White House Concerned About Meeting Leak

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Criticism of administration decision making -- that, the White House can handle.

But three senior White House officials said that senior staff are most concerned about yesterday's quick leak of details from an internal West Wing messaging meeting to Politico ace Ben Smith. 

One former White House official said that the 8:30 a.m. meeting, which convenes about 25 West Wing staffers, had been considered sacrosanct and its content contained until yesterday -- nothing had ever leaked from it that wasn't supposed to leak. Occasionally, with permission, officials have given reporters tidbits, but they've always been pre-approved.

The source told Ben Smith that Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina praised staff members for responding to the Shirley Sherrod situation so quickly.

The intent of the leaker was to portray Messina and others as tone deaf to the developing storm over Sherrod's raw deal, even though, on Tuesday morning, the full video exonerating her had yet to be circulated and the white farmer who Sherrod had mentioned had not come forward. 

The leaker also appeared to misconstrue Messina's comments to suggest that the White House had been involved in the decision to fire Sherrod, when in fact, the consultations between the USDA and the White House on Monday night were about the wording of the USDA statement announcing the ouster.

Messina declined to comment, and other people in the meeting would only talk on the condition of anonymity, fully aware of the irony of giving a reporter an account of meeting that had already been leaked. But these sources say that Messina had been unfairly, and even bizarrely, maligned for attempting to buck up the troops.

One White House official said that colleagues had a good idea of who Smith's source is, though there is no investigation nor round-up of internal e-mails or communications.

A colleague said that the leak was "just very sad. We all need to stick together even more tightly."

"Sometimes you can try so hard to protect the President that you don't end up serving his interests. Blind loyalty isn't a good thing," one senior official said.

Though the White House is not a steel trap, and accounts of disagreements between major policy makers and senior officials have been published, officials have generally avoided the practice of selectively leaking remarks in order to destroy the reputation of colleagues, even if the ultimate motivation has been to shield the president from harm or blame. 

The White House press office does not forbid mid and senior level officials from responding to factual inquiries from reporters, although Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs are loath to authorize the sort of "tick-tocks" that Beltway reporters use to reconstruct decision-making about trivial issues. They make exceptions for major events and for when the White House's response to an external development becomes the primary story.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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