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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
World leaders arriving in Washington for President Obama's Nuclear Security Summit must have felt for a moment that they had instead been transported to Soviet-era Moscow.
They entered a capital that had become a military encampment, with camo-wearing military police in Humvees and enough Army vehicles to make it look like a May Day parade on New York Avenue, where a bicyclist was killed Monday by a National Guard truck.
In the middle of it all was Obama -- occupant of an office once informally known as "leader of the free world" -- putting on a clinic for some of the world's greatest dictators in how to circumvent a free press.
The only part of the summit, other than a post-meeting news conference, that was visible to the public was Obama's eight-minute opening statement, which ended with the words: "I'm going to ask that we take a few moments to allow the press to exit before our first session."
Reporters for foreign outlets, admitted for the first time to the White House press pool, got the impression that the vaunted American freedoms are not all they're cracked up to be.
Yasmeen Alamiri from the Saudi Press Agency got this lesson in press freedom when trying to cover Obama's opening remarks as part of that limited pool: "The foreign reporters/cameramen were escorted out in under two minutes, just as the leaders were about to begin, and Obama was going to make remarks. . . . Sorry, it is what it is."
Alamiri's counterparts from around the world wrote of similar experiences in their pool reports. Arabic-language MBC TV's Nadia Bilbassy had this to say of Obama's meeting with the Jordanian king: "We were there for around 30 seconds, not enough even to notice the color of tie of both presidents. I think blue for the king."
The Press Trust of India, at Obama's meeting with the Pakistani prime minister, reported, "In less than a minute, the pool was asked to leave." The Yomiuri Shimbun correspondent found that she was "ushered out about 30 seconds" after arriving for Obama's meeting with the Malaysian prime minister. A reporter with Turkey's TRT-Turk went to Obama's meeting with the president of Armenia, but "we had to leave the room again after less than 40 seconds."
Even the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, was more talkative with the press than Obama. Michelle Jamrisko, with Japan's Kyodo News, noted in her pool report that Hu, at his session with Obama, spoke to the Chinese media in Chinese, while Obama limited himself mostly to "say hello to the cameras" and "thank you everybody."
Obama's official schedule for Tuesday would have pleased China's Central Committee. Excerpts: "The President will attend the Heads of Delegation working lunch. This lunch is closed press. . . . The President will meet with Prime Minster Erdogan of Turkey. This meeting is closed press. . . . The President will attend Plenary Session II of the Nuclear Security Summit. This session is closed press."
Reporters, even those on the White House beat for two decades, said these were the most restricted such meetings they had ever seen. They complained to both the administration and White House Correspondents' Association, which will discuss the matter Thursday with White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.
The restrictions have become a common practice for the Obama White House. When Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu came to the White House a couple of weeks ago, reporters were kept away. Soon after that, Obama signed an executive order on abortion, again without any coverage.
Over the weekend, Obama broke with years of protocol and slipped off to a soccer game without the "protective" pool that is always in the vicinity of the president in case the unthinkable occurs. Obama joked about it later to Pakistan's prime minister, saying reporters "were very upset."
In "bilateral" meetings with foreign leaders, presidents usually take questions, or at least trade statements. But at most of Obama's, there were only written "readouts." Canada: "The president and the prime minister noted the enduring strength of our bilateral partnership." India: "The two leaders vowed to continue to strengthen the robust relationship between the people of their countries." Pakistan: "President Obama began by noting that he is very fond of Pakistan."
Finally, away from other leaders, Obama took reporters' questions for 20 minutes. They were tough and skeptical questions that punctured the banal readouts: pointing out that the nonproliferation agreements weren't binding, noting China's equivocation on sanctions against Iran, and pressing Obama on the failure to curb North Korea's weapons. The Post's Scott Wilson asked Obama if he would call on Israel, which skipped the summit, to declare its nuclear weapons.
"I'm not going to comment on their program," Obama said.
Not surprising. But it's still important that the questions are asked.