WASHINGTON – The weather was sweltering on the sidewalks of the U.S. Capitol last week, so the State Department officials walked outside the massive Foggy Bottom headquarters in shirtsleeves, clutching coffee cups and likely chatting about the work of diplomacy in a new and chaotic administration.
Unless you’re close enough to read what it says on the ID badges around their necks, they will remain merely State Department officials: prohibited from speaking publicly or attaching names to what they say.
Unnamed government insiders seem to be blabbing behind every magnolia tree in Washington these days, despite President Donald Trump and his administration’s daily denunciations of leaks.
The Washington media describe these sources as “people familiar with the process,” “senior administration officials” or, in one Washington Post piece, “a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak more freely.”
That kind of anonymity is essential in an era when talking to a reporter can get you fired or prosecuted for revealing classified information. But many of these unnamed sources are not conscience-stricken whistleblowers. They speak with the full knowledge and approval of their bosses.
For reasons that only make sense inside the Beltway, they demand the right to remain faceless.
With its massive public affairs operation and global reach, the U.S. Department of State actually spells out this peculiar policy on its website, under “Ground Rules for Interviewing State Department Officials.”
“On the Record” interviews mean reporters can quote State Department employees by name.
“On Background” means what they say can be quoted or paraphrased, but attributed only to a State Department official or an administration official.
“On Deep Background” means, and I quote: “The official cannot be quoted in any manner, not even as ‘an unnamed source.’ The information is usually couched in such phrases as ‘it has been understood that” or ‘it has been learned.’ ”
“Off the Record” is the worst kind of conversation for us: “Nothing of what the journalist is told may be used in the story.” It’s just for the reporter’s education.
State is really no worse than any other federal agency when it comes to this kind of behavior. That department just wrote it down, and perhaps it should be commended for letting everybody see it.
Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, an anti-secrecy advocacy group, recalled the “worst version of this in my world was back in 2011.” The State Department held a briefing for the press, with the precondition of strict anonymity for the official doing the talking.
The subject: The launch of the Open Government Partnership, a worldwide push for transparency.
This infection of public discourse has spread beyond Washington. Senior administration officials have been spotted near the Minnesota Capitol. Spokespeople are multiplying. Private companies and state and local agencies have acquired the power of speech.
Here’s what’s lost when people hide behind generic titles. Real accountability for people on the public payroll.
On Thursday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein put out a statement warning against people trusting anonymous sources in news stories, and the Sunlight Foundation promptly pointed out that it’s the routine practice of Rosenstein’s own agency.
I placed an inquiry with a State Department official about the agency’s information policy. I got a response, but I can’t tell you what it is. It’s off the record.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116.