Who's That Source? The "Official" Story

Are you ever annoyed when you read or hear a news report that quotes a "senior administration official?"

Do you wonder why the reporter can know who the person is, but not you?

Part of that practice is on trial in the Scooter Libby case, where reporters had to reveal their behind-the-scenes relationships with sources.

Now, I can understand why the source who came to be known as "Deep Throat" didn't want his name made public.

But can it get any sillier than when a high-ranking U.S. official holds a news conference with a group of reporters but insists that he not be identified by name.

That happened this week aboard Air Force Two as Vice President Cheney headed home from a round-the-world trip that included unannounced stops in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

A "senior official" on the plane chatted with reporters about the trip, and you don't need a Masters Degree in Political Science to figure out who reporters were talking to.

Just read the official transcript of the briefing by that "senior administration official" and his identity is simple to discern from passages like this:

I've seen some press reporting (that) says, "Cheney went in to beat up on them, threaten them." That's not the way I work. I don't know who writes that, or maybe somebody gets it from some source who doesn't know what I'm doing, or isn't involved in it. But the idea that I'd go in and threaten someone is an invalid misreading of the way I do business.
Gee, who is that complaining to reporters in the first-person about something said about the Vice President? Could it be ....DICK CHENEY?

And in describing Cheney's talks with the presidents of the countries he just visited, the official said this:

I would describe my sessions both in Pakistan and Afghanistan as very productive. We've had notable successes in both places. I've often said before and I believe it's still true that we've captured and killed more al Qaeda in Pakistan than anyplace else. And I think we're making progress in Afghanistan.
If that passage was on an SAT and asked you to identify the speaker, these would be your choices:
A. A senior administration official.
B. Vice President Cheney
C. All of the above.
D. Duh.
It was apparent that even White House spokesman Tony Snow thought it was silly, though he couldn't say so.

On behalf of reporters, he asked if he could put the background briefing on-the-record, but he hit a stonewall.

"I have spoken with the Vice President's office and the ground rules that were laid out are going to remain in effect," Snow said at his midday briefing.

He was told that reporters on Air Force Two had agreed to the ground rules and Cheney was not inclined to change them now.

It's evident from the transcript that Cheney outed himself as the anonymous official, but Snow grew exasperated as reporters pressed him about it.

"Look, I'm not going to get myself stuck in the endless sort of spin cycle of trying to deal with rules on senior administration officials," said Snow.

And then he turned the scold into a threat, warning reporters:

"If you would like those briefings to cease, we could probably make that happen, but I think you would be poorer for it, and we would, too."

He's right about that. Alot of the information reporters get on sensitive matters, are convey by officials speaking anonymously.

But it does go to extremes.

I remember a time on a foreign trip with President Bush, when his then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice briefed reporters on background as a "senior administration official."

But 10 minutes later, she was live on CNN saying the exact same things on-the-record and in-person that she told the rest of us anonymously.

The press rose in protest and got the White House to put Rice's background briefing on-the-record.

But it's clear Vice President Cheney intends to remain anonymous.

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    Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent.