British Ambassador to Italy Ivor Roberts kicked up a huge fuss this week on several levels when he lobbed this little grenade into a closed conference of British and Italian diplomats: "George W. Bush is the best recruiting sergeant for al Qaeda," Roberts said. "If there is anyone ready to celebrate his eventual reelection, it is al Qaeda."

Whoa! Aren't the Brits our junior partners in the mighty Coalition of the Willing? Not to worry. The British Foreign Office quickly fired off a response saying that the comments "do not represent British government policy." Roberts, a career diplomat, was attending what was clearly announced as an off-the-record meeting last weekend in Tuscany. But off the record, translated into Italian as ufficioso or perhaps loosely as sotto voce, may mean something different there.

So when someone leaked the comments to the newspaper Corriere della Sera, the paper relied on the oft-used "unless the stuff is really dynamite" exception to off the record.

Roberts, meanwhile, issued a statement Tuesday saying "these remarks as reported do not reflect my personal views."

Nice try, Sir Ivor, said the London Daily Telegraph, most excellent try. The paper noted that it disagreed with his views, but "we salute the brilliant diplomatese he used to try to get out of the gaffe."

He's not denying he said it, the paper said, and if they don't represent his view or the "Foreign Office line," then what have we?

". . . . The only conclusion we can come to is that Sir Ivor was trying to deny the force of what he said," the Daily Telegraph said, "while admitting that he said it: the sort of impossible task that we have expected our diplomats to do for centuries."

Speaking (Off the Record) of Gaffes

Also off the record . . . Some things are off the record. Some things are on background, meaning the speaker can be quoted but not specifically identified.

So on Tuesday, a senior administration official, briefing reporters on background, acknowledged that the topic of the upcoming U.S. election was raised in nearly all the president's bilateral meetings these days.

"All the leaders, frankly, from [new Indian Prime Minister Manmohan] Singh to [Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro] Koizumi to [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf, they are all curious how it's going," the official said. "They are all politicians, and at one time or another they all have their own elections or their own parliaments or their own congresses. . . . It's one thing they all have in common . . . is that they have to deal with elections and parliaments, and they always in my experience talk about it."

Musharraf? Wait a minute! Wasn't he a general who came to power in 1999 in a coup that deposed the elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif? Sure, Musharraf has a parliament to deal with, but he has hardly been staying up all night waiting for the late returns to come in from Gwadar to see if he'll be president.

At one point, our unidentified "senior administration official" said: "I'm the Asia director" at the National Security Council and noted that he had lived in Japan. Anyone reading the transcript might, after hours of digging, use these hints to speculate that the official could possibly be Michael J. Green, the National Security Council senior director for Asia.

Green, who is fluent -- really fluent, not just kinda fluent -- in Japanese and is considered one of the leading experts on Japan and Korea, had been NSC director for those countries. He recently moved up to assume the Asia portfolio, which includes India and Pakistan.

10 Points Make You Vice President

Loop Fans may recall that in July some folks at the Department of Justice set up a net nanny program called MailMarshal that censored employee e-mail containing bad words. This noble effort was canned after Justice Department employees complained. But some parts of the Department of Energy, which is tasked with ensuring the security of the nation's nuclear facilities, have decided to make darned sure appropriate language is being used by staffers.

So it has launched a program to block dirty words -- unclear which -- apparently lest some children hack into the Energy Department's computers and be grossed out.

The blocking program appears to focus not on internal e-mails but on messages going from DOE to outsiders.

There even appears to be a scoring system.

Here's a recent example of the blocking program in action:

Your message contained inappropriate language which is unacceptable at the U.S. Department of Energy. Please make the appropriate changes and resubmit your message.

Thank you.

Obscene Word -- Return To Sender (Recipient) Reason:

List: Obscene Word -- Return to Sender Found the expression [part of a well-known Cheneyism] 2 times, at 1 points each, for an expression score of 2 points.

Total Message Score: 2 points.

So if you get 4 points they'll take away your keyboard?

Power Behind Embargo Douses Lights

A historic departure to be noted: R. Richard Newcomb, head of the Treasury Department office that enforces the Cuba embargo, is taking off for the private sector. Newcomb, director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control for the past 17 years, is joining an international law firm Oct. 1. His office enforces the Cuba travel ban and plays a role in stopping money from going to terrorist networks.