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From AJR,   March 1994  issue

The Tarnoff Affair   

Or, how the Washington Post's interpretation of a State Department official's background remarks caused a minor panic in Japan.


By Jim Anderson
Jim Anderson, former diplomatic reporter for UPI, is a correspondent for Deutsche Presse-Agentur, the German Press Agency. He is a former president of Overseas Writers and a member of its board of directors.      

Last spring, the Overseas Wri-ters club held one of its periodic lunches with an administration official as guest. It was a typical Washington occurrence, an ar-ranged cross-pollination session in a quasi-social setting where every offhand remark can make you an international superstar, like Henry Kissinger, or a bum, or both, like Ed Rollins.

The luncheon produced the quintessential self-generating, self-destructing, beyond-the-Beltway bemusing story: The Tarnoff Affair.

All the elements of a certifiable Washington Journalistic Event were there: a group of reporters who perceive themselves to be elite insiders and interpreters for the uninitiated; an almost instinctive desire by government officials to shape news coverage; the inevitable fumble when the officials confuse news with their own policy pronouncements. Add the element of luck, good or bad. In short, what we have here is a failure to communicate, Washington style.

In this case, two Washington Post reporters and their editors, with the best intentions, and with the help of some ham-handed Clinton administration attempts at news management, created a diplomatic firestorm.

The affair started innocently enough as a serious attempt by one State Department official, Undersec-retary of State for Political Affairs Peter Tarnoff, to explain what the economically pressed United States would try to do in the post-Soviet world.

But the Post's story on the luncheon set off a chain reaction because it focused on only half of what Tarnoff said. Yes, he did say that because of budgetary restraints the United States would be more likely to work with its allies in carrying out foreign policy initiatives. But Tarnoff also said that the country would still act unilaterally when necessary. The Post, unfortunately, downplayed his second critical point, and it was the Post's version of the story that was parroted by other media outlets worldwide. Suddenly it appeared that the United States had forsaken its role as the only remaining superpower. And then it appeared that the bearer of this new policy was speaking out of turn and misrepresenting the Clinton administration's true position.

Like most Washington stories, the Tarnoff Affair had the half-life of a fruit fly. But it also left something more permanent: an impression that the Clinton administration is all thumbs when it comes to foreign policy. That may be right or wrong. But the diplomats who anxiously quizzed reporters later about the session may have been misled by some hyperventilated reporting – reporting that was then accidentally authenticated by the administration, with some clumsy mishandling by the State Department and the White House – of a very subtle, honest attempt to define American foreign policy in a new administration.

On May 25, 47 of the 169 mem-bers of Overseas Writers – a club for diplomatic reporters founded by old buddies from the Versailles Peace Confer-ence who first met in Washington in 1921 – were gathered at the Foreign Service Club, near the State Department. They were to hear a first-hand description of how the Clinton foreign policy machine was supposed to function.

The guest was Tarnoff, whose position is number three in the State Department, after the secretary of state and his deputy. To identify him, even now, is a violation of the ground rules. The speaker was to be described as an anonymous "senior State Department official," the theory being that an official can speak more candidly without jeopardizing his or her career. But the State Department itself had blown Tarnoff's cover by listing the appearance on the public daily appointment list of senior State Department officials.

Ironically, in this case the event would have been treated as a story about foreign policy alone if Tarnoff had been speaking on the record. It became a minor sensation about disarray within the new administration because some editors at the Post and other papers felt it was necessary to get high-level attribution for what ap-peared to be an important statement of administration policy.

Tarnoff was by disposition and training almost preordained to be a luncheon guest of Overseas Writers. Most recently the chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations – the high priest of the New York-Washington internationalist establishment – Tar-noff is a former Foreign Service officer and a deep thinker.

Tall, slim, graying at the temples, with a good profile and a somewhat Roman nose, he was born to wear a pinstripe suit and talk affably about the rules of engagement for the United States in a world that had become more complex in the post-Cold War period.

