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Friday, May 20, 2011

Folly of official obfuscation


LONDON — Politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen never seem to have learned that they will not be trusted if they repeatedly lie.

On May 6 a meeting of eurozone finance ministers was held in Luxembourg to discuss measures to stabilize the system in the light of continuing uncertainty about the ability of Greece to repay its debts.

The fact that this meeting was taking place was not announced publicly. Instead, an official spokesman denied that a meeting had taken place on the grounds that the decision to hold the meeting might have destabilized markets.

A meeting of so many finance ministers and senior civil servants inevitably became known and the attempts to deny that there had been such a meeting drew greater attention than a straightforward announcement of the meeting would have drawn in the first place.

The plethora of statements, often contradictory, from the Commission in Brussels, from European Finance Ministers and their officials as well as from the European Central Bank have unavoidably obfuscated the facts and cast further doubts about the outcome. It has further eroded public trust in the institutions and their leaders.

This is not a problem confined to Europe. In the elimination of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALs on May 2, it was at first alleged that bin Laden had been armed and had used one of his wives as a shield. It later emerged that he had not been armed and that his wife had been hit in the leg. U.S. Navy SEALs had to make split-second decisions and there may well have been confusion during the operation. Still, in a matter of such importance, greater care should have been taken to ensure that the facts were correctly reported. A similar error was made in reporting the attack to free a British hostage in Afghanistan who died in the crossfire.

American slips are of course nothing in comparison with the lies and obfuscation coming out of Pakistan. The general view is that the Pakistan authorities are unable to tell the difference between truth and fiction.

It seems doubtful whether we will ever know how far Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) were complicit in bin Laden's presence so close to the capital of Islamabad or how incompetent they were. Incompetence was certainly shown in the contradictory statement made by Pakistani politicians, generals and ambassadors about the incident.

Japanese nuclear authorities and Tokyo Electric Power Co. officials have hardly shown themselves to be purveyors of truth over the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster. Unfortunately there seems to have been a long history of attempts, often inept, to cover up regulatory failures.

The end result has been that both the Japanese public and foreign authorities have little or no trust in what the authorities say about the nuclear dangers arising from the March 11 Tohoku-Pacific earthquake calamity.

It may now be that the Japanese authorities are indeed telling the truth, but it will take time to rebuild trust. It will take even longer for Tepco's reputation to recover even if all the old guard are retired and a younger and more dynamic management is installed.

One unfortunate result of lies and of even being "economical with the truth" is that they feed the conspiracy theorists who allow their imaginations full rein and build ever more incredible theories of malevolent conspiracies.

Most conspiracy theories are based on limited facts and a belief that the conspirators have access to all encompassing intelligence and exceptional brains. In fact, most conspiracy theories fall because they don't take account of the extent of general incompetence and unforeseeable events or, as former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld might have said, "unknown unknowns."

One of the problems of collecting intelligence is ensuring that it is based on truth, rather than on fiction or imagination. It is astonishing how often the historian discovers that strategic mistakes have been based on a mistaken interpretation of intelligence rather than on failure to gather the facts.

German and Japanese intelligence in World War II had many failings, but the most significant was the failure of the high command to assess intelligence and recognize that defeat was unavoidable.

The Soviet leadership believed, totally without foundation, that the Americans under President Ronald Reagan were planning a first strike nuclear attack. Leaders in autocratic regimes often come to believe their own propaganda.

An even greater danger arises from the unwillingness of leaders to hear unpalatable truths. Ministers, chief executives of companies and autocrats generally attract sycophants who not only feed their vanity but also tell them what they want to hear.

It takes courage to tell your boss he is mistaken when you know that doing so may cost you your job. Whistle-blowers deserve to be rewarded not penalized, but they too must get their facts right.

Transparency should be an important aim of good governance, be it in business or government. Inevitably, however, there are times when it is wise to keep quiet. Silence, of course, may be misinterpreted especially by conspiracy theorists, but a refusal to answer is much wiser than lying. Lies are more than likely to be discovered.

With the development of the Internet and the growth of investigative journalism, those in authority need to be careful about not only what they say in public but also what they say in private. This is especially important if what they say in private differs from what they say in public.

The fate of those whose private and public statements conflict is to be branded a hypocrite and to lose the next election.

Hugh Cortazzi, a career British diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.


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