AFTER THREE MONTHS working as a British journalist on this Washington newspaper I have strange news to report: penetrating the federal bureaucracy is surprisingly easy.
Compared to my experience in London, where my inquiries often meet with evasion and obstruction, Washington bureaucrats were helpful, usually straightforward and above all open.
They have to be. This city is best described as an information bazaar. Here, a multitude of lobbyists and government officials and Congress ply their wares daily, competing for the attention of the journalist to a degree which at times is overwhelming. Americans are never short of a quote or a document. And while this surfeit of information and views is not without pitfalls, it means that the newsman trying to find out what is going on behind Washington's closed doors is, in my view, privileged, if not cossetted.
Shortly after arriving at The Post, one of the national editors handed me a sheaf of photocopied government documents. Among the papers were several internal memoranda drawn up by officials of the Agency for International Development (AID), a body which I had never heard of but which I soon found out will dispense some $7.8 billion of foreign aid this year.
The memoranda charted the twists and turns of the agency's top official, Peter McPherson, on a sensitive policy issue: whether to fund "natural family planning groups" -- who are opposed to all forms of artificial contraception such as condoms and pills -- to propagate their preferred version of the "rhythm method" abroad without reference to others forms of birth control.
The arguments, the main players and McPherson's final decision were all clearly documented; so was a list of people to call in Congres and in AID. I recalled Fleet Street's definition of a good story: one that gets the reporter home on time for tea.
Several phone calls later, the story appeared less straightforward. The do-it-yourself story kit provided by The Post's original source bothered me, but so did the reaction of several congressional aides I tapped for extra information on AID's decision to fund the natural family planning groups.
"These people are crazies," said one source. "McPherson thinks he can throw the antiabortion people a bone," said another who refused to be named, "but what these people really want is red meat." And the final, most alarming comment of all: "We really approve of The Post's line on this one. Keep up the good work."
On the other hand, these same people were able to confirm meetings, policy differences and personnel changes at the highest level within AID, in addition to supplying more names of talkative officials. In short, they were impeccably informed yet incorrigibly partisan. I now realize this was my first experience of the real Washington, a vortex of information into which the journalist is inexorably sucked until he finds himself, willy- nilly, part of the political process.
Over the next four days, I found myself courted in a way unimaginable back home. Everyone had a view to put across; everyone had a stack of documents to back their case. From an initial position of total ignorance on natural family planning and its place in the foreign aid debate, I was able to piece together how policy had evolved as a result of antiabortionist lobbying and discreet White House pressure. Soon after my first call to AID, when I set out all I knew to a junior press spokesman, I had McPherson himself on the line.
As a journalist who used to cover three British government departments -- the Treasury, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Transport, my most bruising encounters with the bureacuacy were always on policy making. Trying to discover -- as in the AID story -- how, why and when a policy was stitched together was fiendishly difficult.
The problem for the reporter lies in the time-honored fiction put across by the British bureaucracy that there is one, unanimous view within government. In Washington, an official will often give a reporter the administration line and then his own view. On an emotive issue such as family planning and population policy, this tendency to speak privately against the official line was particularly pronounced. No doubt, it accounted for the stream of leaks from AID.
On another subject I covered -- the reliance of the United States on strategic metals from South Africa -- the Department of Commerce, the Department of Defense, the Office of Management and Budget and the National Security Council all had differing shades of opinion. Since no official was willing to watch his department sit on the sidelines, everyone suddenly became very talkative.
I found by far the best ploy was to profess astonishment, indeed bewilderment, that such a discepancy in views could exist within the administration. "You see, I'm English," I would say, "and we do things rather differently in London." Whether officials took pity on me is open to question, but this maneuver did land me a half-hour interview with a top National Security Council official, the invaluable background information from which I then traded, without naming my source, with another government department. Trading information is the key to finding out what is going on in any bureaucracy.
In Britian, there is no Congressional Directory. The lack of such a volume in which the names and telephone numbers of senior officials in the administration are listed is of immeasureable consequence. A discreet chat with, for example, a senior Foreign Office official responsible for South Africa is not possible. Most journalists do no know the diplomat's name, let alone his or her private line. British officials prefer evasion to frankness, reserving their contacts with journalists to off-the-record briefings or set-piece cocktail parties. In Washington, I lunched in the State Department canteen amid legions of officials.
