Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Eyes wide shut

If the chaos that accompanied the White House press briefing during the North Korean missile launch is any indication of the state of the White House preparedness for an actual national security emergency, then there'll be very few people saying "Thank God George Bush is our president" in such an eventuality. The briefing alternated between the hacks getting updates from Press Secretary Tony Snow as each launch took place, coupled with a preposterous dance about whether the whole briefing was on or off the record.

It's clear ex post that the format was Snow, fellow spinner Dana Perino, and National Security Adviser Steven Hadley -- but for some reason, the administration was initially obsessed with having anonymous attribution to one or more of "senior administration official." Hence exchanges like the following:

[MR. SNOW] All right. Here is what we have. I've just done a similar briefing in the press room, attribution, senior administration official. We can talk about that if you have other concerns a little bit later ...
MS. PERINO: You might mention to her that you wanted to do this as a senior administration official.
MR. SNOW: Yes, we're doing this as senior administration official ... Q Steve, this is Deb from AP.
MR. HADLEY: Hi, Deb.
Q We've got all these senior administration official people talking here. Is there any reason why you can't be on the record, you're the National Security Advisor.
MR. SNOW: No, it's fine.
Q Great.
Q Does that change --
Q Mr. Hadley --
So are you okay on the record?
MR. HADLEY: About five people spoke at the same time. If there was a question or something we needed to clarify -- Tony, what is the process here. We will do a transcript of this?
MS. PERINO: Yes, we have a steno on.
MR. HADLEY: We've gone from senior administration official, on the record, let us just take a quick look. But, Tony, I didn't hear -- (inaudible) -- anything I was concerned about.
MR. SNOW: No. Dana.
MS. PERINO: Well, Tony, I think you need to make a decision. You started off as a senior administration official; I don't know if you want to change that.
Q I think we can let Snow be as a senior administration official, but this is a serious, diplomatic issue --
MR. SNOW: Yes, I think that's fine.
MR. HADLEY: Let's do that.

Whereupon the entire briefing became on-the-record. As of 11pm eastern time on the 4th, the stories in the New York Times and Washington Post quote Hadley without making reference to the antics that had preceded him going on the record. They would have been equally happy to go along with the original "senior administration official" designation, leaving readers in the dark about where the quotes were coming from.

The stories both still include anonymous quotes, apparently from the Pentagon (Rumsfeld?) -- perhaps enough to sustain for another day the symbiotic relationship between government officials and their friends in the press corps. The reading public, however, is left to wonder who said what and why.

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