Cheney's Trip Renews Debate Over Attribution in News Accounts

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 1, 2007

The reporters traveling with Vice President Cheney as he flew from Afghanistan to Oman yesterday were granted an interview with someone who would be identified only as a "senior administration official." But the official's identity would not remain a state secret for long.

"Let me just make one editorial comment here," the SAO said about the vice president's talks with Pakistan's leader. "I've seen some press reporting 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."

The SAO also said that "I was very careful" in choosing words to criticize House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Iraq strategy.

The first-person pronoun gave away the game. But it also raised the question: Why did Cheney feel the need to speak on a not-for-attribution basis, and why did the seven journalists on the trip go along?

Lee Anne McBride, Cheney's press secretary, could not, under the ground rules, confirm the obvious. But, she said, "it was important to provide the press and public with briefings on these meetings, and it was determined that a more comprehensive readout could be provided on a background basis."

Administration officials concluded that, for diplomatic reasons, Cheney could not publicly discuss private conversations with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Mark Silva, a Chicago Tribune reporter who made the trip, was among those pressing Cheney's staff for an on-the-record briefing, saying the vice president has been elected twice.

"At the start of our meeting with a senior administration official, in which he advised us that he insisted this talk be on background, we asked him, too, to go on the record," Silva said. Cheney agreed to be identified only while discussing the suicide bombing at Bagram air base in Afghanistan that occurred while he was there.

Silva credited the White House with releasing an accurate transcript despite numerous "I" references. "But it's also a measure of how absurd the entire business of speaking as an SAO is."

Holly Bailey, a Newsweek correspondent, said she was "very surprised at how quickly the SAO laid out the ground rules," adding that "it was done so quickly that we didn't have a lot of chance to object." She said the trip was frustrating because reporters had no more than 20 minutes' access to the vice president on the nine-day trip.

Cheney's backgrounder took place as a federal jury is weighing perjury charges against his former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, related to his role in telling reporters about covert CIA operative Valerie Plame without being identified. Libby testified that the vice president directed him to conduct the background discussions with Judith Miller, then a New York Times reporter.

Senior U.S. officials have been briefing reporters without their names attached since Henry A. Kissinger was engaged in Middle East shuttle diplomacy. Sometimes these officials appear in the White House briefing room. President Bush and several of his predecessors have conducted such background sessions with, for example, network anchors and friendly columnists.

Journalists have occasionally objected to the ground rules in these sessions, but for the most part they have become an accepted ritual.

Time magazine blogger Ana Marie Cox called the senior official's Air Force Two transcript "as blatant as birdshot in the face," adding: "The willingness of the press corps to go along with this not-even-trying level of deception is especially embarrassing."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company