Who's wearing a bag on his head in today's New York Times?

Who's wearing a bag on his head in today's New York Times?

Who's wearing a bag on his head in today's New York Times?

Media criticism.
April 19 2004 6:48 PM

Leak of the Week—Richard Armitage?

Who's wearing a bag on his head in today's New York Times?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Secretary of State Colin Powell and his stalwarts love to rassle their detested cross-town foes, the Pentagon neocons and Vice President Cheney, and the release of Bob Woodward's new book, Plan of Attack, has given the two squads fresh motivation for another round of gouging and biting. The venue for today's (Monday, April 19) match is Page One of the New York Times, where "Airing of Powell's Misgivings Tests Cabinet Ties" by reporter Steven R. Weisman sets Powell supporters against the anti-Powell forces in a battle of deprecation.

The downside of this tag-team match is that neither side is on the record. Why? Because the Washington Rasslin' Rulebook states that nobody lower than Cabinet rank can speak his mind on the record without authority from above. But many of these notables will speak, if it suits their purposes, to a reporter giving them the gift of anonymity. When a reporter gathers a slew of anonymous sources for one piece, it's like listening to a bunch of middle-aged men with bags over their heads shouting ugly things at one another.

On the pro-Powell side, Weisman collects the sentiments of "People close to Mr. Powell," "The people close to him," "an official close to Mr. Powell," "Other officials close to Mr. Powell," "one person close to Mr. Powell," "another official," "an administration official who defends Mr. Powell's actions," "a European diplomat," "people long familiar with Mr. Powell's thinking," and "a senior aide to Mr. Powell."

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Is "an official close to Mr. Powell" the same bagged head as "one person close to Mr. Powell"? Is "another official" the same guy as "a senior aide to Mr. Powell"?

On the anti-Powell side we find "Critics of Mr. Powell in the hawkish wing of the administration," "Several," "people in the administration," "several officials," "an official," and "Another official, who like others declined to be identified because of the political sensitivity of their criticism."

This looks like an even match, although either team could have three or 13 grapplers.

The only identifiable rassler in the bunch seems to be Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, a Powell loyalist with a mouth (and body) to rival that of "Macho Man" Randy Savage. Just prior to joining the Bush administration—and accepting the gag that goes with it—Armitage denounced Powell's critics to the Washington Post's Steven Mufson, saying, "Frank Gaffney, Gary Bauer, these pissants who have never served in uniform—who would you rather have represent the nation, them or Colin Powell?" "Pissant" seems to be one of Armitage's favorite terms of derision. In a March 11, 2002, piece in The New Yorker, Seymour M. Hersh reported the angry response of a "senior State Department official" to Pentagon whispers that Armitage and Powell had lost their nerve. The official told Hersh he was ready to meet his "pissant" detractors in the Pentagon "anytime, anywhere." Sounds like Richard "Pissant" Armitage, doesn't it?

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It's probably a good thing for Armitage's career that they've forced the gag on him—it helps protect him from himself. Weisman quotes nothing as colorful as "pissant" today, but any one of four meaty blind quotes in the Times piece could be Armitage.

Quote No. 1:

"Is the secretary going to be undercut for having been right?" asked an official close to Mr. Powell. "I don't think so. Undercut compared to who? Donald Rumsfeld? Dick Cheney? These are people who have some real problems right now. They're not reading Bob Woodward's book. They're reading the dispatches in the field."

Quote No. 2:

"I don't think there will be much change in [Powell's] dealings with Cheney and Rumsfeld," said one person close to Mr. Powell. "People already thought it was this bad. It doesn't change things for them to find out that it really was. They know how to deal with each other, and they've been through quite a bit together."

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Quote No. 3:

"The day-to-day nattering of the Defense Department trying to take over the business of diplomacy at every level, it's just difficult to be on the inside," said an administration official who defends Mr. Powell's actions. "Every day is difficult. The byplay at the meetings is difficult."

Quote No. 4:

"The portrait of Powell in the Woodward book is pretty consistent with what everybody knows," the official said. "We were with the president if we had to do this. We set up an exit ramp for Saddam, and he didn't take it. Powell in the end was very comfortable knowing that."

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Which one is Armitage? Read Talmudically, all four could be Armitage because Weisman doesn't really establish that the official, the person, the administration official, and the official are different people. Quote No. 2 sounds too goddamn diplomatic to be the deputy, so I'd rule it out. But Quotes No. 1 and No. 3 pour the sort of vinegar ("Undercut compared to who?" and "nattering") one associates with Armitage. Quote No. 4 lacks the Armitage umph, but the preceding sentence describes the speaker as a "senior aide to Mr. Powell." Aides don't get much more senior than deputy secretary of state. I'd give it a 90 percent probability.

The Times recently released new "Confidential News Source" guidelines, stating that unidentified sources should be "reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers reliable and newsworthy." Team Powell's hatred of Team Neocon and the inter-Cabinet discord sown from that hatred have been so thoroughly documented, it's difficult to reconcile the guidelines with Weisman's sourcing. It isn't news that the two factions hate each other, and it's self-evident that the dueling has gone up a notch or two since the war effort went south. And it isn't news to get Democrats on the record, as Weisman does. The only reason I can imagine that the Times allowed so many bagged heads into one piece to state the obvious is that the paper had to do something—anything—to play catch-up with the Washington Post's five-part serialization of Woodward's book. For all the piece tells the reader, the Times would have been better off starting Michiko Kakutani's book review on Page One.

Addendum, Tuesday, April 20: Agence France-Presse State Department correspondent Matthew Lee douses my speculation that Richard Armitage is Weisman's bagged head. Via e-mail, Lee explains that Armitage left the country on Friday, April 16, for a Middle East tour, which this April 17 Associated Press clip supports. Still, Weisman could have caught up to the pissant hater by telephone over the weekend for the blind quotes, but I'll admit that this information requires me to expand my search. Perhaps one of the yakkers was State Department spokesperson Richard A. Boucher, a career foreign service officer.

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Wouldn't you love to see Armitage body-slam Gary Bauer on RAW? Send your best rasslin' moves to pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)