Monday, October 10, 2011

Inside a Press Conference with Leon Panetta

Last week, the Daily News Egypt sent me to write about a press conference with Leon Panetta, the current US Secretary of Defense. The conference was to be held at the Fairmont Heliopolis hotel, a good hour away from downtown Cairo in traffic.

The Fairmont Heliopolis, like many expensive Cairo hotels, is massive and opulent in a way that even massive, opulent hotels in America might consider a bit much. Waterfalls appear where you would least expect them. Grand pianos and Victorian-style office furniture dot endless open spaces that I would call rooms, as opposed to hallways, except that everyone just walks through them, and nobody seems to be using the grand pianos or office furniture.

The staff stands everywhere, looking attentive. They stand in doorways, next to doorways, and behind doorways. The amount of helpfulness and service is a bit intimidating. I ask one of the staff where the press conference will be held. He asks another man, who asks another man, who points me down some stairs.

I find a room where diplomats from the U.S. Embassy are greeting journalists, and I begin to feel like the new kid in high school. Most of the journalists have clustered into small social groups. The American newspapers hang out with the international wires, the Egyptian dailies with the Egyptian broadcasters.

The bureau chief of a major American newspaper walks in. He wears a shirt tucked into slacks, instead of the suits favored by the Egyptians. He is greeted warmly by a diplomat and they chat about I-Pads.

At one point, a man from the embassy asks us, with almost unnatural courtesy, to please get up, leave our things and go to the hallway. A bomb-sniffing dog does a once-over with his handler, a short man wearing all blue and a cap that reads “K-9.” We all sip coffee or tea. Someone jokes that they thought Panetta was “more of a cat person.”

I had arrived panting at 2:15 worrying I was late. At 3:55, we are told that the Secretary will be coming momentarily. One of the international wire journalists looks at another and says, “It looks like you won.” Apparently, they had a bet going on just how late the press conference would start. A little after 4, Leon Panetta and his entourage enter the room.

Panetta has both the easy grace of a politician and the cheeriness of an Italian grandfather. The combination is disorienting when you remember that he was once Clinton’s chief of staff. It’s even more disorienting when you then remember that he oversaw the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. A little over two years ago, when Panetta was appointed head of the C.I.A., he had basically no experience in intelligence, and it was said he had been appointed because of his straightforward, trusting relationship with Obama. His reputation for straight shooting is legend. He wrote once of the Bush years that Americans had been turned “from champions of human dignity and individual rights into a nation of armchair torturers.”

Talking about Egypt and the U.S.’s response to the Arab Spring, he leaned away from that impulse. Throughout the Arab Spring, the Obama administration has mostly watched from the outside and then supported the results. Panetta gave the usual compliments. “In many ways the dramatic changes we've seen in the Middle East had their birth here in Egypt, " he said,  "because Egypt has always represented a very pivotal nation in this region.”

Press conferences like this one involve a few brief remarks, followed by a longer question and answer session. Every sentence stands alone, utilizing a cadence that makes it easily quotable, if not particularly memorable. Twice Panetta said, “The Egyptian people, I believe, will succeed in a democratic transition.”

Most of the journalists have one or two questions. Panetta’s answers will become stories once the journalist adds just a bit of background information. Having not done this before, and unable to read the subtexts in much of Panetta’s responses, the impression I got is that they must be spinning a lot of cloth out of very little material.

A reporter for an Egyptian newspaper, a young woman with long, curly hair and a very serious demeanor, asks Panetta about Ilan Grapel, the Israeli-American held on questionable espionage charges since June. He responds: "I was not involved in any direct negotiations with regard to that issue...We urge that he ultimately be released.”

The Egyptians seldom felt comfortable asking a follow-up question that pressed him to clarify his vague, general statements. The Americans did it routinely, if not always successfully.

At one point, David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times asked if the military leadership had given Panetta a timetable for the transition to civil government. Panetta laid out what everyone knew about the coming year if they had read the newspapers, and in this room they likely had.

Kirkpatrick looked annoyed. “That’s all been published,” he said, almost reactively, with a speed clearly born of having done this a lot. “Does the military plan to step out with parliamentary election or presidential?”

Panetta looked a little unsure. He glanced over to Ambassador Patterson, who answered calmly. “I don’t think, frankly, the military knows or anyone else knows,” she said.

“Are you encouraging them?” Kirkpatrick asked. “Yes,” Panetta said, with a tone that suggested he probably had not.  He paused, and then added; “Obviously the sooner that power could be relinquished to civilian authorities, the better for the democracy that the Egyptian people will have.”

Later that day, Kirkpatrick published his article. It was called “Egypt Unclear on Timetable of Power Transfer, U.S. Says.” It characterized Patterson’s comments as “an unusually candid assessment of the haze over Egypt’s path toward democracy.”

A reporter with Al-Ahram, an Egyptian state newspaper asked Panetta when U.S. troops would leave Iraq. After having to give a question to Patterson, Panetta looked relieved at this one, and outlined the Obama plan. The writer, like Kirkpatrick, was unimpressed by the official line, which had also been widely published.

The reporter asked a follow-up question, but his accent was so thick that Panetta had trouble understanding. He smiled awkwardly. Kirkpatrick jumped back in to clarify the question, “Is there a role for America in warming relations between Israel and Egypt?”

Panetta sort of laughed, trying to establish a bit of camaraderie with the other Americans in the room. This was not the first time he had done so. He had always given off a feeling of being relieved when the question did not have a thick Egyptian accent. 

After the snickering settled down, his response to the question about Israel and Egypt was extremely vague. “Anything the United States can do would be in the interest of U.S. security.”

Next to me, I glance at the notepad of an Egyptian broadcast journalist. During the two hour wait, he had scribbled down over a page’s worth of questions in Arabic. He raises his hand dutifully every time an answer finishes, but never gets to ask anything.

Again I feel like I’m in high school, only now it is in terms of the social hierarchy. International journalists get to follow the Secretary as he travels to and from the press conference. Their questions receive more careful answers.

But all the answers are careful to some extent. Press conferences are a ritual in which powerful people give the impression that they can freely discuss what happens behind closed doors, when really they cannot. If too candid, they get in trouble for using the press as a diplomatic tool, an unwieldy knife instead of the scalpel of direct negotiations. The journalists know this, and the more experiences ones try to dig just beneath the surface, to get a single new piece of information out of the rubble of diplomatic speech.

A year ago, I was beginning my Arabic homework. The unit was about the vocabulary used in Arabic newspapers. I was pleasantly surprised to see that with fairly few new words, I could easily read an Arabic newspaper article about international diplomacy. The next day in class, however, I struggled to remember what I read. The articles always seemed to be talking about “strengthening relations” or “economic ties” or “bilateral negotiations.” “I don’t understand why I don’t have anything to say about this,” I told the teacher, my frustration apparent. “Don’t worry,” he joked, “maybe diplomacy isn’t for you.”

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