On the night of April 29, according to his now-infamous Twitter feed, Keith Urbahn toasted the end of the workweek with a tall mint julep on a warm Washington evening, made from mint from his garden and 1792 small-batch Kentucky bourbon.
By the end of the weekend, Urbahn, 27, had become a minor celebrity in the media storm that surrounded the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, and his Twitter feed had jumped from a few hundred followers to nearly 7,000—and counting.
The reason for his newfound fame was a 140-character message that Urbahn typed out on his BlackBerry, amid the mad speculation over what President Obama was going to say in a surprise news conference on Sunday evening.
“So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden,” he wrote. “Hot damn.”
Urbahn, a top aide to former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve, had moments earlier been lying in bed alongside his wife, taking a rare evening off from the endless news crush to watch the NHL playoffs. (His previous Tweet, from an hour before, read: “[Washington Capitals left winger Alex] Ovechkin defines clutch. Unbelievable goal to tie it up w #Caps goalie pulled. Heading to OT now.”)
As reporters—still foggy from the White House Correspondents Dinner parties that had stretched into the wee hours—scrambled to figure out the subject of the news conference, Urbahn fielded a call from what he only described as a “connected network TV news producer” who asked him to be put in touch with Rumsfeld for an on-air interview. Bin Laden, it seemed, had been killed, and the network wanted reaction.
Urbahn waved off the request—it was too premature—and turned on the news, where there were still shots of the White House and network anchors who seemed to know very little about what was to come.
“I mentioned it offhand to my wife, and just threw it down on Twitter thinking there surely have to be a couple of dozen other people who have heard the same rumor and thought of [doing] the same thing,” he told The Observer.
“But apparently not. The Tweet went viral and it was off to the races at that point.”
Indeed it was. Urbahn’s Tweet was read and re-Tweeted by some of his friends in D.C.’s young right-wing policy-maker circles, and then a few more, before it was read by Brian Stelter, the hyperactive New York Times TV reporter, who then sent it out to his 54,000 followers, just as the social-media site was undergoing an unprecedented crush, with more than 5,000 messages being sent every second.
“I had no idea who he was. He just popped up on my Twitter feed,” Stelter told The Observer. “There was a lot of guessing about bin Laden, but no one wanted to say it out loud. He allowed people to take that idea seriously.”
Urbahn is careful to say: “I’m not a journalist. I was watching the news; they were very careful not to report things that were rumor or single-sourced, and that was the right thing to do.” But he knows his way around a newsroom, and has some experience with the way that lone scribblings can ricochet around the Internet. As an undergraduate columnist for the Yale Daily News, Urbahn earned a degree of blog notoriety for a piece titled “Radical Un-chic: Think Before You Wear,” which decried the uptick of Marxist paraphernalia on campus.
“In casually walking around campus Monday and Tuesday, I saw no fewer than three pre-frosh wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Che Guevara’s pensive black and white face; another proudly sported the Soviet hammer and sickle,” he wrote. “While hardly evidence of a Red invasion of the Yale campus, the approval of communist [sic] emblems as acceptable pop culture icons is nothing short of disturbing.”
A summa cum laude in religious studies, Urbahn is remembered from his days around New Haven as an earnest and unapologetic motorcycle-riding conservative—a rarity on a campus where, according to one classmate of Urbahn’s, transvestites outnumber Republicans. After an internship with the Department of Defense, he was hired by Rumsfeld’s office. He survived a brief interregnum on Capitol Hill after his boss was sacked, then returned to Rumsfeld’s orbit when the former secretary set up the Rumsfeld Foundation on M Street in downtown D.C. He helped Rumsfeld write his memoirs, Known and Unknown (Sentinel HC, 2011)—the book debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list, before falling from sight a few weeks later—at which point, FishbowlDC named him one of the capital’s “Hottest Media Types.” He is now safely settled down with his wife, Kristen, of Louisville, Ky. (Urbahn graduated high school in New Canaan, Conn.)
In Rumsfeld’s office, he developed a reputation as a fierce defender of his boss. He once criticized the Pulitzer Committee for honoring The New York Times for a piece that smeared Rumsfeld. “Does the Pulitzer give prizes for works of fiction?” he said. “Perhaps they just got the wrong category.” He also took shots at luminaries such as Sy Hersh and Bob Woodward for what he deemed biased and inaccurate reporting.
(After Woodward wrote a harsh review of Rumsfeld’s memoir, Urbahn sent out a statement which read, “The well-known story about Bob Woodward is that he practices what is derided as ‘access journalism,’ whereby he favors those who provide him with information and gossip and leak against their colleagues. Those who refuse to play along, such as Donald Rumsfeld, then pay the price.”)
Before his famous Tweet went out Sunday night, official Washington had been in a kind of frenetic standstill. Cheryl Bolen, a White House reporter with BNA, a trade publication for government professionals, had been on pool duty earlier in the day, which included live reports on Obama’s half a round of golf, until the White House press office had given the lid—journalism-speak for the notice that the president would have no more avails for the rest of the day. When the lid was suddenly lifted, she hustled back to the White House from her home in suburban Maryland, but administration officials remained tight-lipped. She was e-mailing and calling around to her sources when Urbahn’s Tweet went live.
