Friday, January 27, 2006

Yikes! I've Been Exposed for Telling the Truth!

If people give me advice and they're forced to disclose that advice, it means the next time an issue comes up I might not be able to get unvarnished advice from my advisers. And that's just the way it works."
—Pres. George W. Bush, White House News Conference, Jan. 26, 2006

That's not the way it works. As we've written again and again, the problem in the Bush White House is not whether he receives unvarnished advice. It's whether he listens to anyone whose advice violates his narrow world view.

Assume that by "unvarnished advice," he means counsel that is blunt and without any decoration applied to obscure the truth. Now let's consider the possible scenarios implied by his statement. (I didn't include scenarios in which the outcomes are ambiguous because I think extremes are more likely to test Bush's statement.)

1. I give the President truthful advice. He follows it. We achieve an outcome that is good for the country.
2. I give the President truthful advice. He disregards it. We still achieve the desired outcome.
3. I give the President truthful advice. He disregards it. We have a disaster on our hands.
4. I give the President truthful advice. He follows it. We have a disaster on our hands.

Under which scenarios would I be discouraged from being truthful in the future?

1. Praise all around. Glad to have the credit if my advice comes out.
2. Good for the president, because it shows him as being able to sort through conflicting advice and still able to make a decision that's good for the country. My reputation should survive because I told the truth. I'd be more worried about whether the president will listen to me next time, and that has nothing to do with public disclosure.
3. This is problematical because it makes the president look bad. I would rightly not want my advice disclosed for that reason, perhaps. I would personally come out looking good, and that might make me a leak suspect. Still, I'd be even more resolved to tell the truth the next time.
4. This is actually the Iraq scenario, as spun by the administration. In a disaster, the best defense is to say, I listened to what we believed to be the truth but it turned out to be wrong or incomplete. Under this scenario, the truth tellers might come in for criticism, and it is possible my future advice will be more nuanced or ambiguous. It may also be more carefully researched.

To recap, three scenarios for the truth-telling advisor look positive to me. The fourth, while painful, isn't an argument against giving the president unvarnished advice in the future. It's an argument for being more rigorous in my analysis.

Now, let's assume I am already not giving the president unvarnished advice. Instead, I am feeding him what he wants to hear or what a narrow, self-interested group wants him to hear. Guided by ideology, I am ignoring or minimizing important facts. Let's call this self-serving advice.

A. I give the President self-serving advice. He follows it. We achieve an outcome that is good for the country.
B. I give the President self-serving advice. He disregards it. We still achieve the desired outcome.
C. I give the President self-serving advice. He disregards it. We have a disaster on our hands.
D. I give the President self-serving advice. He follows it. We have a disaster on our hands.

Are there scenarios under which exposure of my self-serving may cause a problem?

A. No problem here. We just proclaim ideology and self-dealing as the way the solve the country's problems.
B. The president looks good here, but I look bad. If I am not fired and am capable of changing my ways, I might consider giving truthful advice in the future.
C. We'd all agree that to disclose details of internal meetings would compound the damage to the country.
D. Ditto.

Looks to me like disclosure is unlikely to make honest, straight-forward advisers clam up. But bad outcomes coupled with self-serving advice could be lethal. Which is really where the president needs protection — from pesky disclosure about Iraq, outed CIA agents, Hurricane Katrina, rendition and torture policy, warrantless monitoring, meetings with indicted fund raisers or energy policy meetings that only include oil companies,

But you probably already knew that.

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