BROOKE GLADSTONE: As we have read this week, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill has caused something of a dust-up for criticizing President Bush's decision to impose tariffs on steel from abroad. Perhaps he should have known better than to express his disapproval during a dinner speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in front of some 300 members including New York Times staffers -- or, perhaps not. The Council maintains guidelines that all statements at their meetings are strictly "not for attribution." But O'Neill's remarks still wound up on the front page of the New York Times. So how did it get the story? Joining us to weigh in on all of this is Les Gelb, a former Times editor, now president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome back.
LES GELB: Always fun.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay now let's run through these terms: "off the record, not for attribution" etc, as they apply at a Council on Foreign Relations event.
LES GELB: The, the difference is very important. "Not for attribution" means you can say the substance of what was said to anyone -- but you can't say who said it. When it's "off the record" you can't identify either the speaker or the substance of what's said.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now each member of the Council is aware of these guidelines, but do you-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
LES GELB: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- do you always go over the rules and announce them at the beginning of each meeting?
LES GELB:We certainly did, and obviously the board of directors here and I and the staff are very upset when this happens, because it goes to the whole issue of candor at our meetings. We have lots of journalists, as you know, members -- almost 300 journalists -- and it's very important for them and for the rest of us to get the kind of understanding of problems and issues and policies that you can't get in sort of "set-piece, on the record" speeches.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right. But the New York Times piece said that it obtained its information independent of Times staffers on the Council.
LES GELB:Right. I called Howell Raines who is the executive editor of the Times and expressed my concern that the information might have come from a Times reporter at the meeting who didn't observe the not-for-attribution rule, and Howell spoke to all the reporters who were in any way involved and assured me that none of them had broken the rule; that the information had come from a Council member. And I told Howell, and I mean it, I accept his word a hundred percent.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you don't know who that member might be. It might have been somebody listening on the w-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
LES GELB:No, nor am I going to conduct an investigation. We're not the FBI. I'm issuing a statement in our monthly calendar reminding people of the importance of keeping our word. This has only happened 3 times in the history of this organization! And it shouldn't happen at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You said that your dinner speeches are frequently not for attribution. Are they ever off the record?
LES GELB:Yes. A few are. And it usually is when we have a smaller group after the general meeting, and we really want the conversation to be relaxed where you're not watching your words at all. And in those instances we often do put it off the record.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Do you ever wonder whether the public is being served by these meetings or whether it just contributes to the creation of a, you know, Washington-New York cabal that exists on a plane separate from the rest of us? [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
LES GELB: Hmmmm. Well, look. It's not as if every American is equally interested in all this stuff. In fact most Americans aren't very interested in these issues, and the issues are dealt with by particular groups that are intensely interested in a particular issue. So what we're doing in, in a way is broadening the number of people who get let in on the joke, so to speak. So I don't think we're undermining democracy; I think we're advancing it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well Les, let me ask you, what exactly is The Council on Foreign Relations for people who don't know? I mean there are people out there who probably lump it together with the Trilateral Commission.
LES GELB: [LAUGHS] Right. Well, I was even a member of the Trilateral Commission [LAUGHTER] but fortunately, since I never attended a meeting, they suggested I might drop out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You shouldn't have said that. [LAUGHS] [LAUGHTER]
LES GELB: The Council is an organization of about 3800 people from all around the country, and they're, they're leaders and thinkers, and you know the membership runs from Newt Gingrich to Dan Ellsberg and it includes everybody who's been secretary of state for I don't know how many years, 50 years almost; almost every defense secretary; every NSC advisor; and it is critical that there be one place in our country where people who have differing views can come and discuss matters with one another without fear that it's going to become a public issue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Or a headline in the New York Times.
LES GELB: Sure!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Les Gelb, thank you very much.
LES GELB: You're very welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Les Gelb is the president of The Council on Foreign Relations.