Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary to President George W. Bush, got a Washington Post news alert on his BlackBerry.
“I immediately went into Defcon One,” he said, fearing that news of a biological attack was about to be announced. He sat down in front of his television with his Twitter.
“I saw Keith’s tweet, and it made perfect sense to me,” he said. “And I started tweeting, retweeting him, sending my own messages out. Nights like last night, Americans go to Twitter. And that’s where the news broke.”
Part of the reason for this was, of course, Mr. Urbahn’s bio, listed right on the top of his Twitter page: “Chief of Staff, Office of Donald Rumsfeld, Navy Reserve intel officer, and owner of two miniature dachshunds.”
It was naturally assumed that Mr. Urbahn’s “reputable source” was none other than his boss, Mr. Rumsfeld.
“It was a pretty definitive statement, and I think it just clicked in people’s minds that, given who Keith works for, he wasn’t just making shit up,” said Noah Pollak, a fellow young conservative thinker in Washington and friend of Mr. Urbahn’s. “And that’s also not Keith. He wasn’t prone to exaggeration. He is a pretty straight-shooting guy.”
Mr. Urbahn disputed the notion that his proximity to Mr. Rumsfeld may have led the rest of the universe to assume that he had gotten the information from someone who maintains close ties with the Defense Department.
“If you look at my Twitter feed, it’s very detached from my job,” he said. “I think they are separate. It’s more personal. I don’t see them as linked.”
Mr. Urbahn said he wrote it, in fact, without regard to how it would be perceived.
“It didn’t give me pause at the time simply because I thought it would be repeated many more times and there was no chance in God’s green earth that my tweet would in fact be what broke the news,” he said.
Still, when Mr. Fleischer, for one, saw the post, he said that he just assumed that it was sent out with the former defense secretary’s sanction, not least because of the Rumsfeldian sign-off “hot damn.”
“I can only presume that Donald Rumsfeld and Rumsfeld’s office made the judgment before they hit tweet that they were not going to have egg on their face. Whether you are saying something live on the air during an interview or you are tweeting, if you are wrong about something famously prominent in an area where it is your expertise, people will take notice.
“He had to know he had it right before he hit the tweet,” Fleischer continued. “He had to know. Keith and the secretary. Frankly, I don’t think people who work for Donald Rumsfeld would mess with something that important without the boss’ approval. I don’t know that, because I haven’t talked to Keith, but knowing Rummy.”
Added Mr. Fleischer, “I am always conscious of my former job when I tweet.”
Told by The Observer, however, that Mr. Urbahn did not in fact clear the 140-character message with Mr. Rumsfeld, or, by his own account, give much thought as to what it would mean, Mr. Fleischer sat in silence for several seconds.
“Wow. I am startled. He didn’t clear it with Rummy? Wow. Wow. Well, that puts it in a different light. … I think you are onto a really interesting story because that was how the world learned.”
Mr. Urbahn said that had Mr. Rumsfeld provided the information, he would not have sent it out into the world.
“It would not be his style to do that, and if he would have told me, I would have kept it in confidence, for sure,” he said.
Mr. Urbahn acknowledged that it was, in fact, his relationship with Mr. Rumsfeld that sent high-ranking news executives calling him late on a Sunday evening, and he said that his boss seemed unconcerned, despite next-day stories about it in The Times, Politico and the Daily Caller.
“We’ve laughed it off,” he said. “We haven’t had long conversations about it, and I think it is what it is.”
Mr. Urbahn added: “He is 78 years old, but he understands social media. He is on Twitter himself and he tweets things and comes up with ideas for things to throw on Facebook, and you know he gets it. I didn’t have to explain to him what it was. He knew.”
(As for Mr. Urbahn’s other job, as an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve, a spokeswoman declined to say if the tweet was inappropriate, directing The Observer instead to a part of the Navy’s guidelines for social media usage “best practices.”)
Mr. Urbahn seemed anxious for his newfound celebrity to pass. He is not, he said, interested in a second career as a breaking news Tweeter. He said that the real story is about the journalists who stayed up late working their sources, and, of course, about the Navy SEALS who performed the operation, and the intelligence agents who tracked bin Laden, and the president who authorized the strike. He doesn’t know what it means now that journalists have to compete against their sources to break stories.
“I mean, I can’t really wrap my head around all of this so I may not be the best person to analyze why this has become the story,” he said. “This is a bit of a distraction, and it reaches a little bit to the level of media navel-gazing for my taste.”
And although there has been some snickering that an aide to an Obama antagonist stepped on the president’s message before he could address the nation, Mr. Urbahn is quick to point out that he only beat the Twitter feeds of the White House’s top correspondents by a few minutes. Reporters and flacks—and, well, everyone—he said, would have to get used a to a new social media world without the same rules and standards.
Still, the question remains: Hot damn?
“It’s got a Southern ring to it,” Mr. Urbahn said. “Maybe something I picked up from my wife’s family being from Kentucky, but it’s not a known phrase of mine. At least I don’t think so.”
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