The Cable

State Dept fails to protect identity of mysterious “senior administration official”

Ever get the feeling that the Obama administration abuses the use of anonymity when offering up "senior administration officials" to speak about policy on "background?"

Yeah, so do we.

The Obama team routinely gives briefings and interviews on the condition that the briefer not be identified by name, but only with a vague reference to the fact that they work for the administration. The reporters on the call know who the briefer is, but for the purposes of publication, only a vague description of the person can be used.

Traditionally, anonymity was granted by news organizations to officials so they would be free to talk about sensitive matters without fear of retribution or so officials could go beyond the talking points to say things that were true but impolitic.

But these days, "background" briefings are the rule, not the exception, and the demand for anonymity is sometimes so unnecessary and so silly that simply reading the transcript can demonstrate the futility of the exercise.

Such was the case with yesterday's State Department background briefing with a "senior administration official" regarding U.S. policy in the Middle East.

"We're very fortunate to have with us today [Senior Administration Official], who's been traveling in the region, and we thought it would be helpful to give you all just an update on his travels, his trips, his meetings, and an update on U.S. efforts to advance Middle East peace," Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner said to begin the call. "So without further ado, I will hand it over to [Senior Administration Official], but just - I'm sorry, just one - briefly before I do that, for the attribution on this, he should be henceforth known as senior administration official. This call is on background."

The "senior administration official" went on to describe his trip around the Middle East with NSC Senior Director Dennis Ross and his meetings with officials and special envoy throughout the region.

"Last week, Dennis Ross from the Washington and I followed up and met with Prime Minister Netanyahu and his advisors, and then I stayed on in the region and I've met with President Abbas, with the lead negotiator Saeb Erekat, Nabil Abu Rudaina, and others on the Palestinian side, and I've also met with the Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Elaraby this afternoon, the head of the Egyptian intelligence service General Mawafi, and I have other meetings later today at the Arab League," the official said.

Toner and the "senior administration official" must have realized that in several State Department briefings, spokesmen have talked about how Dennis Ross and Acting Special Envoy David Hale were traveling in the region. In one briefing, Spokesperson Victoria Nuland actually listed the specific meetings that Hale was conducting, which magically match the meetings of the "senior administration official" on the call.

Several readers wrote to The Cable to remark that the State Department was comically failing to protect the identity of its "senior administration official," despite the fact  no one really thought there was any risk in identifying him by name in the first place.

So what was the sensitive information that this "senior administration official" gave on the call that just couldn't be put to his name?

"Well, I don't want to get into the specifics of our diplomatic exchanges, particularly since we're smack in the middle of a trip and with the effort," the official said in a response to a question about what he was telling the parties.

"Obviously, the reconciliation issue is a significant one. It raises profound questions that the president himself has mentioned in his speech," the official said in response to a question about how to deal with a unity government that includes Hamas. "We'll need to face those questions."

Talking about President Obama's big Middle East Speech, the official said, "Well, I think the speech is powerful in and of itself and, I mean, this was a game-changing, historic development by our president. At this stage, I think I really can't address questions related to what we might do in the future with it."

Good thing none of that was on the record!

The Cable

U.S. and Japan admit basing plan has hit delays, but promise to press on

Top U.S. and Japanese officials announced today that the plan to relocate the controversial Futenma Air Station on Okinawa will not meet its target date, but they rejected the idea of altering the plan, as three top senators are demanding.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto and Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa at the State Department Tuesday morning for the first U.S.-Japan "2+2" meeting since 2007. They issued a long joint statement and held a short press briefing following the meeting, during which they acknowledged that the basing realignment plan, which was signed in 2006, will not meet its 2014 deadline for completion.

"We decided to remove the deadline of 2014 for its completion, but in order to avoid forever continuing the use of Futenma Air Station, we also confirmed a mutual strive for earliest possible relocation," Kitazawa said.

The announcement was not a surprise, considering that virtually no progress has been made on the relocation plan since 2006 due to local Okinawan opposition. "It does not take a math prodigy to look at the calendar, look at the original timelines that were laid out, look at the progress that has been made, and make a determination about what can and can't be completed between now and 2014," a senior administration official said Monday.

Gates added today that the two governments would proceed with the plan as agreed rather than alter it, as Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI), John McCain (R-AZ), and Jim Webb (D-VA) are demanding. The three senators want Futenma to be moved within the Kadena air base on Okinawa, rather than to a new facility on the island. They also want to scale back the relocation of 8,000 Marines to Guam and to halt the movement of military families to South Korea.

"The decision announced today on the Futenma replacement facility configuration, along with other elements of the 2006 Realignment Roadmap, shows we are making steady progress toward modernizing U.S. forward presence in the region. It is critical that we move forward with the relocation of Futenma and construction of facilities in Guam for the U.S. Marines," Gates said, effectively rejecting the senators' plan.

Gates then said that the senators' complaints are a manifestation of "growing Congressional impatience" with the relocation plan's lack of progress, raising the need for "concrete progress" over the next year.

But the senators aren't waiting until next year to try to alter the plan. Last week, Levin and McCain included several provisions in their version of the defense authorization bill that would remove authorization for funding of the entire force realignment plan unless the administration meets several of their demands for more information.

Webb, in a statement issued late Tuesday, dug in on his promise to try to change the plan.

"The decisions announced today with respect to basing realignments were predictable.  However, the reality of extensive delay in completing the Futenma Replacement Facility as it is now proposed underscores the importance of resolving U.S. basing realignments in a more realistic manner," he said. "The concerns regarding costs and feasibility raised by the Armed Services Committee should be fully addressed before Congress funds the proposed realignments."

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