Coverup and Journalism

This Eric Lichtblau story, about misbehavior and coverup in an FBI anti-terror operation, deserves attention as a small example of the way incompetence bleeds into corruption, and the perplexing cooptation of the press in a coverup of the coverup.

The first three paragraphs cover the facts quickly:

“Officials at the Federal Bureau of Investigation mishandled a Florida terror investigation, falsified documents in the case in an effort to cover repeated missteps and retaliated against an agent who first complained about the problems, Justice Department investigators have concluded.

“In one instance, someone altered dates on three F.B.I. forms using correction fluid to conceal an apparent violation of federal wiretap law, according to a draft report of an investigation by the Justice Department inspector general’s office obtained by The New York Times. But investigators were unable to determine who altered the documents.

“The agent who first alerted the F.B.I. to problems in the case, a veteran undercover operative named Mike German, was “retaliated against” by his boss, who was angered by the agent’s complaints and stopped using him for prestigious assignments in training new undercover agents, the draft report concluded.”

Further down, we find that “Robert S. Mueller III, director of the F.B.I., has emphasized repeatedly, both publicly and in private messages to his staff, that employees are encouraged to come forward with reports of wrongdoing and that he will not tolerate retaliation against whistle-blowers,” but also that “In the most serious instance, the head of the F.B.I. undercover unit, Jorge Martinez, froze Mr. German out of teaching assignments in undercover training and told one agent that Mr. German would ‘never work another undercover case,’ the report said. Mr. Martinez told investigators that he did not remember making the statements but that if he had, it was a ‘knee-jerk reaction but did not mean to indicate I was retaliating against him,’ the report said.”

This story has a background, for example this and this, not referenced by Lichtblau, that suggests we interpret the FBI’s policy as something like “We want to be heard saying we’re against this and that bad behavior, and if you ask us, we will say that at the highest levels. At the same time, we do not choose to manage the actual agency so that the bad behavior doesn’t occur.” Clarifying, not tolerate means say we will not tolerate.

The preaching/doing divergence derives from a long FBI tradition of care for its public image, in the service of which actual good performance has sometimes been the preferred instrument. This preference of image over substance is, of course, what leads to trashing whistleblowers, who offer a package of opportunity to improve performance tied to a hit to the image. Such a package usually appears, on net, costly. The choice between tough talk and actual leadership is always a challenge for senior managers, who can easily and quickly put out a statement or a memo, but for whom improving performance through a large organization demands a lot of heavy lifting and tedious detail work. It’s especially difficult in organizations whose administrative and executive echelons are accustomed to reassuring the boss that his utterances are consequential, and whose leadership subconsciously conspires in this deception by not aggressively looking for real data, such as Mueller’s messaging having had no effect whatever on Martinez.

Good for the NYT, and Lichtblau, for getting this news to us. Still, it’s troubling to meet this halfway down: “Michael Kortan, an F.B.I. spokesman, said the bureau had not been briefed on the findings. But Mr. Kortan said that when the F.B.I. received the report, ‘if either misconduct or other wrongdoing is found, we will take appropriate action.'” First, given that the study came from the Dept. of Justice, the FBI’s cabinet agency, how can they be behind a reporter in learning about it? Second, Kortan’s promise flatly contradicts the facts of the case at hand: taking appropriate action in the face of misconduct is precisely what the FBI didn’t do, unless the coverers-up and whistleblower harassers are not the FBI, or unless appropriate action means redoubled efforts at coverup.

Is Lichtblau doing his job by merely transmitting this official response and letting the reader do the inferential work? When a public official makes a statement inconsistent with the fact environment, does he have some sort of right to have it sent to the public as though it were a responsible and considerable utterance from a competent source? And come to think of it, while any large organization needs faceless spokespersons to put out run-of-the-mill information, why should decisionmakers be allowed to hide behind flacks on important issues? Shouldn’t Lichtblau have ignored Kortan, who appears to be a person of no importance whatever, and reported that “no responsible FBI official wished to speak with the Times about the allegations, nor to say what if any specific actions would be taken”?

Finally, we should note one more technique of evading accountability, a small-scale version of the president’s infinite refusal to do anything about the CIA leak on grounds that the facts are still being determined. Here, Kortan pleads ignorance of the case at hand and issues a vacuous quote that gets the reporter off the phone. This puts off the agency’s response beyond the day’s deadline, and perhaps far enough into the future that no-one will still be interested when it can finally be pinned down.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.