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!
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.