The Secret Service and the CYA syndrome

    Two quick thoughts about the Secret Service:  (1) The doofus agency is sure to be featured this weekend in Saturday Night Live‘s opening skit – drunk hookers chilling on the Oval Office couch? partying with agents’ guns in the Lincoln Bedroom? reprogramming Obama’s iPod? – and (2) What we’ve seen on display lately is a classic manifestation of CYA.

    Granted, the First Family’s imperiled safety is of prime importance; an annual budget of nearly $2 billion should be sufficient to prevent a nutbag from careening around the White House (Sept. 19), and to ensure that an armed felon doesn’t wind up standing inches away from the president in a supposedly secure elevator (Sept. 16). But I’m most fascinated by the secondary issue: the agency’s fealty to Washington’s favorite disease, the Cover Your Ass syndrome.

    First we were told that the fence-jumper was unarmed, and that he was quickly subdued just inside the front door. That was the Secret Service’s story, and they were sticking to it. But later we learned – from The Washington Post, not the agency – that alarms weren’t sounded, that guard dogs were not unleashed, that the front door wasn’t locked, that the fence-jumper was armed with a knife, and that he ran through much of the first floor (past the staircase to the living quarters) before finally being subdued. And the subdoing was done by an off-duty agent who just happened to be passing through.

    As for the elevator incident in Atlanta – in which a privater contractor who should’ve been pre-screened (thus revealing his criminal record) was not screened – the Secret Service played CYA on that one, too. We weren’t supposed to hear about it. We only know about it because details were leaked to the press. The embattled Secret Service director, Julia Pierson, had reportedly asked one of her senior people to “look into the matter” on the sly, rather than refer it to the agency’s internal watchdog unit. Now she looks even more inept, for trying to cover it up.

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    As House Republican Jason Chaffetz said yesterday, after a stormy public hearing with Pierson, “I seriously question their candor to Congress and the American people about what is really going on. We are having to pull it out of them.”

    So we gotta ask: Why are so many organizations (private as well as public) so prone to conceal and so allergic to candor? Why do they succumb so easily to the CYA syndrome? How can they possibly believe, in this transparent era, that the real stories won’t come out – and wind up embarrassing them even further?

    Because the first instinct, a very human instinct, is to protect one’s institution. On an NPR show two years ago, Harvard business administration professor Max Bazerman – author of the book Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right – talked about that instinct: “We don’t have an intuition that it makes sense to ‘fess up at the first opportunity…and to the extent that we feel loyal to our organization, that really keeps us from admitting to the wrongdoing and the bad behavior that our organization has been involved in.”

    His analysis jibes with the work of Richard Painter, a former Bush White House counsel and University of Minnesota law prof,  who has written extensively about what he calls “the psychology of coverups” and the “cognitive bias toward concealment.” He says that when people in organizations find themselves in embarrassing situations (what he calls “loss frames”), their usual instinct is to double down rather than ‘fess up. Which only makes matters worse.

    As for Pierson’s attempt to keep the elevator breach under wraps and investigate it on the sly, that too is classic bureaucratic CYA. On the aforementioned NPR show,  a former federal prosecutor Bruce Antkowiak said:  “The mindset of many of these people is that ‘what has happened is a tragedy, it’s too bad that this occurred but it’s fixable, it’s correctable, and everybody can come out of this going forward together well, and we don’t need to blow a whistle.'”

    But for the Secret Service, supposedly the world’s most elite public protective agency, the instinct to conceal has sparked political blowback – fueled, also, by new evidence that the agency suppressed the truth about the time when the White House was hit by seven bullets. That was in 2011. Turns out, the agency thought it was vehicle backfire. (Pierson, in robot mode yesterday: “In downtown areas, there is sound attentuation.”) Turns out, it took the agency four days to realize the house was hit – and only because a housekeeper found broken glass and chipped cement. Maybe she should get a chunk of that annual $2-billion.

    Democratic congressman Stephen Lynch told Pierson yesterday, “I wish to God you protected the White House like you’re protecting your reputation here today.” That’s what CYA is all about, self-protection. But that won’t play anymore.



    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.


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