Federal Employees News Digest

In praise of anonymous sources

Not to get too heavy or anything, but this is almost certainly the first time in my lifetime (and yours) when we are all in the same boat. While the coronavirus likes some of us more than others, it apparently doesn’t care about our race, religion, age, political preference or ZIP code. It’s the great equalizer -- though, clearly, some ages, occupations and locations have been hit much harder than others.  But the threat is still out there, and it will be with us for who knows how long.

The news media is working with a split personality, as it often does. On the one hand, we have the story of the century -- COVID-19. On the other, we also have what is being called the election of the century. The media often says that about elections, but this time they may be right. The good news is there I always something to write about, to report.  The bad news is the subject matter.

I’ve tried to steer away from writing about both COVID-19 gloom-and-doom (there are experts who do it better anyhow) and politics, which leaves me either sex topics or a walk down memory lane to a simpler time in the media, when covering the government was different.

Many people, if they’ve heard of Watergate, the Washington Post, investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, or read the book or seen the movie, All the President’s Men, know about anonymous sources.  In the Watergate case, Deep Throat (as he was nicknamed) turned out to be Mark Felt, the associate director of the FBI.  He denied it for decades but came out when he was in his 90s.  His motive may have been patriotism as he saw it, flagging an illegal act ordered by the White House, or petty revenge because he was passed over for promotion -- or maybe a combination of both, or something else entirely.  But the Watergate break-in and cover-up probably wouldn’t have been investigated without Felt and Bob Woodward finding each other.

Which brings me to my smaller claim to fame, my own Deep Throat, whose code name (which he picked, I swear it) was Joe Blow. 

I was writing the federal column for The Washington Post before the tightened security rules that followed 9/11 and bomb attacks on the U.S. Capitol.  Back then, I could wander in and around federal buildings and eat in government cafeterias.  Guards, if there were any, were there more for giving out information than for wanding or frisking people for weapons. That came later. In those days, people of all kinds  -- from ordinary folks to men with aluminum foil wrapped around their head to protect them from CIA probes -- could and did wander into the Washington Post building.  Some came to see me, including Joe Blow.

Joe was cheerful, smart (both street and Washington-wise) and knew what was important.  He was African-American and about my age.  So pleasant. Over a period of time, I learned that he worked in the payroll operation of a major federal agency and was concerned because he saw so many problems.  People weren’t getting paid the right amount, or on time or both. This was before many employees had direct deposit for their pay, and supervisors dropped checks on employee desks every payday.

Joe was invaluable.  He never betrayed his department, which he said he loved. And I believed him.  But he did point out where it and other agencies were having problems, making mistakes or just not doing what they were supposed to do for agency employees and the taxpayers.

Folks in agencies and in Congress were amazed at I what I knew and what the Post passed on each day to its 800,000 paid home delivery subscribers, including federal lawmakers and other members of the media.

And it was all due to Joe.  We used to meet in  a city park near the newspaper’s building. He would show me or hand off documents – none of which was classified.  It was  information that I could confirm via other channels.  And I never doubted him, nor did I need to.  He was 100-karat gold.

Once he asked if I wanted proof I could trust him. I told him I didn’t need any kind of proof because the information he gave me always checked out.  Nevertheless, he wanted to reassure me that he had inside contacts.  So we met in McPherson Square, not far from the Post, the White House and the agency where he worked.  He had “proof” for me. 

So what was it?

A check.  A green check.  A green government payroll check for a lot of money made out to the secretary of the department -- in other words, to the top guy.  And the date on the check, as I recall, was two days in the future.

So Joe had the top guy’s paycheck in his jacket pocket.  Good enough for me!

I never knew his real name.  But he did me a world of good -- I looked like Woodward and Bernstein BEFORE Woodward and Bernstein.  And he did the government a good turn by improving the paycheck process for many feds, not just people in his own department.

I thought of him recently because I saw an obit in the Post of a man (no picture) who sounded like Joe -- same age, same agency, who sounded like the same happy, smart, patriotic-in-the-right-way guy. 

Whether it was him or not, I was glad to be reminded of him and those days.

Thanks Joe.

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