Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest had a bit of a tiff with the White House press corps today after a reporter cited information from an anonymous official speaking to the AP in a question. The White House, who gives information to the press on an anonymous basis daily, would apparently like the press to question the credibility of that information.
Here's the drama, at least part of which is audible starting at about 33:00, and again at about 40:00:
After CBS's Major Garrett quoted at length from an AP story raising doubts about the U.S.'s intelligence on Syria, Earnest replied:
"You've got a handful of anonymous individuals who are quoted in that story." He went on to list a series of on-the-record statements from the President, the Vice President, and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron that he said trumped those in the AP story. He went on:
“I leave it to you to decide whether or not you believe anonymous quotes that are included in AP stories, or an on-the-record statement from people who have looked at exactly the same information and reached a different conclusion. They are willing to put their names behind their belief in the intelligence assessment that has been conducted.”
Garrett challenged the disparity, saying that the U.S.'s case, as far as we knew it, was "circumstantial," based on a series of inferences about who had access to the sorts of chemical weapons believed to be used in the attacks last week. He added: "This story is sourced based on people who work for this government...there were mid-level people at the time of Iraq who raised their hands and said 'we're not sure. We're not convinced.' High level people said 'We're convinced.'" Referencing that history, drew a comparison to today's apparent disagreement between high-level officials like the ones Earnest cited, and the mid-level officials speaking anonymously to the press.
The AP's White House correspondent Julie Pace later said to Earnest, when the subject came up again, “Josh, you guys talk to us anonymously all the time, and expect us to believe that it's credible.”
Earnest replied: "What you also say to me on a regular basis, when I and others speak anonymously to you, is that you place more credibility on on-the-record statements, right? That's all I'm directing you to right now.”
The drama here isn't because anonymous sources are the noblest of tools in the journalist's kit. On the contrary: the prevalence of anonymous sourcing in the Beltway is, in many instances, the punchline of a joke. But over the past few days virtually every major bit of information on the U.S.'s plans to retaliate against Syria have come from anonymous sources within an administration already known for its insistence on anonymity. That information often contradicts or complicates statements by the president and other officials speaking publicly. The AP piece in question, for instance, quoted multiple officials who said that the U.S. intelligence on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's culpability in a devastating chemical attack last week was "not a slam dunk." Those statements seemed to contradict a statement by the President on Wednesday that "we have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out." Here's the AP:
Multiple U.S. officials used the phrase "not a slam dunk" to describe the intelligence picture — a reference to then-CIA Director George Tenet's insistence in 2002 that U.S. intelligence showing Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was a "slam dunk" — intelligence that turned out to be wrong.
These reports, emerging daily, have led to some of the more important developments in the media's understating of what the U.S. is thinking about Syria since Secretary of State John Kerry's revealing speech on Monday. Today, anonymous officials indicated that the U.S. was ready to go it alone on Syria after the U.K. failed to approve military action. Anonymous officials told Foreign Policy earlier this week, took, that the biggest piece of intelligence possessed by the U.S. is an intercepted phone call between Syrian officials. The anonymous official told FP that: "We don't know exactly why it happened," referring to the motivation behind the attack "We just know it was pretty fucking stupid." And even before that, anonymous sources gave the media the first indications that the U.S. was preparing for military action, when CBS reported Friday night that cruise missiles were moving into range of the country. And it's not just on something of international importance, like Syria: the Huffington Post has a round-up of anonymously-sourced quotes from the past week, including the following ground-breaking piece of information on Obama's plan for lowering college costs: "all the things we’re measuring are important for students choosing a college. "
As U.S. officials, on the issue of Syria, continue to give quotes but not names for print, The New York Times's Public Editor Margaret Sullivan looked into them after a handful of the paper's lead stories on Monday relied on anonymous quotes. While Sullivan rejects a comparison between the Times's reporting in the lead-up to the Iraq War (which relied on anonymous sourcing) and the current Syria work, she offers some useful distinctions, and advice for minimizing their use. First, she advises, some statements by anonymous officials are more or less policy statements, and attributable to the White House: "calling it a White House statement, if that’s what it was, would have been more straightforward and much better," she said of a story on Syria. After giving an example of an anonymously-sourced political story Sullivan found "regrettable" in its reliance on anonymous quotes, she writes that there is a place, but a limited one, for anonymous quotes in journalism. "Used sparingly and wisely, it’s a valuable journalistic tool." she writes, adding, "Sometimes there’s no other way to get out important truths."