- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 27, 2007

With Robert Gates

The appointment of Robert M. Gates as secretary of defense appears to be a mixed blessing for the Pentagon reporters who cover the department regularly.

The low-key secretary is easier to deal with than his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, said reporters who accompanied Mr. Gates on his recent trip to Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf. For one thing, he doesn’t ask his own questions and then answer them as Mr. Rumsfeld was prone to do.

On the down side, one reporter on the trip was heard to comment, “We’re not going to be getting as many of our stories on the front page.”

Our reporter on the trip, David R. Sands, normally covers the State Department and international affairs but was assigned to cover Mr. Gates’ first world tour as secretary because our regular Pentagon reporters were unavailable.

Mr. Sands said he noticed several differences, starting with the plane. The aircraft used by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is outfitted much like a commercial airliner, while the passenger area on Mr. Gates’ plane is more like a flying briefing room.

“There are three rows with five seats per row, facing a table and a podium with two television screens,” Mr. Sands said. To the rear is a window looking into a room crammed with sensitive communications equipment, which the reporters could look at but not photograph.

Another difference, Mr. Sands said, is that the Pentagon briefings are a lot more “hardware-oriented” than those offered by the State Department.

“There was a lot of talk about types of guns — how far they can shoot, how big a hole they can make,” Mr. Sands said. “Those kind of questions don’t usually come up on a State Department trip.”

On the other hand, he said, a question about the diplomatic implications of some development or other was likely to draw a blank stare.

A refreshing change

Other things are much alike between the two departments, particularly the sense of being trapped in a tightly controlled bubble with little access to any information except what is provided by official briefers.

These briefings were provided a couple of times a day, generally after each of Mr. Gates’ meetings with officials in the various countries they visited. Occasionally Mr. Gates briefed personally — either on the record or on background; other times a senior official in his delegation gave the briefing but could not be quoted by name.

Then the reporters raced to file. Often, they would be rushed directly from a briefing to the airplane as the delegation stormed through seven countries in 5 days. They would write their stories on the plane, using laptop computers, and plug into a phone line to file as soon as they landed at the next stop.

“They have some of the most sophisticated communications systems in the world on that plane. It’s set up so it can continue to communicate after a nuclear attack,” Mr. Sands said, “but we couldn’t file from the air.”

A refreshing change from the anonymous briefings occurred in Afghanistan, where the commanding American general, Karl Eikenberry, and other senior officers provided surprisingly candid on-the-record press briefings. They were particularly blunt about their concerns that Taliban fighters are using Pakistan as a safe haven — a problem that the State Department diplomats tend to handle more, well, diplomatically.

Even better, the reporters had 15 or 20 minutes to wander around unsupervised during a side trip to a forward operating base in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border.

“I spoke to a soldier who told me they regularly come under fire from the Pakistan side of the border but cannot fire back for fear of causing an international incident,” Mr. Sands said. “I don’t know whether he was off-message or not.”

Either way, we were grateful for the straight talk.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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