Tuesday, May 10, 2011

'Would You Believe...?' Why Being Truthful Matters

If you are somewhere in my age range, age 55, the phrase "Would you believe...?" will cause a grin to break out on your face because you know what silliness will follow.

Maxwell Smart, the bumbling secret agent of the long-running and well-loved television series, Get Smart, often repeated the phrase a couple times in a row when caught in a dire or embarrassing situation. To start, he would spin an outrageous grandiose lie which no one would think credible, then go on to "Would you believe... ?" ending in a slightly less ridiculous but still unbelievable scenario, and then a final, "Would you believe... ?" consisting of a completely silly bit of fiction which clearly acknowledged he knew no lie was going to work.

Captured and surrounded by 10 KAOS agents and informed by their leader, Siegfried, Smart's evil nemesis, that he was about to die, Max would tell them to lay down their weapons, because just outside the building were 50 government agents with machine guns and army tanks ready to attack and rescue him. Siegfried would look at Max, raise an eyebrow and say, "I don't believe you." Then Max would look chagrined and say, "Would you believe five security guards with stun guns?" to which Siegfried would respond, "I don't think so." Then Max would say, "Would you believe one Boy Scout with a peashooter?" The gag was a frequent joke in the series and never failed to get a laugh.

Not telling the truth and trying to fabricate a believable story often ends badly, even if the purpose is to avoid telling a painful or a damaging truth. The fact is, if the lie is exposed, trust is eroded. Even if the lie is intended to eventually do some good, and even if it does eventually do some good, there will remain a question as to whether one can trust that person or agency again in the future. If the lie is told because one simply doesn't have an answer and doesn't want to look stupid, when the truth comes out he will look like a bumbler or someone with an ego problem. Giving half-truths or bits of information with no supporting facts will also raise red flags as to the veracity of the information given, often leading to massive speculation about what is being hidden. Finally, making promises one does not know can be kept is a form of lying as well and leads to future distrust of anything that person or agency says from that point on.

There is only really one good option when it comes to answering questions: Tell the truth. Telling the truth can mean giving up everything one knows, or it can mean saying, "I don't know" if you don't know, or "I cannot release that information at this time" if doing so is damaging to a particular situation or person (and one should be able to explain why it is damaging).

Telling the truth can apply to personal relationships, police departments, and government agencies. A husband lies about having drinks with his buddies at the bar by saying he has to work late at the office. When his wife finds out he wasn't at the office, she immediately suspects he is having an affair. He isn't, but now he has proven to be a liar and untrustworthy and is going to pay for that lie for years to come. No police department should come out and say, "We are going to catch this man," when they have no idea if they will or not. I can't tell you how often I have cringed when I see a sheriff or police chief stand behind the podium at a press conference and make this claim, especially in a serial killer case (which is the most difficult of all cases to solve). A good portion of the time no one is arrested and the department looks like a bunch of blowhards or incompetents. Wouldn't it have been better to say, "We are going to put forth our best effort to identify the killer and get him off the streets." You can't go wrong with a statement like that.

In the case of missing Holly Bobo down in Tennessee, which I wrote about in my last post, we see law enforcement tossing out a dozen statements that make no sense and refusing to explain why they are doing so. First we hear the family members have been cleared, and then that no one has been cleared. One can't have it both ways; one of these statements is a lie.

At one point, the public was told Holly was dragged from her house, and later it was stated she was walked away from her house. One of these statements is not true; which one? Then, to further erode one's trust in what law enforcement is telling the citizens or that they are competent, it is stated that "Holly was in fear of her life as she was led away." How would anyone know this if they did not see her terrified face and tears running down her cheeks? Someone is making stuff up and it is not inspiring confidence that the case is being handled properly.

And, just in the last few days, we see many Americans questioning the veracity of the President of the United States and its agencies because President Obama and the spokespersons for various government organizations have released conflicting facts about the raid that allegedly killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

Now, I am not pointing out the following issues to encourage conspiracy theories, nor am I trying to bash the President; we have seen similar behaviors in other administrations. But, I want to point out the damage caused by not telling the truth or not supporting the facts with anything verifiable. Yes, I know, one can question anything ad nauseum, but there are mistakes our government agencies should not make lest one wants to be accused of a cover-up or incompetence.

