After Midterms, Times Gets in Leak Stream

What makes a leaker leak? Who cares?

“It’s less important what the motivation of the individual is if you get the actual document,” said Michael R. Gordon, The New York Times’ chief military correspondent.

Enough with reading the tea leaves. After six thirsty years in Washington, D.C., The Times suddenly finds its teapot overflowing.

So Mr. Gordon had documents: Twice in five days, he had been on the front page with classified memos—the first by National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, expressing doubts about Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki; the second written by Donald Rumsfeld shortly before his removal as Secretary of Defense, calling for a change of course in the war.

It was not certain whether Mr. Rumsfeld’s memo was meant as actual advice on escaping the debacle in Iraq, or merely a peace-with-honor plan for getting out of his own office. Either way, it marked the end of another failed strategy: The Bush administration, battered in Iraq and at the polls, was surrendering to The Times.

“I think everybody in Washington is flabbergasted,” one Times staffer said of the memos’ appearance.

Rather than stonewalling reporters and appealing to history as its ultimate judge, the executive branch has rediscovered the art of lobbying the proto-historians of the press. “Somebody is clearly playing a classic Washington game,” said Washington Post White House correspondent Peter Baker. The anonymous source, or sources, is “trying to shape events how they perceive as favorable to them or their position,” Mr. Baker said.

“I think the administration has lost control of its story on a number of fronts,” Times Op-Ed columnist Frank Rich said, “and the proliferation of leaks to The Times or elsewhere is a demonstration of that.”

A year ago, the White House was in full cry against The Times for its publication of an investigative story about warrantless wiretapping by the N.S.A. The attacks escalated with The Times’ coverage of the government’s tracking of bank transactions through the Swift consortium.

Executive editor Bill Keller, via e-mail, said the administration had offered a “much more subdued reaction” to the appearance of the classified memos.

“As far as excoriating us in public, I expect the main difference between the earlier stories and Michael Gordon’s scoops last week was the nature of the classified information revealed,” Mr. Keller wrote.

“In the earlier cases, the Administration and its amen chorus argued (obviously, I do not agree) that publication posed some danger to national security,” Mr. Keller wrote. “In the case of the Hadley and Rumsfeld memos, the damages were more in the realm of diplomacy and credibility. I guess it’s easier to rally the faithful with a cry of ‘national security’ than with a complaint that ‘this is really embarrassing.’”

And with the midterm elections over, The Times’ usefulness as a base-mobilizing bogeyman has expired.

Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman said that it is difficult to judge whether or how the relationship between the newspaper and the White House may have changed.

“It’s something much more nuanced and layered than your impression of it,” Mr. Taubman said. “There is not one relationship. There are relationships between people at The Times and people at the White House.”

Mr. Gordon has a long history of working with diplomatic leakers. The Hadley memo surfaced on the eve of a summit between President George W. Bush and Mr. Maliki—echoing Mr. Gordon’s reporting in 1985 of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s secret advice to President Ronald Reagan before a summit with Mikhail Gorbachev.

And Mr. Gordon was the co-writer with Judith Miller of the paper’s September 2002 story in which anonymous administration officials declared that Iraq had demonstrated its clear pursuit of atomic weapons by purchasing aluminum centrifuge tubes—a central, and spurious, part of the White House’s case for invasion.

That episode demonstrated “the potential dangers involved with publishing leaked information,” said Michael Massing, the author of Now They Tell Us, an indictment of prewar reporting by The Times and others. But Mr. Massing said the latest memos were a different case.

“It served the public to publish both of these,” said Mr. Massing. “It definitely contributed to the debate. But it shows it can cut the other way, too.”

In any case, this round of scoops suggested that executive-branch staffers are not only willing to leak to The Times again, but are unusually eager. Both the Rumsfeld memo and the Hadley one were less than a month old when they made it into print—which several reporters described as a speedy turnaround.

“I’ve never seen a national security advisor’s memorandum published that soon after it was written,” said one Times Washington bureau staffer. More often, the staffer said, such memos show up a year or so after the fact.

