Frustrated by the White House, reporters share their favorite responses

Editor’s note: In the Loop resumes its four-day a week print schedule, publishing Tuesday through Friday. We’re stepping up the pace with the help of our new colleague Colby Itkowitz, formerly the Washington correspondent for the Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., and transportation reporter for Congressional Quarterly.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

After Politico’s Dylan Byers posted a recent play-by-play illustrating the cat-and-mouse games the White House plays with the press, frustrated reporters took to Twitter recounting their favorite response lines from administration officials with the hashtag #TweetYourAnonymousFlackQuotes.

This friction is, of course, nothing new. Past White Houses and government agencies have certainly been evasive. But judging from the frequent complaints we hear, the lack of transparency is worse than ever.

Our colleagues have found that a number of truly unhelpful responses have become standard at many agencies. Now, as a Loop public service, we include some of the most common — and egregious — examples (with some suggested reporter responses).

1. “Why is this a story?” (Because I say it is.)

2. “Who told you that?” (A person who sits in your building.)

3. “Where did you get that?” (From the e-mail you sent out to your colleagues this morning.)

4. “That’s not accurate.” (And what exactly is not accurate?)

5. “You’re way off base.” (Am I?)

6. “I have nothing for you on that.” (So, “No comment?”)

7. “You’ll have to contact [another agency, which happens to be in the midst of an ‘all hands’ conference in Vegas].” (I did. They told me to call you.)

8. “So, what’s the question?” (Repeat the same question.)

9. “No comment.” (Thanks — that’s helpful.)

10. “Who are you? Politico?” [In other words, insulting a fine news organization by implying you’re asking a trivial question.] (Defend Politico and/or ignore and repeat the same question.)

11. “Off the record, no comment.” [Most people not in the business intend this to mean “Don’t use my name” or “on background,” or “Don’t use my name or agency,” meaning “deep background.” The beauty of this one is that you can’t use the “no comment.”] (Just say the agency “declined to comment.”)

12. Their final tactic, when they realize their efforts to stop the story have failed: “We are going to point out that this is wrong.” (Go ahead. Then you’ll be lying to a lot more people than me.)

13. Then: “!@#$&*.” (Hang up.)

An unwitting winner

And now, the winner of the National Security Archive’s ninth annual Rosemary Award, named for President Richard Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, whose spectacular stretch allegedly erased 181 / 2 minutes of a Watergate tape.

The not-so-coveted award, given by the nonprofit archive at George Washington University for the worst open-government performance of 2013, goes to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Clapper won for answering “No, sir,” when Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on missions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Clapper added: “Not wittingly.”

Now that we’ve had the revelations of National Security Agency collection of data from U.S. phone-call records and surveillance of online communications to and from foreign targets, the answer, Clapper has said, was the “least untruthful” he could give, and it was “too cute by half.”

The award also recognizes NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander, former FBI director Robert Mueller and the Justice Department’s national security division for claiming that an entire wiretap court opinion was appropriately given the highest of “top secret” classifications, including the part that included the “actual language of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution” that deals with unreasonable searches.

It takes a contest?

Hillary Clinton told a publishers group in New York last week that she still hadn’t come up with a title for her forthcoming memoir and turned to the Loop for guidance.

“Helpfully, about a year ago, The Washington Post asked readers to send in suggestions,” she said. “For example, one possibility was ‘It Takes a World,’ a fitting sequel to ‘It Takes a Village.’ Another plays off my love of all things Tina Fey: ‘Bossy Pantsuit,’ although we can no longer say one of those words.”

She continued: “ ‘The Scrunchie Chronicles: 112 Countries and It’s Still All About My Hair.’ That actually is a keeper — that’s on the shortlist.”

But she’s still stumped. So we’re relaunching the contest! Send suggestions to intheloop@
washpost.com
with the subject line “Hillarycontest.” The top five winners will receive a highly coveted “In the Loop” T-shirt.

Please provide your name, profession, mailing address and T-shirt size (M, L or XL). Also include a phone number. Deadline is April 4. Good luck!

And don’t forget to enter the Loop Obamacare Enrollment Contest! Simply guess the number of first-year sign-ups.

The 10 entries closest to the actual number will get the aforementioned T-shirt and lifetime bragging rights. The same guidelines apply, except the e-mail subject line should be “Obamacare.” Oh, and those in the administration or on the Hill may enter “on background.” The Obamacare deadline is Monday, but we need your entry — only one prediction per person — by noon March 28.

— With Colby Itkowitz

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop. Twitter:@InTheLoopWP.

Colby Itkowitz is a national reporter for In The Loop.
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