HE DRIVES THEM CRAZY
11:00 PM, Dec 1, 1996 • By MATTHEW REES
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