White House spokesman comes under press fire for criticizing anonymous sources

White House spokesman Josh Earnest came under fire from the White House press corps Thursday when he dismissed the use of anonymous sources. 

Earnest's criticism of an Associated Press story drew an exasperated response from reporters who noted that administration officials routinely demanded to be quoted without attribution.

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The AP report said multiple U.S. officials used the phrase “not a slam dunk” to describe a U.S. intelligence assessment examining whether Syrian President Bashar Assad ordered a chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb. The alleged attack is being used by the U.S. to mount a possible military strike against Syria.

Foreign Policy reported a day earlier that intelligence officials were unclear about where control over the chemical weapons lied within the regime. And the AP reported that U.S. spies had lost track of who controlled chemical weapons within Syria.

The incongruities have left critics of the expected military strike to invoke the failures in the intelligence community ahead of the war in Iraq.

Earnest said the anonymous sources cited in the AP story should not carry the same weight as on-the-record statements from lawmakers who have reviewed classified intelligence reports.

“I leave it to you to decide whether or not you believe anonymous quotes that are included in AP stories, or an on-the-record statement from people who have looked at exactly the same information and reached a different conclusion,” Earnest said, citing, among others, public statements by President Obama saying that the Assad regime was definitively responsible for the attack.

Earnest's repeated denials prompted CBS White House correspondent Major Garrett to note that the wire service was a “trusted news organization” and AP White House correspondent Julie Pace to note that “you guys talk to us anonymously all the time.”

“I'm just saying that anonymous sources -- what you also say to me on a regular basis when I and others speak anonymously to you is that you place more credibility in on-the-record statements, right?” Earnest said. “That's all I'm directing you to right now.”

Earnest went on to say that he did not “see any reason to contradict” previous statements by the administration that Syria was in full control of its chemical weapons cache.

“There's no evidence that anyone has produced to indicate, or at least credible evidence to indicate, that rebels have used chemical weapons or that they have access to the delivery systems that would have been required to carry out the attacks that we saw on August 21st outside Damascus,” Earnest said.

The White House spokesman also rejected parallels between Syria and Iraq.

“I don't agree that these are similar situations,” Earnest said. “I think that there are some very important differences. What we saw in that circumstance was an administration that was searching high and low to produce evidence to justify a military invasion, an open-ended military invasion of another country, with the final goal being regime change.”

He reiterated that Obama “has been very clear that he is not contemplating an open-ended military action.”