With humor and clarity and speaking from rough notes, Tarnoff gave the writers an authoritative vision of the administration's foreign policy. Like the embryonic policy itself, his explanation was full of delicate nuances and undrawn lines. It was somewhat ambiguous, particularly on when the United States would act in concert with others and when it would continue to act alone to defend its interests.

This was at a time when the federal budget bill was under debate. So Tarnoff mentioned prominently the fiscal restraints preventing the United States from doing everything, everywhere. If only for financial reasons, Tarnoff said, there were some things the United States would choose not to do alone, but would act multilaterally, as in the former Yugoslavia.

He explained the United States would have to change its strategic stance because the opponent would no longer be the Soviet Union, but a continuing series of "middleweights." It was essentially a restatement of Clinton foreign policy speeches at Georgetown University and in Los Angeles during the presidential campaign.

In some cases, Tarnoff said, the United States would continue to act alone when its vital interests were at stake. He refused to be specific about what would trigger a decision for the United States to act unilaterally (as did Secretary of State Warren Christopher in subsequent comments).

In Washington journalistic terms, what Tarnoff was saying was not new in substance, as John Goshko, one of the two Post reporters whose story would trigger major damage control efforts by the Clinton administration, agrees. What was new was that someone in authority, the man in charge of day-to-day policy at the State Department, was acknowledging it. "The problem was attribution," Goshko recalls.

Post Deputy National Editor Bradley Graham, who was given primary responsibility for editing the piece, says, "We were trying to make sense out of it. Was [Tarnoff] speaking on his own or was he expressing policy, just acting as a messenger? We called around, trying to get clarification. Some other officials weighed in, trying to spin it in a different way."

There was, Graham says, no effort to hype the story by focusing on an apparent rift in the administration. "Just the opposite," he says. "We were trying very hard to get it straight, but you could extrapolate from what we heard in the calls that Tarnoff had stepped over the line."

Anthony Lake, Pres-ident Clinton's national security adviser, confirmed that the "official" was expressing policy, but Lake wouldn't speak for the record. Goshko says that when he called Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Tom Donilon, the official tried to talk the Post out of the story and initially declined to produce Christopher. Donilon de-nies trying to talk anyone out of doing the story.

In any event, the message finally got through and Christopher, uncharacteristically, called the Post re-porters, briefly giving what sounded like a denial of Tarnoff's view of the world, but really wasn't. Tarnoff had already talked to Christopher about his remarks and according to others who were present, Christopher was not perturbed.

What the Post published, under the bylines of Daniel Williams and John Goshko, put the cat in the midst of the pigeons who peck on the diplomatic sidewalks of the capital.

Their story began: "A senior State Department official set off a flurry of high-level disavowals yesterday with remarks to reporters that the Clinton administration, as it focuses on domestic economic troubles, expects to withdraw from many foreign policy leadership roles customarily assumed by the United States."

That was an accurate, if somewhat high-pitched, interpretation of what Tarnoff said. The second paragraph began with his quote, "It is necessary to make the point that our economic interests are paramount."

The story played down the idea that the United States would continue to defend its own national interests alone when directly challenged, and that in other cases it would play a leading collegial role, as first among equals. But the United States was not withdrawing to its own borders. The Post article drifted into commentary when it said that the official (whose identity was hinted at so thoroughly that only his Social Security number was lacking) "depicted a post-Cold War landscape of limited Amer-ican power and influence."

The headline on the front page story read: "Reduced U.S. World Role Outlined but Soon Altered; High-level Dis-avowals Follow Offi-cial's Talk." In other words, the apparent rollback by the administration became as big a story as the explanation of the new U.S. foreign policy.

Goshko, who has covered the State Department for 17 years, does not believe the Post story was hyped. Neither does Williams, a former Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent and a relative newcomer to Washington's diplomatic reporting community.

