Late Friday night, according to his now-infamous Twitter feed, Keith Urbahn toasted the end of the work week with a tall mint julep on a warm Washington evening, made from mint from his garden and 1792 small-batch Kentucky bourbon.
By the end of the weekend, Mr. Urbahn, 27, had become a minor celebrity in the media storm that surrounded the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, and his Twitter feed had jumped from a few hundred followers to nearly 7,000—and counting.
The reason for his newfound fame was a 140-character message that Mr. Urbahn typed out on his BlackBerry, amid the mad speculation over what President Barack Obama was going to say in a surprise news conference on Sunday evening.
“So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden,” he wrote. “Hot damn.”
Mr. Urbahn, a top aide to former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve, had moments earlier been lying in bed alongside his wife, taking a rare evening off from the endless news crush to watch the NHL playoffs. (His previous tweet, from an hour before, read: “[Washington Capitals left winger Alex] Ovechkin defines clutch. Unbelievable goal to tie it up w #Caps goalie pulled. Heading to OT now.”)
As reporters—still foggy from the White House Correspondents Dinner parties that had stretched into the wee hours—scrambled to figure out the subject of the news conference, Mr. Urbahn fielded a call from what he only described as a “connected network TV news producer” who asked him to be put in touch with Mr. Rumsfeld for an on-air interview. Bin Laden, it seemed, had been killed, and the network wanted reaction.
Mr. Urbahn waved off the request—it was too premature—and turned on the news, where there were still shots of the White House and network anchors who seemed to know very little about what was to come.
“I mentioned it offhand to my wife, and just threw it down on Twitter thinking there surely have to be a couple of dozen other people who have heard the same rumor and thought of [doing] the same thing,” he told The Observer.
“But apparently not. The tweet went viral and it was off to the races at that point.”
Indeed it was. Mr. Urbahn’s tweet was read and retweeted by some of his friends in D.C.’s young right-wing policy-maker circles, and then a few more, before it was read by Brian Stelter, the hyperactive New York Times TV reporter, who then sent it out to his 54,000 followers, just as the social media site was undergoing an unprecedented crush, with more than 5,000 messages being sent every second.
“I had no idea who he was. He just popped up on my Twitter feed,” Mr. Stelter told The Observer. “There was a lot of guessing about bin Laden but no one wanted to say it out loud. He allowed people to take that idea seriously.”
Mr. Urbahn is careful to say: “I’m not a journalist. I was watching the news; they were very careful not to report things that were rumor or single-sourced, and that was the right thing to do.” But he knows his way around a newsroom, and has some experience with the way that lone scribblings can ricochet around the Internet. As an undergraduate columnist for the Yale Daily News, Mr. Urbahn earned a degree of blog notoriety for a piece titled “Radical Un-chic: Think Before You Wear,” which decried the uptick of Marxist paraphernalia on campus.
“In casually walking around campus Monday and Tuesday, I saw no fewer than three pre-frosh wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Che Guevara’s pensive black and white face; another proudly sported the Soviet hammer and sickle,” he wrote. “While hardly evidence of a Red invasion of the Yale campus, the approval of communist [sic] emblems as acceptable pop culture icons is nothing short of disturbing.”
A summa cum laude in religious studies, Mr. Urbahn is remembered from his days around New Haven as an earnest and unapologetic motorcycle-riding conservative—a rarity on a campus where, according to one classmate of Mr. Urbahn’s, transvestites outnumber Republicans. After an internship with the Department of Defense, he was hired by Mr. Rumsfeld’s office. He survived a brief interregnum on Capitol Hill after his boss was sacked, then returned to Mr. Rumsfeld’s orbit when the former secretary set up the Rumsfeld Foundation on M Street in downtown D.C. He helped Mr. Rumsfeld write his memoirs, Known and Unknown—the book debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, before falling from sight a few weeks later—at which point, FishbowlDC named him one of the capital’s “Hottest Media Types.” He is now safely settled down with his wife, Kristen, of Louisville, Ky. (Mr. Urbahn graduated high school in New Canaan, Conn.)
In Mr. Rumsfeld’s office, he developed a reputation as a fierce defender of his boss. He once criticized the Pulitzer Committee for honoring the New York Times for a piece that smeared Mr. Rumsfeld. “Does the Pulitzer give prizes for works of fiction?” he said. “Perhaps they just got the wrong category.” He also took shots at luminaries like Sy Hersh and Bob Woodward for what he deemed biased and inaccurate reporting.
(After Mr. Woodward wrote a harsh review of Mr. Rumsfeld’s memoir, Mr. Urbahn sent out a statement which read, “The well known story about Bob Woodward is that he practices what is derided as ‘access journalism,’ whereby he favors those who provide him with information and gossip and leak against their colleagues. Those who refuse to play along, such as Donald Rumsfeld, then pay the price.”)
Before his famous tweet went out Sunday night, official Washington had been in a kind of frenetic standstill. Cheryl Bolen, a White House reporter with BNA, a trade publication for government professionals, had been on pool duty earlier in the day, which included live reports on Mr. Obama’s half a round of golf, until the White House press office had given the lid—journalism-speak for the notice that the president would have no more avails for the rest of the day. When the lid was suddenly lifted, she hustled back to the White House from her home in suburban Maryland, but administration officials remained tight-lipped. She was emailing and calling around to her sources when Mr. Urbahn’s tweet went live.
“Apparently a few minutes later it hit Twitter, and a colleague of mine, a reporter friend of mine emailed me, and said I believe bin Laden has died,” Ms. Bolen said.
Sam Stein, the Huffington Post’s man in D.C., was packing up to attend his grandmother’s funeral in Connecticut when he went back to work and started scrolling through Twitter, listening to cable news and emailing his editors. A reporter on staff who knew Mr. Urbahn reached out to him, and the rest of the staff now at least had a more specific, yes-or-no question to ask to their sources.