Familiarity in Washington does not breed contempt, but trust. On several occasions, I spoke to officials who were well aware that I had only recently joined The Post's national staff. I did not seek to hide my inexperience, nor did they seek to play on it. Instead, I sought to gain agreement immediately on the terms and conditions of the telephone interview: whether I was quoting direct or using the material non-attributably, that is "on background."
I found that playing the British card -- a gentleman's word is his bond -- worked. Far from drying up, the officials talked at great length, adding just one caveat at the end of the conversation: "As long as you realize that I am a career professional and by talking to you I have placed my job on the line."
I also learned to value the contacts, knowledge and articulacy of most congressional aides, which I used on at least 80 percent of my stories. They form, in my view, the bridgehead into the bureaucracy.
The discrepancy in power between the legislature in the United States and Britain -- and its consequent effect on the information flow -- does not only reflect important constitutional differences between the two countries. In many ways, they come down to hard cash.
In Britain, some MPs can only afford a secretary-cum-typist. Recently, one of Britain's most effective parliamentary probers -- Austin Mitchell -- caused an uproar because he had six researchers on his payroll. By contrast, in the Congressional Directory you can look up whole armies of aides, staffers and researchers underpinning the efforts of elected members of Congress to penetrate the bureaucracy. As one of my colleagues at The Post remarked: "If something's going on, you can be sure someone, somewhere knows about it."
If the story so far appears too positive, this reporter did meet with some frustrations. When I rang the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service to inquire why at least 20 Afghan refugees had spent 12 months in a detention center in New York, the response was a robotic description of the adminstration's new get- tough policy toward refugees entering the country without proper travel documents.
More confusing was why the immigration official refused to confirm the names, ages and occupation of the refugees or indeed anything about their background. My original intention to interview the Afghans and then check their story against the official file was quickly stymied, on the grounds that their case was pending a court appearance. "We have to protect their rights," said the immigration man, without irony.
When South Africa's central bank governor, Gerhard de Kock, turned up in New York and Washington, the wall of secrecy erected by the State Department and the Federal Reserve was as effective as anything I have tried breaching in London. De Kock remained the invisible man: no one would confirm where he was or who he was talking to.
And yet it was possible, eventually, to find a friendly source that Labor Day weekend. "The condition is that this conversation between you and me does not exist," said The Post's gilt-edged source who proceeded to spell out the limited range of de Kock's options, while delivering a broad hint that South Africa would declare a freeze on repayment of $14 billion short-term debt (which it did, the following day).
The interesting feature of this story is that the source had little to gain from providing information to The Post. He was no publicity-seeker nor was he pushing any obvious line. The explanation is perhaps more simple: if The Post was going to write a responsible article, itshould be properly informed.
This argument works sometimes in London, particularly if the journalist is employed by one of the serious newspapers such as the Financial Times, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian. But it is difficult to compare the occasional gifts doled out by the British bureaucracy to the regular information passed to The Post. The suspicion is that The Post occupies a privileged position not shared by many other American newspapers.
To a British journalist, this power can be intimidating. But it obviously carries through the administration, as I discovered on yet another story involving Peter McPherson and AID.
This time, McPherson was about to withdraw a $10 million grant to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA). The justification was that UNFPA was involved in China's one-child-per-family population program which McPherson ruled had resulted in forced abortions and involuntary sterlization. Again, the lobbyists clamored for attention; gain an excrutiatingly detailed stack of documents landed on my desk.
After several fruitless attempts to extract comment from AID, I received a late-evening phone call from a breathless AID spokeswoman. McPherson was willing to talk "on background," she said, but he would like to know if the Post intended to write an editorial before the final new policy was announced.
I replied I had no idea. The Post's reporting and editorial teams are strictly separated and I failed to see the relevance of AID's question. I waited for two hours for a call which never came (though McPherson did consent to an on-the-record telephone interview after the decision to withdraw the $10 million for UNFPA was announced).
This last example is the clearest indication of how the Washington bureaucracy sees newspapers -- particularly The Post, with its local circulation -- as a vital part of the political dynamic, influencing public opinion and contributing to policy formation in government. It means that doors and mouths which remain tightly closed in London appear, at least to this British journalist, to be wide open in Washington. As an outsider who has had the privilege of looking in these past three months, going back to Britain is going to be one big culture shock.