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Slate's Explainer: 'Senior Administration Official'?

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

There is a new Deep Throat; that's according to The Times of London. The paper says it's President Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley. That is he was the senior administration official who two years ago disclosed the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame to Bob Woodward of The Washington Post. Woodward has neither confirmed nor denied the report, but it got the Explainer team at the online magazine Slate wondering who qualifies as a senior administration official. Here with the answer is Slate's Andy Bowers.

ANDY BOWERS reporting:

It's mostly up to the reporter. Since there are no hard-and-fast rules on attribution for anonymous sources, reporters can punch up their stories by ascribing senior status to just about anyone at the White House. The only one who can't be senior administration officials, say Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, are the interns.

Some Washington reporters say that senior officials must at the very least have commission status. Commission 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. In practice, reporters rarely use the term `senior' for anyone below assistant level. There are almost 20 assistants to the president, including Stephen Hadley, senior adviser Karl Rove, chief of staff Andrew Card and press secretary Scott McClellan. Cabinet secretaries and in some cases their deputies and undersecretaries can also fall under the `senior' definition. Given these possibilities, the population of senior officials in the administration could number well over 100.

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.

BRAND: Andy Bowers is a Slate senior editor, and that Explainer was compiled by Daniel Engber. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andy Bowers
Andy Bowers oversees Slate's collaboration with NPR?s daytime news magazine, Day to Day. He helps produce the work of Slate's writers for radio, and can also be heard on the program.