The Washington school of scandal management


Asheville Global Report. #375, March 23-29, 2006

George W. Bush is hardly the first head of state to serve his people with heaping helpings of lies and deceit. Political scientist John Mearsheimer was only echoing Machiavelli when he addressed the 2004 American Political Science Association meeting. "Lying is widely viewed as a despicable form of behavior. Nevertheless, it is an accepted practice in international politics, mainly because there are sometimes compelling strategic reasons for a state's leaders to lie either to other states or their own people." Link For today's princes of realpolitik, the asterisked caveat is the same as it ever was. You have to get away with it.

The art and science of getting away with it has progressed by leaps and bounds since the days when President Kennedy promptly accepted responsibility for the Bay of Pigs fiasco and cleaned house at the CIA. Richard Nixon pioneered the modern use of stonewalling. He couldn't make it stick, but ambitious junior White House staffers Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld watched and learned. The Iran-Contra scandal went better. Designated fall guys Oliver North, John Poindexter, and Elliot Abrams suffered little lasting damage.

In a recent Tomdispatch interview, journalist Mark Danner lamented our "Age of Frozen Scandal." The historical process of scandal exposure, investigation, and expiation has, he believes, been replaced by a political climate in which "the icebergs [of scandal] are floating by," essentially unaddressed. Danner's frustration is a testament to advancements in scandal management.

The scandals only appear to float by. If there is an upside to the diversity and frequency of this administration's crimes and misdemeanors, it is the wealth of opportunities provided to observe the work that goes into maintaining the floating iceberg illusion.

There is a system at work, almost numbing in the roteness of its repetition. The process is straightforward, relatively simple, broadly applicable, and superficially responsive to public outrage.

Step 1  Stonewall, the old Nixon standby. Assign functionaries without direct knowledge to field questions. Keep primary actors and documents away from reporters and investigators for as long as possible. A few days of shuck and jive from the White House Press Secretary often frustrates the media enough to kill a story. Who but activists now remember Kenneth Tomlinson, Ken Blackwell, Karen Ryan, or the National Academy of Sciences complaint about political censorship of scientific reports? When, as in the case of the Downing St. memos, it is not possible to shield a key player long enough for the media to move on, expose him only in tightly controlled and favorable venues.

Step 2  When stonewalling fails, induce attention fatigue. Shift to a rear guard defense publicly referred to as cooperation with "exposing the facts." The intent is to disclose minimum information, preferably to an investigative body controlled by friends. To the greatest extent possible, the inquiry should occur behind closed doors and extend for the maximum defensible period of time. Robert Novak outed Valerie Plame in July 2003. After six months of stonewalling, a special prosecutor was appointed. The trial of Scooter Libby is currently scheduled to take place after the 2006 general election. The history of the 9/11 Commission is another showcase for resistance through "cooperation."

Step 3  Preemptive damage control. Influence key decision makers. For example, Abramoff chief prosecutor Noel Hillman was removed from the case by nomination to a federal judgeship. Counter dangerous accusations with narrowly focused investigative reports authored by political friends (9/11 Commission Report, etc.). Reshuffle personnel and departments to render critical findings inapplicable. The creation of the Homeland Security Department and appointment of a National Security Director masterfully diffused criticisms aimed at the national security bureaucracy in place during 2001.

Step 4  If preemptive retirements and departmental reorganizations fail, assign blame and punishment. In this the sixth year of the Bush administration, we have yet to see a Bush/Cheney crony take a serious fall for a policy scandal. Vice President Cheney seems poised to provide Scooter Libby with a get out of jail free card if the Plame case goes to trial. Cheney may say he declassified Plame's CIA connection before Libby told reporters of it. The early exit of FEMA Director Michael Brown was an exception to the usual order of business. The American people demanded a head for the Hurricane Katrina debacle. Brown's was farthest removed from the president's. 

Step 5  Coup de gras. At any point, if Congress, the courts, and the corporate media appear willing to abandon an issue, reframe the debate from malfeasance to government efficiency. State that corrective action, if needed, has already been taken. Complain that any continued focus on the past is a partisan attack or revisionist history unworthy of further discussion. Position the administration as forward-looking and focused on the business of the American people. Scott McClellan used the coup de gras tactic to dismiss Downing St. memo questions during his press briefing of June 16, 2005. Link

The success of this strategy depends in large measure on the administration's unified willingness to stay the course regardless of how shameless, manipulative, or oblivious it appears to the public. The management task, as they see it, has nothing to do with questions of morality or whether something untoward occurred or is occurring. The focus is on doing what it takes to make a problem disappear, or as Danner would have it, to keep the icebergs floating by.

But this practical application of realpolitik is not bulletproof. Each revelation of malfeasance risks a popular clamor that could short-circuit the process. Exposure prevention is therefore preferable to scandal management. Access to information has become a crucial battleground. The Bush administration is responding to its vulnerability in this area with ever-broadening definitions of what is classifiable. Link  Its draconian threats to invoke the Espionage Act against unauthorized leakers and reporters who publish classified information are best understood in the context of security for the executive branch rather than the nation.

At root, official lies and deception are predictable manifestations of power, whether wielded by Republican or Democrat, Socialist or tin pot dictator. In Machiavelli's Italy, princely megalomania was held in check by other nobles, the pope, or war. In a democratic society that role falls to us, the people, and to the press in particular. We're faced with a boy prince's foxy addiction to deceit and cover-up. He and his viziers are betting we're not dogged enough to stop him.

—Michael Hopping
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