"What cluttered the story," Williams says, "was the Washington custom of saying something important on background, without identification, in front of 50 people. I had known about the custom, but for the first time I thought it was ridiculous that such information should be coming from some official who couldn't be identified. Then when Christopher intervened, it became even more ridiculous."

Bradley Graham adds, "In terms of Tarnoff's position at the State Depart-ment, I don't know if we know enough even now about what's going on behind the scenes over there. There have been shades of difference between Tarnoff and others. I haven't had any reservations about the way we handled it."

Doyle McManus, president of Overseas Writers, also attended the luncheon and faced some of the same attribution problems. In the Los Angeles Times the next day, he wrote, "President Clinton's decision to defer to European views on Bosnia-Herzegovina reflects a deliberate shift to a new, post-Cold War model of American power: limited by economic problems, modest in style and rarely exercised unilaterally, a senior State Department official said Tuesday."

He quoted the "State Department official" as saying, "We don't have the money" and therefore "we're talking about new rules of engagement... There will have to be genuine power sharing and responsibility sharing."

McManus also got a brief, unusual call-back from Christopher when writing the story, but considered his comments less important than Tarnoff's policy statement.

As one who was there and who wrote about it, I think that what McManus reported was closer to the mark. But neither McManus nor I were writing for a readership primarily in Washing-ton, as the Post was.

Mark Matthews of Baltimore's Sun followed the same general lines as McManus in a news analysis, which became the vehicle of choice when the Sun's editors also objected to the lack of attribution for a straight news story. Stuck with writing a somewhat softer piece, Matthews wrote in his lead, "In a departure from decades of projecting U.S. power around the globe, President Clinton has adopted a foreign policy that requires other countries to share leadership and military burdens." That lead missed Tarnoff's important point that the United States would sometimes act alone when required to do so in its vital national interests and would still, in any case, maintain its ability to project U.S. power around the world. In a story the next day, Matthews put the policy back into perspective.

That same nuance about U.S. leadership was missed by some Japanese correspondents who picked up the Post version and caused a kind of panic in Tokyo: The vision of a disappearing American nuclear umbrella coincided with North Korea apparently gearing up a nuclear weapons program. Some conservative Japanese politicians suggested that Japan build its own nuclear weapons arsenal.

Don Oberdorfer, a longtime Wash-ington Post diplomatic correspondent now at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, was in Beijing when the story broke. He recalls being stunned and puzzled by a BBC World Service broadcast that summed up the episode with a single sentence: "The United States is giving up its world leadership role." Period, on to the next item.

The Post story had all the elements to set off a full-fledged media frenzy: an apparent change of policy, a delicious hint of internal dissension in an administration that was gaining a reputation among the Washington press corps as the gang that couldn't shoot straight, and an apparent repudiation of the administration "official" by on-the-record statements of Christopher and White House officials.

The secretary of state magnified what Tarnoff had said – or didn't say – by breaking his usual silence. He fed the panic by responding directly to the Post's version of Tarnoff's explanation. As a lawyer arguing a brief, he seemed to contradict Tarnoff, but in fact repeated what Tarnoff had said.

The Post quoted Christopher as saying, "There is no derogation of our powers and our responsibility to lead. In some situations, we will try to involve other countries. We would not be a superpower for long if we have to do everything on our own." That did not differ from what Tarnoff had said.

Goshko says Christopher "tried to soften [Tarnoff's remarks] for the record," but the effect was exactly the opposite. Christopher seemed to be certifying the Post's version of the speech since he wasn't really denying it, thus undermining the administration's own credibility. The usually reticent Christopher continued this frenetic behavior for 36 hours, visiting television bureaus, including ABC's "Nightline." It had about the same effect as a strong offshore wind on a Malibu brush fire.

The Post story also quoted a "White House official" who said, "That is not our foreign policy." That was accurate, in the sense that it responded to the Post's shorthand version of what Tarnoff had said. It was wrong in that there was no real difference between what the "State Department official" had told Overseas Writers and what Clinton, Christopher and others had said earlier in public speeches. Goshko now says, "Unfortunately [Tarnoff] was being burned for being honest."

