Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, who testified on Monday in the CIA leak investigation regarding Valerie Plame, says he first learned her identity from a “senior administration official.” That official wasn’t Vice President Dick Cheney, according to another unnamed source. It might have been national security adviser Stephen Hadley—who neither confirmed nor denied the charge at a press conference on Friday. Which members of the administration count as “senior officials?”
It’s mostly up to the reporter. A source who wishes to remain anonymous can ask a reporter for a specific attribution, like “Bush aide” or “source close to the White House.” It’s up to the reporter to decide whether the suggested title is too general or misleading. If a mid-level member of the White House staff—a deputy assistant to the president, for example—asked a reporter for a highfalutin title like “senior administration official,” she might refuse. A source might also ask for a title that’s not highfalutin enough: Judith Miller of the New York Times has been criticized for agreeing to refer to Scooter Libby as a “former Hill staffer” rather than a “senior administration official.”
Since there are no hard and fast rules on attribution, reporters can punch up their stories by ascribing “senior” status to just about anyone. The only people who can’t be senior administration officials, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank told the Explainer, are the interns.
Several Washington reporters said that “senior” officials in the White House must at the very least have “commissioned status.” Commissioned staffers include those from the top three ranks of the White House hierarchy. In descending order of importance, these are: assistants to the president, deputy assistants to the president, and special assistants to the president. The 80 or so commissioned staffers in the White House get special dining-room and parking privileges. In general, they also get higher salaries.
In practice, reporters rarely use the term “senior” for anyone below assistant level. (Special assistant Blake Gottesman, who sits right next to the Oval Office and serves as the president’s personal aide, isn’t likely to get the title.) There are almost 20 assistants to the president, including familiar figures like Stephen Hadley, senior adviser Karl Rove, chief of staff Andrew Card, and press secretary Scott McClellan. The vice president is, of course, also a senior administration official. The most senior official of all—the president—rarely speaks on background. Bill Clinton’s press secretary tried (and failed) to work out a suitable attribution for presidential background briefings. Reporters deemed phrases like “someone close to the president” too misleading.
Senior administration officials don’t have to come from the White House. Cabinet secretaries are undoubtedly senior, and some reporters extend the title to their deputies and undersecretaries. Even a few officials at the assistant secretary level might merit “senior” designation. Given these possibilities, the population of senior officials in the administration could number well over 100.
In many cases, the rank ascribed to a source depends on the context of a story. A reporter might call Tony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a “senior administration official” in a story about avian influenza. But Fauci would never get that title—in fact, he’d never be quoted—in a story on education.
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Explainer thanks Andy Alexander of Cox Newspapers, John Burke of the University of Vermont, Deborah Mathis of the Medill School of Journalism, and Mike McCurry of Public Strategies Washington.