One of the big

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One of the big questions people are asking now is: who is that “senior administration official” who spilled the beans about the Wilson/Plame matter to the Washington Post?

Obviously there’s a certain gossip value in knowing. But it’s more important than just that, because the identity of the senior administration official would tell us a lot about just what’s going on here.

Here’s what I mean.

One scenario is that this is damage control. It’s planned. And one of the president’s top advisors is helping the White House get out ahead of a very bad story. The other possibility is that this really is a top official turning his guns on the White House.

So who’s the “senior administration official”?

Here are some things that strike me as clues.

The article says: “Yesterday, a senior administration official said that before Novak’s column ran, two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and disclosed the identity and occupation of Wilson’s wife.”

This isn’t certain. But the authors seem to be distinguishing between administration officials and White House officials. And I think we can probably infer — probably, but by no means certainly — that the source is not in the White House.

Another clue. Later in the piece it says: “It is rare for one Bush administration official to turn on another.”

Again, it doesn’t use the term ‘White House officials’, but the broader term, ‘administration officials’. We know from the article that the people who leaked Plame’s identity are from the White House. So I think we can infer that the source is not from the White House.

(A contrary way of interpreting this wording would be to say that the authors used the broader term in order to give more cover to their source, in order to expand the number of people who could have been the source. That’s certainly possible.)

Now, if the source isn’t in the White House, who could it be?

The phrase “senior administration official” customarily refers to cabinet secretaries and their deputies and some similarly ranked people in the administration. It doesn’t mean an Assistant Secretary or something like that. So we’re talking about a pretty small group of people.

So who seems like a good candidate? Here it gets a little dicier. But what struck me about the Post article is that the “senior administration official” seemed to know some really detailed information about just what had happened. This person said that “two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and disclosed the identity and occupation of Wilson’s wife.”

At least six? That’s pretty specific. It sounds like this person was privy to some sort of informal investigation or at least saw the conclusions of it.

So who would have that kind of information and be a ‘senior administration official’. Or let’s frame it this way: would Spence Abraham know this? Of course, not. Would Colin Powell? If he wanted to, probably. But I figure he and Richard Armitage would have wanted to steer really clear of this whole mess. And I don’t know why in the course of their normal work they would have had to get into this.

Now, there is one person who would quite fairly be termed a senior administration official (SAO) and who almost certainly had to deal with this issue and know these details: CIA Director George Tenet.

Of course, this information has probably come across John Ashcroft’s desk too. And he’s a SAO. But to me Tenet seems like a better fit.

And there’s another clue. Look at the byline: Mike Allen and Dana Priest.

Mike Allen doesn’t require much explanation. This is a White House story. But how about Dana Priest? She covers intelligence and military issues.

Clearly, this is in part an intelligence story since it involves the CIA. So her work on this story could be certainly be explained by the clear CIA dimension of the issue. But it’s really mainly a White House story. If Tenet were the senior administration official, though, it would make a lot of sense that Priest’s byline would be there.

This possible inference I’m drawing about Dana Priest is very speculative. It’s a thin reed. But I think it’s worth considering, given that I think there are other clues pointing in the direction of the CIA.

Now, let me be very clear. Some of what you read in TPM is opinion. Much of it is reported fact, in as much as those facts can be confirmed. This, however, is what I’d call informed speculation. Any one of the assumptions above, or the inferences I’ve drawn from them, could simply be wrong. For instance, maybe the source actually is in the White House, contrary to my reasoning above. Then my whole theory falls apart. This is just my attempt to make sense of what this article means.

Late Update: The one problem with my theory is this quote from the senior administration official. The SAO not only said the leaks were “wrong” but that they were “a huge miscalculation, because they were irrelevant and did nothing to diminish Wilson’s credibility.” That sounds a lot like someone from politics, someone who’s experienced in ‘handling’ bad news stories and bad news cycles. And that certainly cuts against it being Tenet. On the other hand, if this were some high-ranking ‘political’ in the White House, working at coordinated damage control — the possibility I mentioned above — I would have expected the administration officials to be much better prepared on the Sunday shows this morning.

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