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Storytelling In The News: #100

Richard Clarke: honesty in organizational storytelling

March 26, 2004

Amid all the controversy swirling around the accusations against the Bush administration by Richard Clarke, the former White House counter terrorism coordinator, and the desperate efforts of the White House to discredit his allegations and obliterate his reputation, is one shining service that Clarke has performed -- that of shedding light on the nature of organizational honesty.

Personal honesty is generally understood to include telling the whole truth, not just the truth that is useful to you personally or flattering to your self image. Organizational honesty is something different.

The sudden emergence of Richard Clarke

After thirty years as an anonymous bureaucrat, Richard Clarke became an instant international celebrity over the weekend, with an appearance on Sixty Minutes and countless further television appearances, and massive sales of his new book, as he laid out his account of what was happening inside the White House, before and after 9/11, as the administration grappled with the issue of what to do about terrorism.

The issue of honesty has arisen in Clarke's case since the statements that he is now making as a private individual before the 9/11 Commission can be compared with statements that he made when he was employed by the White House.

The matter was brought to the fore by the White House which violated its long-standing rules by authorizing Fox News to air remarks favorable to Bush that Clarke had made anonymously at an administration briefing in 2002. The White House press secretary read passages from the 2002 remarks at his televised briefing, and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, who has declined to give public testimony to the commission, called reporters into her office to highlight the discrepancy. "There are two very different stories here," she said. "These stories can't be reconciled."

Governor Thompson gets a lesson in organizational honesty

At the televised hearing of the hearing, former Illinois governor James R. Thompson, a Republican member of the commission, took up the cause, waving the Fox News transcript with one hand and Clarke's critical book in the other. "Which is true?" Thompson demanded, folding his arms and glowering down at the witness.

Clarke, appearing unfazed by the apparent contradiction between his current criticism and previous praise, spoke to Thompson as if addressing a slow student.

"I was asked to highlight the positive aspects of what the administration had done, and to minimize the negative aspects of what the administration had done," he explained. "I've done it for several presidents." Clearly, if he had failed to do so, he would have been fired.

With each effort by Thompson to highlight Clarke's inconsistency -- "the policy on Uzbekistan, was it changed?" -- Clarke tutored the commissioner about the obligations of a White House aide. Thompson, who had far exceeded his allotted time, frowned contemptuously. "I think a lot of things beyond the tenor and the tone bother me about this," he said.

During a second round of questioning, Thompson returned to the subject, questioning Clarke's "standard of candor and morality."

"I don't think it's a question of morality at all; I think it's a question of politics," Clarke snapped.

Thompson had to wait for Sept. 11, 2001, victims' relatives in the gallery to stop applauding before he pleaded ignorance of the ways of Washington. "I'm from the Midwest, so I think I'll leave it there," he said. Moments later, Thompson left the hearing room and did not return. The White House practices this kind of organizational honesty The White House is obviously highly critical of Clarke's performance, and his honesty, since a lot is riding on public reaction to his testimony. If the critique presented by Clarke, who left the Bush White House after two years, is to be accepted, a key rationale for Bush's reelection has been lost. In Clarke's view, the Bush administration ignored his pleas to make terrorism a high priority before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, reacted inadequately to the attacks and then strengthened terrorists by persistently pursuing war in Iraq. Bush aides are not about to let that version stand.

Yet the frenzied efforts of the White House to discredit Clarke exhibit exactly the same kind of commitment to a limited sense of organizational honesty that Clarke himself displayed in his anonymous briefing back in 2002. Condoleezza Rice, in all her many television interviews, never once admits that there might be another side to the story. She adopts the stance of a prosecutor, marshaling every argument that she can to discredit her adversary, while at least ignoring, and often appearing to deny, other "facts": that could appear favorable to Clarke's case.

* Rice's claim that the White House had a strategy before 9/11 for military operations against al Qaeda and the Taliban has been contradicted by Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage.

* Rice's assertion that Bush had requested a CIA briefing in the summer of 2001 because of elevated terrorist threats has been contradicted by the CIA.

* Rice's assertion this week that Bush told her on Sept. 16, 2001, that "Iraq is to the side" appeared to be contradicted by an order signed by Bush on Sept. 17 directing the Pentagon to begin planning military options for an invasion of Iraq.

* Rice appears to have contradicted Vice President Cheney's assertion that Clarke was "out of the loop" and his intimation that Clarke had been demoted.

* Rice criticized Clarke for being the architect of failed Clinton administration policies, but also said she retained Clarke so the Bush administration could continue to pursue Clinton's terrorism policies.

Rice is -- at best -- highlighting the elements that she sees as supporting the White House case, not as impartial judge with a scrupulous attention to telling the whole truth. As the Washington Post commented:

When you're a special assistant to the president, your job is to tell the press the truth -- but only the parts that reflect well on the president.

No one is really surprised by this behavior (except perhaps Governor Thompson). Clearly, if Condoleezza Rice started to admit the validity of some of the points being made by Clarke, she would be instantly out of a job. No one expects her to be personally honest. She gets by with the the limited sense of organizational honesty - i.e. presenting the organization's side of the case.

Same phenomenon: honesty in the private sector

Lest we quickly jump to the conclusion that this is just "politics as usual" or organizational behavior "within the beltway" of Washington DC, just look at the illustrations of storytelling included in this web site of Storytelling in the News and you'll see exactly the same phenomenon occurring in private sector.

One recent example was the launching of Dasani water by Coca-Cola in the UK which was highlighted in the news of March 21. At that time, it had just been discovered not only that Dasani water was made of ordinary tap water that was filtered, not by the high-tech NASA process that the company had vautned, but instead by a common domestic filtering process but also that the water had been accidentally contaminated by a poisonous substance. Amid a torrent of negative press, Dasani was removed from the shelves of stores in the UK. Analysts concluded that Dasani was doomed in the UK and probably severely handicapped in being launched elsewhere in Europe.

What did Coca-Cola Enterprises say? Their representatives said that "the incident should not hurt the Dasani water brand as "consumers will understand the facts that this is an isolated incident . . . and it won't have implications outside the UK".

Was this an honest statement? The representatives were talking from their corporate brief and would probably, like Richard Clarke, have been fired if they said anything different. Yet their story was honest, not in the sense of personal honesty of telling the whole truth, but rather in the more limited organizational sense of honesty of being factually accurate as far as it goes.

The gap between the two senses of honesty was soon brought home when on March 24, the company representatives admitted that the launch of Dasani was being shelved throughout Europe. The Financial Times reported: "Coca-Cola on Wednesday shelved plans to launch a natural mineral water version of Dasani in Europe this spring less than a week after a health scare led to a complete recall of the brand in the UK."

Two differeent concepts of honesty

We thus have two very different senses of honesty:

* personal honesty i.e. telling the whole truth, including those elements that are perhaps less flattering to the person or supporting arguments they may be making;

* the more limited organizational sense of honesty of being "factually accurate as far as the statement goes," with the possibility, if not the probability, that elements less flattering to the organization or not supporting the organization's cause, are being suppressed or even distorted.

If one wants to understand why trust levels in organizations are as low as they are currently reported to be, one might start the research with these two very different concepts of honesty as being ata the origin.

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