documents that had been declassified under the Clinton Administration and taking them out of them National Archives and reclassifying them.  This is fully consistent with their general approach to these matters.  The, I’ve called it intimidation by classification and this administration has created classified documents at an unprecedented pace.  Fourteen million new documents classified in fiscal year 2005.  That’s compared to 8 million in 2001, according to the National Archives and there’s 62 categories of classifications.  Sixty, in ways to hide things from the government, from the people.  The bottom line for me is pretty simple.  The American experiment is an experiment in self-government.  We cannot govern ourselves if we don’t know that the people we have chosen to occupy temporarily occupy positions of power in our government.  What they are doing with the power that we have delegated temporarily to them.  The government is not some separate distinct authority disconnected from us.  It is us, that is the American experiment.  Just as Hugo Black wrote a wonderful decision in a really important Supreme Court case and I’m going to finish my little remarks just by quoting you from Hugo Black, a great jurist from Alabama, a fascinating American.  “The government’s power to censor the press, wrote Black in this decision, was abolished by the first amendment, so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government,” that’s c-e-n-s-u-r-e.  “The press was protected, so that it could bare the secrets of the government and inform the people.”  Well, that’s our position and I now let Bob is going to say a few things about this theme and then we’re going to conduct a little interview with each other to try to give you a sense of what it’s like when two old Bob’s get together.  Thank you very much. 

Bob Woodward:  So I can just go ahead from the Federal Penitentiary here. 

Robert Kaiser: Yes.

Bob Woodward:  I obviously agreed with Bob on the overall thrust of this, the question becomes in dealing with these secrets what is the consequence of the secret.  That it is our boss Ben Bradley use to always say don’t print the wiring diagrams, but tell what’s going on without compromising something that’s really sensitive.  The last book that I did, State of Denial, it’s the third, the Interim Provost, it’s the last of the trilogy, actually I’m working on Bushic War Part 4, now so that there will be one more Bush book.  My wife quotes there is not a Bushic War Part 5.  I expect it will not be.  But what I found in researching the book State of Denial is that what was kept secret was right at the heart of what was going on the Iraq war and the theme is simply that the government, the president, the war captain, you may recall this all at over the last four years since the Iraq invasion, the president giving speeches, saying we turned the corner.  This will mark the moment when the terrorists will be seen in retreat.  In fact, there are secret reports and charts and numbers and assessments which I print in the book, that it flatly unambiguously contradict these assertions time and time again, so you have the nation at war and the definition and the coloring of the war by the administration as essential optimism and the reality on the ground is that it’s getting worse that it’s much more violent and that this basic fact about war is being concealed from the public.  Let me just spend a couple of moments going through some examples.  May a name Bill Murphy, who was my assistant on this book got the war diary of a General named Spider Marx, two star Army General who is in charge of intelligence and his job was five months before the war started, so this is October 2002 while Congress is debating the resolution supporting the war.  Marx goes to Kuwait, is set up in offices with a giant staff, is given 946 folders, these folders supposedly said, “At each of these 946 places, are Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.”  Marx and his staff looked at the folders and discovered that satellite photos were old, communications intercepts were ambiguous, there were no human sources and in his contemporaneous diary he records his not, couldn’t be clear to overwhelm with doubt and actually says to his boss, a General McKearnan at one point, that he can’t say that there are weapons that makes destruction in any place in Iraq at any time.  General McKearnan says to him, “I got it, go on” and in the war diary, the General reports not only doubt, but he enunciates this theory namely that in the army your job is to not visit your personal hell on your boss.  Yes, Bob Kaiser knows well at the Washington Post, the motto is, it is your job to visit your personal hell on your boss.  It’s something that occurs regularly, we have an informal saying, if the newspaper, that all good work is done in defiance of management that you have to be very aggressive in presenting problems to your boss.  The General on the ground in charge of intelligence has doubt he’s expressed it and so he says okay, I’ll live with it, I’ll try to fix the problem.  Now, corresponding with this the man on charge on the ground is the Secretary of Defense, Don Rumsfeld.  I got a secret memo that Rumsfeld wrote himself in October 2002 and in the memo Rumsfeld lists the 29 things that might go wrong if the United States invades Iraq.  Item 13 says, “We may not find weapons of mass destruction on the ground.”  So you have the man at the top having doubt, the General in charge on the ground having doubt, and of course the public and many people in between don’t know about this.  Last summer I interviewed Rumsfeld for two afternoons for State of Denial and I said, “Did you know General Marx, did you know that he had these doubts?”  Rumsfeld’s approach was, “Well, it just looked at his staff and said, did I meet him?  Oh yeah, I maybe met him, met General Marx, but I did not know him.  Now think, we’re going to go to war, because cheap reason, we believe there are weapons of mass destruction.  The Secretary of Defense has doubts which he commits to paper and it’s stamped secret of course, and he has no curiosity to call the man in and sit him down and clear everyone else out of the office and say “What do you really think?  What’s going on?  What do we know and what don’t we know?”  I remember a good number of times working on stories for Bob Kaiser at the Post.  He would quite frankly break the chain of command, call me in and say “Who are the sources here?  How sure are you?  Should we work longer on this story?  Are there other avenues?  What are the follow-up stories?”  Just think of this monumental, not only lacks in communication, lacks in management, but lacks in curiosity about what’s going on.  Of course this is all kept secret.  I’m just going to give a couple of other examples.  In the book I report how Andy Card, the White House Chief of Staff, spent eighteen months trying to persuade President Bush to get rid of Secretary Rumsfeld because they couldn’t communicate with him, they couldn’t work with him.  This again, is not literally stamped secret, but these are meetings and communications that the public does not know about.  Steve Hadley now the National Security Advisor to President Bush.  The old Kissinger job for Nixon.  Hadley is asked at the beginning of 2005 just as he becomes the National Security Advisor, had been the Deputy National Security Advisor.  He’s asked, “How do you think we’re doing in implementing a foreign policy” and Hadley says in implementing our foreign policy and the war in Iraq for the first term, he would give the Bush Administration a D-.  If I could ask this and Bob can kind of sort of give me assistance.  How many of you in the audience there ever got a D- in high school or college, please raise your hands. 

