Wary White House aides, under constant scrutiny from a paranoid Bush administration hell bent on stopping leaks, have turned to a technique used by drug dealers and criminals to avoid detection – prepaid, disposable cell phones.

The phones, which can be purchased for as little as $30 each from discount stores, offer prepaid minutes and can be discarded when the time is used up. They require no contract or sign-up and are difficult to trace.

“It’s about the only way we can ensure any privacy,” one bitter White House staffer told me this week. “Our office and home calls are monitored along with our normal cell phones.”

Enterprising White House staffers have pooled their resources and use third parties to purchase the phones in bulk from retailers like WalMart in small towns outside the National Capital Region. When one phone’s minutes are used up, they toss the handset and activate a new one.

Drug dealers and organized gangs use such phones to avoid wiretaps and call monitoring by law enforcement agencies. That White House aides have turned to the same techniques indicates just how tense life in the West Wing has become.

“Every time a new story emerges in the press, everyone here comes under suspicion,” says one aide. “We spend most of our time covering our asses instead of tending to the nation’s business.”

White House sources tell us that even senior aides like embattled Presidential advisor Karl Rove uses the prepaid phones to avoid having certain calls show up on call logs or other records that might be subpoenaed.

“You do what you can to avoid leaving a paper trail,” says one aide.

Other techniques employed by administration officials to avoid detection include:

–Free email accounts through services like Hotmail, Lycos, Yahoo and Gmail.  Staff members create multiple accounts and create new ones often.

–Increased use of cash instead of credit or debit cards. “Gas receipts can show where you’ve been. When you pay cash there’s less of a trail to follow,” says one staff member.

–Use of cars belonging to friends or increased use of public transportation like the Washington metro system because “it’s easier to get lost in a crowd.”

“I know this all sounds like a dime store novel but that’s the depth we’ve all sunk to around here,” says an aide who has worked in previous administrations as well as on the current White House staff.

One female staffer says working at the White House has gone from “the most exciting time of my life to a daily hell.  You’re always being watched, always under suspicion, always second-guessed. I hate it now. I just want it to be over.”