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The National Security Archive at George Washington University

CONSORTIUM NEWS - Edited by Robert Parry


January 02, 2004

A Reader's Guide to SAOs (Senior Administration Officials)

Bush People Will Talk, But What Are Their Names? (11/21/03 - The Washingtonian)

From the November, 2003 issue of The Washingtonian, a DC monthly magazine publishing since 1965.

Bush People Will Talk, But What Are Their Names? by Harry Jaffe (national editor, Washingtonian)

[...] Every White House tries to control information, and the Bush administration has been more successful than most, according to reporters who have covered many presidents. But the Bush team seems obsessed about keeping the names of top officials out of the news except for strictly sanctioned occasions.

Coverage of the executive branch is packed with quotes by "senior administration officials."

"If it's not said by the President, it's not attributed," says Jonathan Weisman, who covers economic policy for the Washington Post. "They've gone hog-wild with this."

Who are the people behind the blind quotes? To help news consumers decipher dispatches from the White House, The Washingtonian has compiled a Reader's Guide to SAOs (Senior Administration Officials).

  • White House: Senior political adviser Karl Rove and chief of staff Andrew Card rarely are SAOs. If they speak to reporters, it is on deep background; they are rarely quoted.

    Chief White House SAO is Dan Bartlett, communications director. We hear from him often, but rarely by name. Even press secretary Scott McClellan might show up as an SAO.

  • Vice President's office: The face behind most blind quotes from Dick Cheney's shop is chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby. But we will also be hearing from Kevin Kellems, who moved to the White House from the Pentagon, where he was Paul Wolfowitz's SAO.
  • National Security Council: Foreign policy is hot, and the pressure on the NSC to provide information is intense. It is full of SAOs. Chief among them is national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. She has spoken at lunches at newspaper offices and demanded to be quoted as an SAO.

    On general foreign policy, the next most likely SAO is Stephen Hadley, Rice's deputy. Anna Perez, formerly with First Lady Barbara Bush, has been an all-purpose SAO.

    If the story is about Israel and the Middle East, the most likely SAO is Middle East specialist Elliott Abrams. If it's Europe, the SAO is probably Daniel Fried, NSC special assistant for European and Eurasian affairs.

  • Defense Department: The Pentagon's tightly controlled culture has become even more closed under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Still, there are likely suspects behind the SAOs.

    The most frequent unnamed source is spokesman Lawrence Di Rita, who will often go off the record. Other Pentagon officials who use the SAO cover are Stephen Cambone, intelligence undersecretary, and Dov Zakheim, comptroller. And don't count out policy chief Douglas Feith.

  • State Department: Secretary Colin Powell's security and arms-control specialist John Bolton has it both ways. He will show up by name behind a quote but will also hide behind the SAO guise.
  • Economic affairs: Treasury will summon reporters to unveil an official report, but it will force them to refer to the specialists as SAOs. In a economic-policy story, if the SAO is not spokesman Rob Nichols, it will likely be Greg Mankiw, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers.

Being forced to use unnamed sources has often angered reporters, except in the cases where they invite the leak.

CBS White House correspondent Bill Plante says the game of identifying SAOs is an old one. He and Sam Donaldson would try to slip silhouettes of unnamed sources on the TV screen.

Henry Kissinger, who made background interviews a maddening art form, once offered reporters an endless interview on a long plane ride during the Ford administration. Then Post editor Ben Bradlee was so furious at the constraints that he ran Kissinger's photo over the SAO caption.

So far the Bush administration has maintained discipline over its talking troops. But as the political season matures and the White House needs to get its message to receptive reporters, it might be forced to loosen its grip.

"They will need us more," says a television producer who books news shows. "We're already seeing them offer up people who we used to know only as SAOs."

[Read the source...]


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