Robert Kaiser: We’re in Eau Claire, we’re in Eau Claire where everybody is above average clearly.  I saw one hand go up.

Bob Woodward:  Is it possible they’re in a state of denial?

Robert Kaiser: It’s possible, LOL, or simple forgetfulness, you know. 

Bob Woodward:  Okay, for those of you that never got a D-, it’s a very low grade.  This is a grade not given by some columnists for the Washington Post or some democrat, or somebody from a think tank.  It is the National; he was just becoming the National Security Advisor.  He had been the deputy for the whole first four years.  Condi Rice becomes Secretary of State in 2005.  She had been National Security Advisor for the first term.  She realizes she does not know what’s going on in Iraq.  Communications are so bad, it is so dysfunctional, the communication and the information flow between the White House and the Pentagon.  She goes over to the State Department, doesn’t know what’s going on.  There’s a man named Philip Zelikow who is the Executive Director of the 9/11 Commission.  Certainly, one of the best investigations ever conducted in Washington.  Zelikow’s a historian, a lawyer.  So he goes with the small team to Iraq.  She says take all the time you need talk to anyone, go anywhere.  He comes back after two weeks and writes a secret memo to Secretary Rice.  In fact, it’s a secret “no dis” memo, “no dis” means to anyone other than the Secretary of State and me and so I published it in the book and the secret memo says, Zelikow from his trip comes back and says Iraq is a failed state.  That’s lower than a D- by the way, and simultaneously with this the president and others are outgoing and painting this rosy picture of what’s going on.  Another secret memo, last spring, May 1st, 2006, Rumsfeld writes to the president and others in the war cabinet saying that the interagency process is so screwed up and not working that “it is impossible to show confidence.”  Now that is the man who in running the defense department for five years, more than five years, running the Iraq war for three years and he says confidence is next to impossible.  On and on the whole story, the nature of the internal assessments, the escalation in violence, the conclusions of how these cabinet members and so forth are working together is all kept wrapped up, often labeled secret and so the public is not told what’s going on in a war.  It is a classic example.  There’s probably, I probably shouldn’t say, but I will.  There’s more classified information in that book than in probably most of the things published in all of the newspapers in the country in that period.  But I used it in a way to inform people and if it contradicted the administration, as it did repeatedly fine but there’s nothing in there that’s going to get someone killed, or blow a military or intelligence operation as Bob Kaiser suggested.  If you knew where Osama Bin Laden was, you might first go to the government and say we understand and provide the GPS coordinates and then maybe publish it later in the newspaper.  But there is a way to do this and inform the public.  The really over arching thought I had, I know Bob Kaiser and I share.  Said if you think and it’s reporters and editors, we try to do this frequently believe it or not.  What are the real problems in the world?  What are the things we’re confronted with and dealing with?  And certainly the war in Iraq is at the top of the list, but environmental problems, health care, what is the condition of the economy.  You can make a list of bad things that might happen or things that are going on.  The thing I worry about, the thing that will really do our country in is secret government.  Whoever said it, I think had it right, that democracies die in darkness.  The secret government, essentially, that’s what Nixon tried during the Watergate period, in fact, during his whole administration.  There are too many examples of secret government, but particularly pertaining to this war on vital issues of what is really going on.  So I think the press is aggressive, I think quite frankly we need to be more aggressive.  We need to publish more about what’s really going on because the habit as Bob Kaiser said in this administration I think in lots of other administrations is to stamp it secret or top secret quite frankly find hope no one will find out.  So anyway, those are, that’s a brief summary now Kaiser and I are now going to try to interview each other or ask some questions of each other.

