Ever wonder about the identities of those "senior administration officials" who always seem to get quoted talking about President Bush's...

WASHINGTON — Ever wonder about the identities of those “senior administration officials” who always seem to get quoted talking about President Bush’s policies?

It wasn’t hard to figure out who was doing the talking when the White House released a transcript of a question-and-answer session this week aboard Vice President Dick Cheney’s plane. One big clue: The unnamed official used the pronoun “I” when discussing Cheney’s visit to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“I would describe my sessions both in Pakistan and Afghanistan as very productive,” the official said.

Even after Cheney blew his own cover, White House spokesman Tony Snow declined to lift the prohibition against identifying the unnamed speaker.

“I have spoken with the vice president’s office, and the ground rules that were laid out are going to remain in effect,” Snow said Wednesday.

The exchange during Cheney’s flight to Oman on Wednesday highlighted the absurdity of a practice that has damaged the credibility of journalists and government officials alike.

Statements from unidentified people invite readers to doubt the speakers exist outside of a reporter’s imagination.

The Bush administration’s use of anonymous sources has become a sore spot for reporters after a series of journalistic scandals involving fabricated quotes. Yet sometimes the need for anonymity is obvious: Some sources could lose their jobs — or their lives — if their identities were disclosed.

So there may be a good reason to protect sources in Iraq, but in Washington, anonymity is too often a cloak for cheap shots and self-serving comments. The White House has cut back on anonymous briefings in recent years in response to reporters’ objections, but some officials insist on anonymity, especially when discussing foreign policy. Snow defended the practice, saying anonymity allows officials to be more open.

Cheney is particularly media-shy when traveling overseas. Mark Silva of the Chicago Tribune said he and other journalists on the vice president’s nine-day, seven-country tour got a total of 18 minutes to speak with Cheney on the record, although Cheney offered two exclusive interviews to ABC during the trip.

Cheney seemed to have some frustrations of his own. He objected to media reports that suggested he’d demanded more action from Pakistani officials against terrorism. Some reports relied on unnamed officials.

“I don’t know who writes that, or maybe somebody gets it from some source who doesn’t know what I’m doing or isn’t involved in it,” Cheney said.