“Apparently a few minutes later it hit Twitter, and a colleague of mine, a reporter friend of mine e-mailed me, and said I believe bin Laden has died,” Bolen said.
Sam Stein, the Huffington Post’s man in D.C., was packing up to attend his grandmother’s funeral in Connecticut when he went back to work and started scrolling through Twitter, listening to cable news and e-mailing his editors. A reporter on staff who knew Urbahn reached out to him, and the rest of the staff now at least had a more specific, yes-or-no question to ask to their sources.
Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary to President George W. Bush, got a Washington Post news alert on his BlackBerry.
“I immediately went into Defcon One,” he said, fearing that news of a biological attack was about to be announced. He sat down in front of his television with his Twitter.
“I saw Keith’s Tweet, and it made perfect sense to me,” he said. “And I started Tweeting, re-Tweeting him, sending my own messages out. Nights like last night, Americans go to Twitter. And that’s where the news broke.”
Part of the reason for this was, of course, Urbahn’s bio, listed right on the top of his Twitter page: “Chief of Staff, Office of Donald Rumsfeld, Navy Reserve intel officer, and owner of two miniature dachshunds.”
It was naturally assumed that Urbahn’s “reputable source” was none other than his boss, Rumsfeld.
“It was a pretty definitive statement, and I think it just clicked in people’s minds that, given who Keith works for, he wasn’t just making shit up,” said Noah Pollak, a fellow young conservative thinker in Washington and friend of Urbahn’s. “And that’s also not Keith. He wasn’t prone to exaggeration. He is a pretty straight-shooting guy.”
Urbahn disputed the notion that his proximity to Rumsfeld may have led the rest of the universe to assume that he had gotten the information from someone who maintains close ties with the Defense Department.
“If you look at my Twitter feed, it’s very detached from my job,” he said. “I think they are separate. It’s more personal. I don’t see them as linked.”
Urbahn said he wrote it, in fact, without regard to how it would be perceived.
“It didn’t give me pause at the time simply because I thought it would be repeated many more times and there was no chance in God’s green earth that my Tweet would in fact be what broke the news,” he said.
Still, when Fleischer, for one, saw the post, he said that he just assumed that it was sent out with the former defense secretary’s sanction, not least because of the Rumsfeldian sign-off “hot damn.”
“I can only presume that Donald Rumsfeld and Rumsfeld’s office made the judgment before they hit Tweet that they were not going to have egg on their face. Whether you are saying something live on the air during an interview or you are Tweeting, if you are wrong about something famously prominent in an area where it is your expertise, people will take notice.
“He had to know he had it right before he hit the Tweet,” Fleischer continued. “He had to know. Keith and the secretary. Frankly, I don’t think people who work for Donald Rumsfeld would mess with something that important without the boss’ approval. I don’t know that, because I haven’t talked to Keith, but knowing Rummy.”
Fleischer added: “I am always conscious of my former job when I Tweet.”
Told by The Observer, however, that Urbahn did not in fact clear the 140-character message with Rumsfeld, or, by his own account, give much thought as to what it would mean, Fleischer sat in silence for several seconds.
“Wow. I am startled. He didn’t clear it with Rummy? Wow. Wow. Well, that puts it in a different light. … I think you are onto a really interesting story because that was how the world learned.”
Urbahn said that had Rumsfeld provided the information, he would not have sent it out into the world.
“It would not be his style to do that, and if he would have told me, I would have kept it in confidence, for sure,” he said.
Urbahn acknowledged that it was, in fact, his relationship with Rumsfeld that sent high-ranking news executives calling him late on a Sunday evening, and he said that his boss seemed unconcerned, despite next-day stories about it in The New York Times, Politico and the Daily Caller.
“We’ve laughed it off,” he said. “We haven’t had long conversations about it, and I think it is what it is.”
Urbahn added: “He is 78 years old, but he understands social media. He is on Twitter himself and he Tweets things and comes up with ideas for things to throw on Facebook, and you know he gets it. I didn’t have to explain to him what it was. He knew.”
(As for Urbahn’s other job, as an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve, a spokeswoman declined to say if the Tweet was inappropriate, directing The Observer instead to a part of the Navy’s guidelines for social-media usage “best practices.”)
Urbahn seemed anxious for his newfound celebrity to pass. He is not, he said, interested in a second career as a breaking-news Tweeter. He said that the real story is about the journalists who stayed up late working their sources, and, of course, about the Navy SEALs who performed the operation, the intelligence agents who tracked bin Laden, and the president who authorized the strike. He doesn’t know what it means now that journalists have to compete against their sources to break stories.
“I mean, I can’t really wrap my head around all of this, so I may not be the best person to analyze why this has become the story,” he said. “This is a bit of a distraction, and it reaches a little bit to the level of media navel-gazing for my taste.”
And although there has been some snickering that an aide to an Obama antagonist stepped on the president’s message before he could address the nation, Urbahn is quick to point out that he only beat the Twitter feeds of the White House’s top correspondents by a few minutes. Reporters and flacks—and, well, everyone—he said, would have to get used a to a new social-media world without the same rules and standards.
Still, the question remains: Hot damn?
“It’s got a Southern ring to it,” Urbahn said. “Maybe something I picked up from my wife’s family being from Kentucky, but it’s not a known phrase of mine. At least I don’t think so.”