Camp David Reporter's (Blank) Notebook

Members of rival political Peronist groups battle each other at the entrance to a new mausoleum for Juan Domingo Peron, Tuesday Oct. 17, 2006 in San Vicente.
AP Photo
"Welcome to the daily press blackout."

Lots of laughter followed State Department spokesman Richard Boucher's opening line at the mid-day briefing on Thursday, Day Three of the Camp David Middle East Peace Summit. But the truth is the U.S.-imposed clampdown on news filtering out of Camp David is working, for the most part.

On Day One, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart announced he had "no intention to provide progress reports." A tidbit of information here, a morsel there. That's what the briefings would tell us. So-and-so met with so-and-so and then all the delegations had dinner together.

The menu was steak, salmon, salad and some frothy kind of dessert. Virtually nothing has been divulged in the twice-a-day briefings on any of the substantive issues—Palestinian statehood, the status of Jerusalem.

All Quiet
News reports from Camp David:

Voice of America:
"U.S. officials refused to comment on reports that three members of the PLO executive committee have arrived in Washington hoping to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. A news blackout remains in effect…"

Irish Times:
"It is believed that one of the main proposals under discussion is that large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank would be annexed to Israel in exchange for unpopulated Israeli territory. Due to a media blackout, officials at the talks have not confirmed this."

Agence France-Presse:
"With President Bill Clinton taking a temporary break from the proceedings, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright took charge of the U.S. team, planning intense discussions with various officials amid a news blackout imposed by Washington."

"President Clinton has returned to the Middle East peace summit at Camp David but has refused to be drawn on the substance of the negotiations. Mr Clinton told journalists he believed the less he said, the greater would be the chance of success."

Israel Wire:
"White House spokesman Joe Lockhart kept to the ordered press blackout, delivering the standard statements without revealing any information vis-à-vis the ongoing negotiations."

(Source: various)

Perhaps 150 reporters, photographers and broadcast technicians from the U.S., Israel and the Palestinian territories, as well as representatives from Eurpe and Asia, are camped out in the Thurmont Elementary School, about five miles from Camp David.

Many of those gathered covered other Middle East peace talks at Wye River and Shepherdstown and are used to the drill. An Israeli or Palestinian official, not important enough to actually be at Camp David, appears in the press center parking lot and reporters and camera crews gather to listen to whatever point of view is being expressed.

Demonstrators—some in favor of an agreement, others opposed—take turns appearing close to the cameras. Rumors spread.

And there are cell phones. Everyone has a cell phone and their own stash of carefully gathered cell phone numbers for the participants or their spokesmen. Here in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland, however, cell phone users have run into a bit of a problem. Cell phones are not all that useful.

Either your call does not go through or, if it does, the connection is not very good.

Technology, it seems, is conspiring with U.S. event planners to keep leaks to a minimum. Not to mention the fact that the American negotiators have convinced the Israeli and Palestinian delegations to cut out their usual practice of leaking every up and down movement in the talks.

So reporters while away their time doing perfunctory stories, talking about how little news there is, and eating too many homemade doughnuts and pieces of freshly baked fruit pie. There's also homemade soup. The folks from a local church and some of the kids and teachers from the elementary school where we're squatting are all too happy to keep at least our stomachs -- if not our notebooks -- full. It's summertime and the peaches and blueberries are excellent. After lunch, a number of reporters' computers seem to have poker or solitaire games on their screens.

Having a press center in an elementary school offers one other curiosity. The restrooms are labeled "boys" and "girls," which is what you'd expect.

And the doors have no locks on them, which comes as a bit of a surprise if you haven't spent much time in the third grade lately. The toilets are also quite a bit lower than most adults are used to. Oh, well. Journalists are nothing if not adaptable.

The reporters' frustration became more evident at the evening briefing, but spokesman Boucher merely quoted the president, who said earlier Thursday, "The less we say, the better it works."

And it's only day three.