The Times celebrated the double coup by leading each paper with that day’s memo scoop, with the full text of the documents printed inside. The decision to publish the memos whole was made with the involvement of top editors in New York—and the second time around, with the Rumsfeld memo, some Times staff felt the placement was overblown.

“The Hadley memo was much more interesting, coming on the eve of the summit meeting,” a Washington staffer said.

Several Washington reporters said they expect to see more leaks coming.

“In any case where the policy is coming off the rails, people are going to start talking to the press more, to prove a point about how they were right,” said Times international economics correspondent Steven Weisman. “I think that’s what’s happening here.”

On Dec. 3, Mr. Hadley had made the Sunday chat-show circuit, telling Bob Schiefer on Face the Nation that the leaking of his memo was “outrageous,” “not authorized” and “unconscionable.” He did not blame The Times for publishing the leak.

R. W. Apple’s Final Feast

Morley Safer, having just heard a dozen speakers reel off anecdotes from the life of R.W. “Johnny” Apple Jr., had a bit of trouble coming up with one of his own. “They pretty much all involve food,” Mr. Safer said.

Mr. Safer was lining up at the Kennedy Center elevators, on his way to lunch. Apple’s final farewell to the city he covered was less a memorial service—“The squire,” said M.C. Todd Purdum, “was not a churchgoer”—than a remembrance of meals past. And after the oratory, for an audience of hundreds in the Eisenhower Theater, there came time to eat.

Mr. Safer, who knew the Timesman from their youthful days covering Vietnam, eventually did pick out a particular meal: It was in London. It started at 11 a.m. It ended near 5 that evening.

“I’ll put it this way,” Mr. Safer said. “Many kilos of caviar were had.”

During the speaking part, Hodding Carter III, the journalist and Jimmy Carter aide, had cast Apple as a latter-day F. Scott Fitzgerald—a man who rose out of the Midwest (Akron, yet) and insinuated himself into the Eastern elite to destroy it, not embrace it. Appropriating a line originally meant for Australian critic Robert Hughes, Mr. Carter said, “His ‘original barbaric gusto’ was never diminished.”

Joseph Lelyveld, the former Times executive editor, was one of the few speakers to focus on Apple’s journalistic acumen over his gusto. “He was born knowing how to put together a two- or three-column lead story on the election of a President or the start of a war,” Mr. Lelyveld said. (Mr. Lelyveld soon after lost his place in his notes. “I’m like the woman who ran for attorney general in New York,” he said.)

Senator John McCain recalled a jaunt through Saigon in 1967, armed with Apple’s curfew-immunity pass, signed by Gen. William Westmoreland. “One thing I’m sure of,” Mr. McCain said, “is that General Westmoreland didn’t know Johnny Apple had that.” A slideshow displayed Apple’s expanding waistline, and remarkably consistent haircut, over the years. There were letters from Presidents Carter, Bush, Clinton and Bush. Alice Waters credited Apple with nothing less than “sparking the global food movement” and “elevating the national consciousness about food,” for writing “important stories that weren’t about nutrition, famine or mass poisonings.”

Calvin Trillin, borrowing from his definitive New Yorker profile of Apple, brought conceptual shape to the flow of anecdotes: “The Apple story is now a subgenre of journalistic war stories …. ”

But what about lunch? The menu featured oysters three ways, from the Inn at Little Washington; gazpacho shots, from Taberna del Alabardero; truffles and petits fours, from Kinkead’s; and, from Iberian innovator José Andrés, foie gras cotton candy and a “lox and bagel” of marinated salmon roe and cream cheese in a pastry cone. For wine, some 20 vintners were listed on the program.

Maureen Dowd, wearing black, stood on the red carpeting of the grand foyer, on her way to the final nosh. “Probably a barbecue joint in a suburb of Kansas City would be better,” Ms. Dowd said. “But this was nice.”

—Mike DeBonis

After Midterms, Times Gets in Leak Stream