Washington Bureau

05.02.14

Damn Right I Taped Kerry’s ‘Apartheid’ Talk

And if I had to do it all over again, I’d do it in the exact same way.

Ten years ago, when I was a rookie reporter for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, I looked up to Joseph Nye as a sacred figure, the preeminent American expert on Japan. So it hurt a little when Nye wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday to accuse me of “sneaking in” to a meeting of the Trilateral Commission last week in Washington, where John Kerry made explosive remarks warning that Israeli could become “an apartheid state.”

But I don’t blame Joseph Nye for accusing me of unethical journalism practices. He is not a journalist and he does not know the “rules” of journalism, both written and not so. I do. I’m a reporter. I know the rules and I follow them meticulously. In ten years of reporting for five different top news organizations, I’ve never broken an agreement with an official or a source and I never will. My living is dependent on that reputation and I worked hard to earn it.

If a reporter agrees that a conversation or event is off-the-record, then of course he cannot print what was said during that interchange. But the unwritten rule—the one that directly applies here—is that if a reporter enters an off-the-record event uninvited and has not agreed to the off-the-record terms, he is free to report what happens inside that event. It’s the responsibility of the event organizers to keep reporters from entering events without invitations. As long as the reporter does not misrepresent himself and does not attempt to conceal a recording device, the event is fair game. That’s the rule.

Did I enter the Trilateral Commission event with Kerry, tape it, and then reveal to the world what our Secretary of State is saying to influential world leaders behind closed doors?

Damn right I did.

Other outlets, including Politico, rushed to publish posts alleging I “sneaked” into the meeting and “secretly” recorded Kerry, based on the Nye letter. They reported “great frustration at the State Dept.” over the story. Politico also dredged up a story from 2009 when Jeffrey Goldberg accused me of being a bad Jew and worse for reporting on his interview of the Israeli ambassador at a local synagogue on Yom Kippur.

(I did issue a minor correction to that story. But on the charge of being a bad Jew? Like Hebrew National, I answer to a higher authority.)

The Daily Caller pointed out that even as Politico called me a “repeat offender,” its reporter acknowledged that although attendees agreed to keep the meeting off the record, “Rogin, who was not invited to the event, was not bound by this agreement.”

The Huffington Post pointed out that Nye didn’t actually present any real evidence that I was inside the meeting at all, saying only that I was recognized by a “friend” who was a member of the commission. The unnamed “friend” would not put his name in front of the accusation. Nye declined multiple times to explain why. But it really doesn’t matter.

“If Rogin attended and did not explicitly agree to any off-the-record ground rules, and did not misrepresent himself in the process, the comments are fair game to report.”

“If Rogin attended and did not explicitly agree to any off-the-record ground rules, and did not misrepresent himself in the process, the comments are fair game to report from a journalistic standpoint,” the Huffington Post explained.

Reporters can never reveal how they get their stories. Our processes, even our tricks, are sacred. They are the only advantage we have against the powerful people and organizations trying to keep information out of the public eye. They have hundreds of public affairs personnel, millions of dollars, and the ability to enforce tight control of media access to the leaders we trust with our national security and diplomacy. We have only our sources, our savvy, and our willingness to do what’s necessary to find out the things our government is trying to hide, within the bounds of the rules.

Nevertheless, in the interest of transparency, I will make this one time exception to my rule of never talking about my reporting process. Here is exactly what happened.

Friday morning I got a tip from a source that Kerry would be speaking at the Trilateral Commission meeting at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, a luxurious place just far enough away from downtown DC to avoid random foot traffic but still only 10 minutes from my office by taxi. The State Department had disclosed Kerry’s appearance there and marked it “closed press” in their daily scheduling note, but had not disclosed the location. I hopped in a cab.

I got there early so I parked myself in an empty room near the lobby and finished up another story I was working on. At about 2:30, the time of Kerry’s scheduled remarks, I walked over to the meeting room, walked straight to the front entrance of the room, nodded politely to the staffer at the door (she nodded back) and entered along with dozens of other people who were filing in.

Nobody ever asked me who I was. I didn’t have a name tag but many of the invited attendees weren’t wearing theirs so nobody thought anything of it. As the approximately 200 attendees got settled in for the Kerry speech, I found a seat in the corner, opened up my laptop, placed my recorder on my lap in plain sight, turned it on, and waited for the fun to begin.

A fellow journalist—I won’t say who, but you can read a list of the ones that attended the event here—spotted me in the hallway before the event. We made chit chat and talked about The Trilateral Commission in general terms. He mentioned that he was a member of the Commission. He didn’t ask me if I was a member or was invited and I didn’t volunteer any information either way. I have no idea if he is the “friend” who ratted me out to Joseph Nye.

Kerry stuck mostly to his script, but veered off at times, as he often does. I was focused on his remarks about Ukraine, when he seemed to reveal new information about intelligence collection on Russia and promised new sanctions. (I finished up a story from the room, and attributed Kerry’s remarks to “an attendee,” because there I was. Once I got home and had a chance to listen to the tapes, I sourced Kerry’s remarks to a recording obtained by The Daily Beast.) Kerry’s remarks on Israel were typical for him, until he dropped the now infamous A-bomb.

I left in the middle of the Q&A because I had another appointment. We will probably never know what else Kerry told the Trilateral Commission behind closed doors. I was proud to be able to bring my readers a story about what our top diplomat says about an important issue when he didn’t think the cameras were rolling. I expected some pushback and anger from the State Department. I was surprised that so many people bought the spin that I somehow I had done something unethical.

If I had to do it all over again, I would do it in the exact same way. Event organizers and public officials should be forewarned. The public disclosure of this episode may make it harder for me to enter rooms the powerful people don’t want me in, maybe not, we’ll see. If it does, no worries, I’ve got plenty of other ways to get important and true information about our government to my readers. I don’t have to break the rules to break news.

I will admit to one ethical indiscretion in the reporting of these stories. While I was waiting for Kerry to get to the meeting, I partook of the lunch buffet and made myself a plate of pork loin, chicken, and a very nice rice pilaf. Professor Nye, my apologies. Please send me a bill.