The detective’s parable

Doug Samuelson

The group of OR/MS analysts had reconvened, dawdling over another nice lunch, shortly after the first presidential candidates’ debate of 2016. Brett asked Ben, “So what do you think now?” (Brett remembered Ben’s scathing comments about the Trump campaign from last issue’s ORacle column, and his more general critique of others’ public speaking from the ORacle column in the issue before that.)

“Still holding my nose at both parties, although Trump is still doing worse than Hillary,” Ben grimaced, as the group joined in a rather hollow laugh. “At least she managed to stay focused and on message throughout the debate, which is why now she got a little bump in the polls,” he added.

“That’s what I thought. But what did she mess up?” Jim prompted.

“Let’s just say,” Ben responded, “the long-haul pressure of a campaign exposes the weaknesses of any candidate. In Trump’s case, it’s lack of discipline and focus, as you’ve seen. Hillary is almost the opposite, a control freak who has trouble with spontaneity, especially in front of a crowd. Remember how she helped kill her health plan, back in 1993, by playing everything way too close, with a handful of trusted advisors, and not communicating with potential allies, so there was no consensus? In the debate, her style was working for her, because she was able to keep baiting Trump and he kept giving the kinds of responses she had prepared for.

“But think about how she’s handled the charges about her email server,” Ben went on. “It should have been obvious to lots of people, certainly anyone in our line of work, that she got advised from the start of her time as secretary of state to keep as much of her email private as possible. Government systems are prime targets for hackers, and they’ve gotten hacked several times in the past 10 years. Her private server did not get hacked, as far as anyone knows. It’s a basic principle of IT security: don’t trust any system you Don’t control.

“So what she did,” Ben explained, “was take that advice and push it further than she should have, following her natural tendencies to try to keep control over everything, and she missed the importance of keeping classified material within the system. That’s partly for better security, although that’s questionable. It also makes it possible for the security bureaucrats to go back and declare that something should have been classified and immediately make it harder to get and disclose – which drives everyone else crazy, and that’s another reason she resisted. But perhaps most important, it spreads the responsibility for keeping information secure, and that spreading can be very helpful to a prominent official later, when something sensitive leaks out.”

“So her real mistake was missing an opportunity to spread the blame?” Jim laughed.

Ben shook his head. “Her real mistake was not following the rules because she thought she knew better than everyone else. Sometimes that’s the right thing to do, but more often it has a way of coming back to bite you.”

Jim looked skeptical.

“And then there was the second mistake,” Ben resumed. “I learned this rule as a kid from my uncle, who was a detective. He said, ‘When you get caught doing anything that’s likely to be a problem, immediately admit everything that’s going to come out later. That way, the investigators are likely to decide that you messed up once but came clean about it. If they discover it piece by piece, they think you’re covering up, and they keep digging to see what more might be there.’ And that’s what happened to her with the email server. It’s the sort of thing that would get a mid-level employee a reprimand and a warning. If it got wider and more serious, maybe the employee would lose his or her security clearance and have to find another job. But it’s extremely unlikely there would be even a misdemeanor criminal charge, and maybe a couple of years’ probation – and that’s the most it would be, worst case, as long as the security leak caused no major damage.

“But cover it up,” Ben concluded, “and they go after you for perjury and obstruction of justice – both felonies. Or, for a public official, still probably no felony charges, but a scandal that just won’t go away. Which is what Hillary has now.”

“Seems fair to me,” Jim responded, clearly skeptical about Hillary.

“And it is fair,” Ben asserted. “Public officials need to know how to gather input, involve other people and interests in decisions, build consensus and end up with shared responsibility – and, when they’re wrong, ‘fess up quickly and contain the damage. Hillary learned some of that as a senator, but she’s not as good at it as the more successful presidents we’ve had, like Ronald Reagan.”

“Hey, Mr. Democrat, don’t tell me you miss Reagan!” Jim chided Ben.

Ben smiled ruefully. “I hate to tell you,” he admitted, “I miss him, and George H. W. Bush and Jerry Ford. Even Dan Quayle is looking better and better – he had good advisors and listened to them. Pity we can’t trade both of our current nominees to the Brits for Tony Blair.”

“Agreed!” the group chorused. And they proceeded to order another round of adult beverages, as after this discussion they felt a strong need for anesthetics.

Doug Samuelson is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, Inc., in Annandale, Va. He is a veteran of a number of political campaigns in addition to his long career as a federal policy analyst and consultant. Contrary to rumors, he is not actively looking into long-term residence overseas – yet.