HE DRIVES THEM CRAZY
11:00 PM, Dec 1, 1996 • By MATTHEW REES
REPORTING ON NATIONAL SECURITY and intelligence maters has traditionally been the province of Ivy League-educated reporters working for elite papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post. Bill Gertz hardly fits this profile. He never graduated from college, and he writes for the Washington Times, a conservative daily Washington elites frequently dismiss as right-wing trash published by Moonies. Not only that, but Gertz is himself a follower of Sun Myung Moon and a member of Moon's Unification Church. These facts make his achievements and reputation all the more impressive. For in his 11 years at the Washington Times, Gertz has become the nation's most influential daily reporter on intelligence and national security. He has accumulated some remarkable fans.
"I'm a Bill Gertz admirer," says Jamie McIntyre, CNN's Pentagon correspondent. "He has broken an incredible number of stories." New York Times columnist A. M. Rosenthal, formerly the paper's executive editor, calls Gertz "a very valuable reporter. . . . Every time he writes a piece I take care to read it." Even White House spokesman Mike McCurry, whose boss has been the target of many of Gertz's stories, says the unassuming and even- tempered Gertz is a "straight-shooter" who has done "more interesting reporting on national security than anyone else on the beat." The quantity and quality of Gertz's scoops this year surpass anything he's uncovered in the past and have sent the CIA and the FBI scrambling to identify the source of his prodigious leaks inside the national-security apparatus.
"Pentagon and State Department officials acknowledge that they have been driven crazy over the last few months by leaks to Bill Gertz," the Washington Post reported in June. CIA director John Deutch told Tim Weiner of the New York Times that leaks were his single biggest headache -- a clear reference to Gertz. James Woolsey, Deutch's predecessor as director of central intelligence, is more direct: "When I was DCI, Bill used to drive me crazy because I couldn't figure out where the leaks were coming from. Now that I've been outside for two years, I read him religiously to find out what's going on."
Last month Gertz wrote about a top-secret CIA study declaring senior Russian government officials to be alarmed by the weak security surrounding the country's nuclear weapons. His stories on nuclear proliferation have almost singlehandedly forced the administration and Congress to subject China to closer scrutiny and resulted in the temporary suspension of development loans to Beijing.
But Gertz's biggest scoop came in March after an anti-terrorism summit in Egypt, where President Clinton had a private meeting with Boris Yeltsin. Two weeks later, the Washington Times ran a front-page Gertz piece with two startling allegations: During the meeting Clinton pledged to help the Russian president get reelected and asked that Moscow lift its ban on American poultry imports (much of which come from Arkansas). The story, based on a classified State Department record of the meeting, prompted the White House to request an immediate Justice Department investigation of the leak. And two days later, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Thomas Pickering was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry and criticized for "violations by the American side of the principle of confidentiality of diplomatic contacts."
This wasn't the first time one of Gertz's stories got noticed overseas. A few months ago, one of his colleagues was in Beijing meeting with China's foreign minister, Qian Qichen. When she identified herself and her affiliation, the English-speaking foreign minister rose from his chair and denounced Gertz's reporting on China's alleged sale of missiles to Syria and nuclear materials to Pakistan.
Even before his discovery of the Yeltsin/Clinton cable, Gertz's dispatches were being closely monitored in Moscow. A few days after an April 1991 article revealed that Soviet defense minister Dmitri Yazov had secretly visited Russian troops in eastern Germany, the Soviet military accused Gertz of being a spy for the U.S. government (an allegation revived last year by a Russian bank, Menatep, after Gertz uncovered a CIA report linking the bank to organized crime). Maxim Kniazkov, a former employee of the Soviet news agency TASS, revealed in the Washington Monthly that many of Gertz's dispatches in the mid-80s were of particular interest to top Soviet officials because of " his numerous contacts within the intelligence community." These pieces appeared in news summaries cleared for only the most senior Soviet officials because they "didn't want [Gertz's] information widely publicized."
But it's in Washington that Gertz has had the most impact and caused the most consternation. Over the past year, State department spokesman Nicholas Burns has been asked dozens of questions about Gertz articles in his daily press conference, and some testy exchanges have resulted. After a June story in which Gertz quoted from a confidential CIA report alleging North Korea had supplied Scud missile materials to Egypt, Burns denounced the "gutless wonders" who had leaked the report. "It's getting a little tiring," he said, " to see this constant source of leaks to the Washington Times of classified intelligence documents." (The Pentagon, State Department, and CIA all refused comment for this article.)
The vast majority of Gertz's reporting is on the executive branch, so his stories in recent years have been of benefit to Republicans in Congress. One Senate GOP aide who works on national security issues calls Gertz's reporting invaluable: "The only way we've known what the administration was doing with the Russians, on ballistic missile defense in particular, was by reading Bill Gertz." Gertz does not shy from criticizing Republicans -- secretary of state James Baker was an occasional target during the Bush years but it's Democrats who are likely to feel his heat in the years ahead. "The Clinton administration is a target-rich environment," says Gertz.
If Gertz's sources were uncovered, they would surely be sacked and possibly imprisoned. So how does he do it? For understandable reasons, he won't say much on this subject beyond "developing sources is what it's all about." But Gertz does have some distinct advantages over his competitors.
For starters, the Washington Times has allowed him to stay on the beat longer than national-security reporters at other papers, who tend to get rotated every few years. He has had a decade to develop, nourish, and tend his sources. And national security reporting is one of the few beats where it helps to write for a selfidentified conservative paper -- there are many old cold warriors entrenched in the permanent bureaucracy who found the Reagan and Bush administrations far more ideologically congenial. Gertz says his " unofficial contacts" became more forthcoming once they understood that "the Clinton administration viewed the Washington Times as the enemy."
And the "intelligence sources" cited in so many of Gertz's stories must recognize that their information has a good chance of showing up on the front page of the Washington Times, which is more free-wheeling than the Washington Post or the New York Times. "We're not the Post," concedes Gertz. "We don't try to be the Post. We try to be scrappier. Unlike the Post, we believe in stories that make you say "holy s-- when you read them."
Gertz has also been in the right place at the right time. The CIA has been rocked by institutional problems under the Clinton administration, not least the Aldrich Ames and Harold Nicholson spy scandals. But these problems have been compounded by a White House dismissive of the CIA, and a CIA director (Deutch) many in-house intelligence analysts see as a social liberal who has turned over day-today operations to Nora Slatkin, privately derided by some of her colleagues as "Tora Tora Nora." Thus the most effective way for disgruntled CIA staffers to get the attention of Deutch, and the president, is to leak material they know will get published. And in Gertz, they know they have a reliable conduit for information.
The chief criticism of Gertz's stories isn't that they lack accuracy but that they lack nuance. McCurry complains that Gertz's reporting is "a snapshot that doesn't always capture the full picture." (He also stresses that while Gertz has done nothing wrong, whoever is leaking to him is breaking the law.) Others say Gertz's stories have a sky-is-falling tone and that he writes them without identifying the motivations of his sources. These are fair quibbles, but one could make the same charges against nearly every other reporter in Washington.
Gertz, who has yet to receive a journalism award of any kind, doesn't know how long he'll stay on his beat. Reporting is "a young person's game," he says, and he's 44 now. He relaxes by reading spy novels and might want to try his hand at writing one someday. "What I've covered," he says, "has been more exciting than any spy novel I've ever read."
by Matthew Rees