UPDATE: Apparently the ground rules for the meeting were not entirely clear. Contrary to what I wrote below, we apparently were permitted to write about what was said at the meeting, provided that we did not quote anything directly, and provided that we did not attribute anything by name to anyone at the meeting. I know, it’s still a bit silly, but at least it will permit Joe and me to write tomorrow about what actually happened substantively at the meeting. I’ve written a bit more about this here.
It was pretty fascinating, and there’s not much we can tell you about it because Treasury wanted the entire meeting with Geithner, and most of the rest of our time at Treasury, on deep background. Meaning, we could use everything we were told, but could never attribute it to anyone, anywhere. So, if I learned a fact at the meeting, I could mention it some day in passing, but couldn’t say how or why I know it.
The meeting was the second time, I’m told, that Treasury has invited a group of bloggers to meet with some of the senior staff and the Secretary (second time?) It took place in the Treasury building next to the White House, and it included around 18 bloggers. I know I’m going to leave someone out, but those I could recognize (or read their name plates) included: Faiz and Amanda at ThinkProgress, John Amato at Crook & Liars, Duncan Black of Eschaton, Sam Stein, Shafein Nasiripour and Ryan Grim of Huff Post, David Kurtz of TPM, Felix Salmon of Reuters, Megan McArdle of the Atlantic, Matty Yglesias of ThinkProgress, Patrick Garofalo of the American Prospect, James Kwak, Joe Sudbay of AMERICAblog and me. From Treasury, among others, were Secretary Geithner, Deputy Secratary Neil Wolin, Assistant Secretary for Financial Institutions Michael Barr, Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy Allen Kruger, and Counselor to the Secretary Gene Sperling. Quite an impressive, high level group.
The meeting took place in an absolutely stunning room of what is the most stunning federal office building I’ve seen in all my years. Much of official Washington is kind of old. State isn’t exactly a pretty building on the inside, nor is DOD, nor a number of other agencies, and even the White House has parts that are kind of eh. Not Treasury. Stunning building, stunning hallways, stunning meeting rooms. This room was amazing. It’s called the Secretary’s Conference Room. Huge pendulum clock on the wall. Huge. Wide dark wooden doorways framed in gold. Beautiful etched transoms above the doors, ornately painted ceiling, and a beautiful 200 year old portrait of George Washington on the wall. Simply stunning. You can read more about the room here.
The meeting began on the record with the Deputy Secretary telling us about a new policy to permit private citizens in Iran, Sudan and Cuba to be able to legally have access to free US-based Internet services like Twitter and YouTube. It was a bit vague, and we pressed for more specificity, but perhaps this post over at Tapped will help explain it better.
From that point on, we entered secret-agent land where none of us were permitted to tell you what happened, other than who we met with. Judging by the content, it’s not terribly clear why Treasury didn’t want us reporting back to you, especially since everyone in attendance from Treasury did a damn fine job. There wasn’t one person who in any way said or did anything that the agency might have wanted to keep off the record. It’s unfortunate really. Sam Stein from Huffington Post, to his credit, registered a rather large protest over the fact that the meeting was off the record.
Here’s the thing. I’ve argued before that I think it’s necessary, sometimes, to have meetings off the record. It just is. Sometimes you need to conspire with like-minded souls, or even your political enemies, out of the public eye, especially if you’re partisans and not simply objective journalists. In this case, the meeting wasn’t about having a private strategy session with fellow partisans. At least it didn’t seem that way. The bloggers in attendance asked questions about a large range of topics of the day, much as any journalist would. And we got the kind of answers you might expect Treasury officials to give mainstream journalists on the record. So, it just isn’t clear why it was off the record. Or why, for example, I wasn’t even permitted to photograph the meeting as I did for our blogger meeting at the White House.
Speaking of the White House blogger meeting, you might recall that at the WH meeting I had a back and forth with the VP’s top economic adviser, Jared Bernstein over whether bloggers were partly to blame for the stimulus not selling well, and more generally, over the White House’s lack of effective messaging on the stimulus and other issues. Without going into the content of our deep-background discussions at Treasury, I can say that the blogger questions for Geithner were as hard, if not harder, than the question I raised at the White House for Bernstein. And the reaction from the folks at Treasury, including Geithner himself, to the tough blogger questions was simply fabulous. Geithner handled himself extremely well. Shockingly so, really. He walked in, didn’t have any opening remarks, and just opened the floor up to questions for a good hour. We all got our say. Repeatedly. It was great. Geithner handled himself so well, and was so impressive, intellectually and personally, that it’s all the more harder to understand why we’re not permitted to talk with you about the substance. Geithner doesn’t exactly have a stellar reputation among a lot of Democrats. If they were to see him as we saw him today, that view might begin to change.
Overall it was a very interesting meeting with Geithner. The administration should have started holding these kinds of meetings a year ago. Still, I think it was worthwhile, and other agencies should copy what Treasury did today (but on the record – or at least part on, part off).
PS On a personal note, Orszag has nothing on this guy.