Williams agrees. "Tarnoff was a story by himself because he put administration foreign policy into understandable English, which was unusual."

The White House made a bad situation worse the day after the Post story appeared when Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers said that "Brand X," the unnamed State Department official, was not speaking for the administration and suggested that his career was in jeopardy. This was exactly the 11-second soundbite needed to give the story another 24 hours of life and to spread it beyond the somewhat rarefied world of foreign policy journalism. It caused a shiver of anticipated delight when it seemed that the administration was about to sack one of its senior officials.

NBC State Department correspondent John Dancy cocked the hammer of the pistol by asking at the next day's briefing if the secretary of state "still had confidence in the official." The spokesman declined to pull the trigger. The dogs barked and the caravan moved on.

The New York Times ended the charade about Tarnoff's identity the day after the Post story ran by identifying him. Although Times reporter Elaine Sciolino was vice president of Overseas Writers, she did not attend the luncheon and the Times was not represented; therefore it was technically not bound by the ground rules and it didn't take a Seymour Hersh to find out who the official was. That led to the grotesque situation in which other papers such as the Sun published stories about an official "identified by the New York Times as Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff."

What remained was a residue of mutual wariness between Clinton administration officials and the press. There was no apparent harm done to Tarnoff's career, nor to any of the reporters concerned (except that Tarnoff says he no longer answers calls from one of the reporters who wrote the Post story).

There are some lessons to be learned from this Washing-ton story:

Like mosquitoes detecting warm-blooded prey or golden retrievers spotting tennis balls, Washington reporters tend to be hard-wired. They react to certain established stimuli, such as signs of conflict or change within the government establishment, even though such minute changes are less important than the policy itself.

Former Sen. Eugene McCarthy was close to the truth when he said that reporters are like blackbirds: When one flies away, they all fly away. This is the reason: There is no penalty, in career terms, for a correspondent for a publication outside Washington to pick up (or steal or borrow) from the Post or some other establishment paper. The assumption is that they are usually correctly informed. There is a cost, in terms of esteem at the home office, of not following the lead blackbird. But when the leader turns out to be misguided, there is no penalty for dropping the story and moving on.

The Washington Post – or the New York Times – alone can have an ephemeral effect. Together, they are a bulldozer. In the Tarnoff Affair, the Times was not there the first day. When it chimed in a day late it had a dissonant, competitive tone that scared off the other blackbirds. Thus the Tarnoff Affair did not really take off like it might have.

Since administrations tend to learn from their mistakes, Washington flaps have a kind of immunizing effect. Not long after the Tarnoff episode, David Gergen, veteran spinmeister extraordinaire, was brought on board at the White House so the most obvious screwups would be caught in a more effective filtration system. This is a trans-generational effect, meaning that subsequent administrations learn from each other, while journalists follow their same old, individualistic habits.

Washington stories such as this one are a blunt instrument, the equivalent of trimming toenails with a chainsaw, but they do get the job done. There was journalistic spinning and groping plus a lot of panicky backfilling by the administration after Tarnoff's appearance. But the central idea came through that the Clinton administration's foreign policy, however well-meaning, was unfinished, or at least inexplicable.

The postscript to the episode was also very Washington. McManus, for the first time in his tenure as president of Overseas Writers, was inundated with offers from public figures, including the British ambassador and Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, a senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, who wanted to address the group that had nearly done in the undersecretary of state.

But Tarnoff (who said through a spokesman that it was "not appropriate" for him to comment on the record for this article) was not done in. As AJR went to press, Tarnoff was still prospering as number three at State, and has served as acting secretary for weeks at a time when Christoper was traveling. This was because the number two man at the State Department, the nearly invisible deputy secretary of state (and Washington neophyte) Clifton Wharton, was defenestrated in November by an administration that apparently believed he had not been sufficiently activist. l