Consider the ingredients: Thirty journalists quizzing the head of the Senate intelligence committee about the Central Intelligence Agency and its fiery director, William J. Casey, at a time when it is a target for the handling of a prize KGB defector and the leakage of plans for toppling Muammar Qaddafi's regime in Libya.
Add to that a speaker, Sen. Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.), who has had his innings with Mr. Casey before, but who is obviously seeking this time to temper criticism with praise. Relaxed by generous food and good company, the Senate chairman takes on inquiries spanning the world and occasionally peppers a response with a touch of inside humor.
Reporters busy with their tape recorders and note pads wonder if there is an underlying message in all of this. Post reporter David Ottaway, longtime foreign correspondent and now national security reporter, decided it all added up to serious criticism of the CIA and Mr. Casey. His front-page story last Thursday kicked off a weekend of attacks and counterattacks, and The Post's reporting was not out of the line of fire.
Sen. Durenberger protested vigorously Thursday that he had been dealt with unfairly and inaccurately, that he had not criticized Mr. Casey nor urged his downgrading. Actually Mr. Ottaway's third paragraph and the accompanying picture caption had noted his defense of Mr. Casey as a "professional" and "a darn good guy in the job."
On Friday, Mr. Ottaway reported Mr. Casey's free-swinging response to the Durenberger story and Mr. Casey's new charges that the senator's oversight activity had resulted in "repeated compromise of sensitive intelligence sources and methods." Tucked way back in the page 1 story, so far back it was in the continuation on page 33, was a correction of a statement about possible CIA legislation which appeared in the first-day report. However, there was no backing away from The Post statements on Durenberger's criticism of CIA and Casey. (Usually corrections appear in a box on page 2 or 3.)
On Saturday, Mr. Ottaway reported that Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the committee, responding to the Casey counterattack, felt Mr. Casey was really seeking a return to "the good old days" when there was no congressional oversight of CIA covert operations.
The partial correction Friday left Sen. Durenberger still unhappy. "The paper did the absolute minimum to clarify and correct -- despite its admission of error -- and I would have expected more." On Sunday, his op-ed page article appeared, putting aside the issue of Post culpability and arguing the case for congressional oversight and public discussion of CIA performance.
When I discussed the brouhaha Friday with Robert Kaiser, assistant managing editor for national news, he said the report was "solid," other than the correction and added that the reporter had taped the luncheon. I listened to the lengthy tape, read a tape transcript, talked with four other reporters who attended, discussed the reports with Mr. Ottaway, and concluded that covering a wide-ranging luncheon with a cautious legislator can be hazardous to journalistic health.
Mr. Ottaway's report could be supported by snips and snaps in the transcript, but Sen. Durenberger's string of compliments for Mr. Casey and the vagueness of his suggestions for possible change by the end of 1986 should have discouraged treating the story so one-sidedly. Sure, the kind words about Mr. Casey were in the third paragraph, but not in the lead, not in the headline.
Leads and headlines have a tendency to simplify and polarize positions, and this happened here. The result has been a four-day battle in The Post, and I doubt that it was intended by the three public officials. What started out as a low-key discussion about relationships between a key senator and an agency escalated into a shouting match, and some of the most surprised were the senator and some of his auditors.