Robert Kaiser: Thank you!  Before we start, I want to reveal for the crowd here in Eau Claire that you’ve learned here tonight subtly. A very good example the Woodward method.  Woodward said, we have a saying at the Washington Post, that all the best work is done in defiance of management.  Well, now Woodward has a saying.  Milton E. Coleman never said that once.  That’s because we were managers.

Bob Woodward: If I could interrupt….

Robert Kaiser: Please…

Bob Woodward: That doesn’t mean break the law, or the break rules.  That means that you have to push from the bottom.  The best editors know that the best stories come from the reporters who have information and set themselves that task of trying to get to the bottom of something.  It does not mean that there’s no cooperation and encouragement and ultimately the editors are the deciders but there needs to be….

Robert Kaiser: Let’s think of another word for it.

Bob Woodward:  Kaiser is the decider.

Robert Kaiser: You know you’re absolutely right and interestingly one thing that all of us know is that newspapers that are directed from above in which the reporters are not asked what’s going on but are told go do this.  Those are less good newspapers than the ones that allow the freedom that Bob has just referred to and encouraged people to go find things out.  I want to ask this question Bob unless we come off as totally sanctimonious here.  Can you think of any occasions that we or any other news organization disclosed something that really shouldn’t have been disclosed, where we did damage by pursuing the philosophy that you and I have outlined tonight? 

Bob Woodward: I’m not sure exactly who published this story.  It’s been alleged that was in the Washington Post or maybe the Washington Times, that the National Security Agency was intercepting phone calls, this is before 9/11, in fact a couple of years before Osama Bin Laden’s personal….

Robert Kaiser: Cell phone

Bob Woodward: Satellite phone and people had said to me that Osama stopped using the phone and that clearly should not have been published. 

Robert Kaiser:  That was the Washington Times actually, but that’s a good example.  But it’s not a long list, when I wrote about this subject in the Post last year; I had some interesting e-mail with readers.  We haven’t made a lot of mistakes.  It doesn’t mean we can’t make a horrible one tomorrow.  But the Post at least has never had to say, oh we’re really sorry we did that and on the contrary the things that we’re sorry about are like Ivy Bells.  Can you, Bob, can you think of any other examples when we held back and we realized we shouldn’t have. 

Bob Woodward:  Well, you know what happened in Ivy Bells.  There were other connections to the story we have learned many other parts of Navy and CIA Operations.  One of the most interesting moments for me in that was to go see Edward Bennett Williams, who was our attorney, and in fact Ed represented me personally, represented the Post and I went to see him to get some advice about not just Ivy Bells, but some other things that in fact had not even been disclosed to this day two decades later.  So there’s still stories could you know maybe someday be published.  But I went to see Ed at Late Summit and before I got going he said I just need I want to tell you that I this was Ed Williams talking represent Bill Casey personally as his attorney and I am the general council to the presidents War and Intelligence Advice report.  So I said to Ed, “Will you represent me, you represent the Post, you represent the CIA Director, you represent the President.  Isn’t there a conflict in all of this?”  And he looked at me and he said, “I like to represent the situation.”  Which is exactly what he did and he gave provided some guidance and we were able to publish Ivy Bells story and some other stories in ways that the administration was not happy with, but I think really told people basically what was going on without compromising in the details.  So there is a way to work this out.  If you Bob, many times told me “we don’t have to run this story, that we can work on it another day or another week, and it doesn’t mean it’s not going to run, it means that we need to not publish under deadline pressure.”  I think that it is terribly important in these decisions. 

Robert Kaiser: Okay, your turn to ask a question now.

Bob Woodward: Well, what do you think about because this is in honor of Ann Devroy whose one of the great reporters not just at the Post, but at any news organization and Ann’s style was always get under the skin of the people she’s reporting on.  But she had a way of doing it; it did not generate the normal hostility because she was straight with people.  She would come and say, look this is what I’ve heard, this is what I’m writing, what do you want to add to the story and she had this way of presenting very dramatic, often harmful information in a way where the people she reported on, praised her.  How did she carry that off?  Cause I was stunned many times to have people in the Bush Senior Administration, say we hate that Devroy story, but she’s a really dynamite r