The Washington Times - May 6, 2008, 04:20PM

Every time I come back from a trip with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, I ask myself whether it was worth the money we paid for it.

A cynic would probably offer an easy no for an answer, and there are many who would argue that the Bush administration’s foreign policy successes have been too modest to justify Miss Rice’s travel expenditures — the Air Force plane, the fuel cost, the hotels suites and all the rest.

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Miss Rice and her entourage, on the other hand, would probably say that trying to bring peace to the Middle East or to end North Korea’s nuclear program is worth every penny spent on travel.

But for a newspaper, the answer is not that simple. Since we are in the business of news, we try to compare the monetary cost of our news-gathering against the value of the stories we write.

That value, however, is not always easy to measure. True, if an article gets numerous hits on our Web site, we — and our advertisers — feel satisfied that it reached a large audience. Sometimes, though, a story may not attract a huge readership but have public-interest value, which happens mostly when we write about policy and other serious issues.

Diplomacy invariably falls in that category. Even though most of what diplomats do seems foreign and detached to most Americans, their work actually affects people’s lives. The price of oil and the war in Iraq are perfect examples of that.

So whenever I board Miss Rice’s plane, where I’m now writing these notes, I hope that I’ll get several front-page stories out of the trip ahead of us. I’d consider it a bonus if I were to meet people on the road that would become sources for future stories.

Packed schedule and waiting around

This trip we are now wrapping up took us only to London, Israel and the Palestinian territories, but the schedule was packed.

In London on Friday, Miss Rice had several meetings with fellow foreign ministers from several major powers — on the Middle East peace process, on Iran’s nuclear program and on the future of newly independent Kosovo.

I filed three stories that day. The Middle East article we only posted on our Web site, we ran a front-page story about a “refreshed” package of incentives offered to Iran if it suspends sensitive nuclear work, and we published the Kosovo piece in the paper’s foreign section.

We frequently complain that we are made to wait around far too long on these trips, and the waiting times seem to be increasing. There is a saying that no embassy employee has ever been fired for taking the press somewhere too early.

On Friday, we had to leave our hotel in central London an hour and a half before the start of a press conference in Lancaster House, the guest house of the Foreign Office, which is only a 10- to 15-minute drive away (and, by the way, next door to the home of Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla). As we had predicted, we were sitting in the briefing room within half an hour, having gone through security, as well as down and then up some stairs through the back.

Reaching out of the bubble

Another half-hour later, however, I was no longer frustrated about the waiting. Since U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and European foreign ministers were to participate in the press conference, some of their aides started coming in.

I’ve known some of them for years, but others I met for the first time. I had conversations that gave me valuable information on the upcoming European Union mission in Kosovo and the legal issues raised by Russia, which opposes Kosovo’s independence, unlike most of the West.

Being on an official trip often feels like you are in bubble, from which it’s hard to get a sense of the real world. So it helps tremendously when we have a chance to hear the views of other countries and compare them to what U.S. officials tell us.

I had such an opportunity again in Ramallah, the West Bank city that houses the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ office. We always go there from Jerusalem in Miss Rice’s motorcade, and then wait in a large press conference hall while she visits with Mr. Abbas.

On Sunday, Mr. Abbas’ aides told me that he was “really depressed” by the lack of progress in negotiations with Israel, and that he appears more upbeat in public because he would lose his people’s support if he were to tell them how he felt. That was the lead of my story on Monday’s front page.

Paying for access

We often say that, on these trips, we don’t pay for the travel but for the access — there are only nine of us on this trip. Although Miss Rice has a private cabin, she does come back to brief the “traveling press” on the record on almost every leg. If she decides not to brief on our way back home, she still pays us a visit for an off-the-record chat.

In addition, we have her aides at our disposal — on and off the plane. They regularly give us background briefings on Miss Rice’s meetings at the end of the day in our “filing center” at the hotel where we are staying. In our stories, we refer to those briefers as “senior State Department officials traveling with the secretary.”

Those officials can be very helpful outside the officials briefings as well. Just today, one of them saved my story from looking stupid.

On our flight from Tel Aviv to Shannon, where we often make refueling stops, Miss Rice told us about American monitors verifying whether the Israelis remove roadblocks in the West Bank under a commitment they made to her, and whether that actually helps the Palestinians’ daily lives.

We were left with the impression that those observers were about to begin their work, so I wrote my story in future tense, as did my colleagues, and filed once we were on the ground. A few minutes later, I walked by one of those “senior officials” and asked him if our impression was right.

He said that the monitors have, in fact, been working for several weeks. I immediately called our foreign editor in Washington, Willis Witter, and asked him to change the future tense to present. My impromptu conversation with the official also yielded more information on the subject than Miss Rice had shared on the plane.

Nicholas Kralev, diplomatic correspondent, The Washington Times