The first mistake came quite quickly after the raid went down. We heard that there was a forty-minute firefight at a compound in Abottabad, Pakistan, and I pictured Osama's men on the roof and behind the walls with AK-47, guards leaping to their feet to fight the highly trained SEALS and losing to their surprise attack. I could see Osama, hearing the cacophony outside his bedroom walls, grabbing his own weapon and shooting at the first of our men who burst through his door. If Osama bin Laden was in that house and in that kind of a fight, I could see why he got killed.

Then, we hear, well, not so much of a fight. In fact, "Would you believe..." there was one man outside with a gun and Osama was reaching for a weapon? Maybe, but, now I kind of wonder if we will ever hear the real story because no evidence of the event is going to be released, so we are told.

No problem. You say the SEALS killed Osama that night. I am sure his body is being brought back to the United States and analyzed by experts, viewed by those who would know the man, and the photographs and scientific tests will settle the issue. Oh, no, that is not going to happen because his body has been secretly buried at sea. This is like telling the police all those flat-screen televisions you have stacked in the garage didn't "fall off a truck" but were bought, except you lost all the records of your transactions.

But, no matter, we have the DNA of Osama matching to a near 100-percent level of proof. The DNA is purported to come from a half-sister-who-has-no-name who reportedly died of brain cancer at a Boston hospital. Well, Osama has a football stadium of half-sisters and only one half-sister from whom the DNA would be of any use at all, the only half-sister with whom he shares a mother. We are not being told if this is the half-sister who died in Boston or even if that half-sister is even dead. Complicating this matter is the scientific fact that even DNA from this half-sister doesn't prove Osama bin Laden was the man who died in the raid in Pakistan, only that it was a bin Laden of that particular maternal lineage.

Whew! Now my head is spinning. Then to make matters worse, President Obama comes out on "60 Minutes" to tell us that there was only a 55/45 probability that Osama bin Laden was in the targeted compound and he was sweating bullets that the US wasn't storming the home of a prince from Dubai! Are you off your rocker, Mr. President, making a statement like that? Are you telling the American public that you had no substantial proof Osama was inside the home but you were willing to kill totally innocent people in another country on the off chance Osama might be there? What kind of military operation would we be running to do that kind of thing? Can you imagine the police invading your home, killing half your family because they heard a gang leader might be visiting there but really were only going on a rumor? It would have been a much better story (hopefully, a truthful story) that intelligence was of 100-percent certainty that this was an Al Qaeda hideout and was worth attacking; if Osama isn't there, we still got bad guys, and, if he was, we got a big bonus! This story would have made me pretty happy.

But the whole convoluted story given by our President is extremely concerning. Either you had the intelligence to storm the compound or you didn't. Obama is saying we didn't and yet we did. Something doesn't ring of the truth here, and this is why some are going crazy trying to figure out what the truth actually is. Some think Osama wasn't in there and they are just saying that to cover a bungled operation and get the glory of killing Osama bin Laden. Others argue this is ludicrous because if Osama is still alive, this would be the height of stupidity; if he shows up tomorrow with a newspaper in front of him speaking in a video, wouldn't the administration be in a bad way. I agree, Osama, is dead.

The other theory is that Osama has been dead for almost a decade of kidney failure and Al Qaeda knew it and kept quiet to keep the threat of him out there and the United States knew it and kept quiet for the same reason. Then, when a bin Laden (or some Osama look-alike) was killed in the raid, the administration took the opportunity to spin it as Osama has been finally found and taken care of. I find this a more plausible scenario. However, if Osama was alive and living anywhere, Pakistan was an excellent choice considering their history--at least that of the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence agency --which has in the past been accused of harboring other terrorists and gangsters such as Dawood Ibrahim (pictured left), a mob kingpin from India connected to Osama and numerous terrorist attacks.

In reality, we will probably never know the truth of exactly what happened and the delay and sketchiness of the evidence being presented to prove the dead man dumped in the ocean was bin Laden will never satisfy many. In my opinion, this was a bad mistake by our President and our agencies. I believe if Osama was there, he should have been captured and tried, or, if there was no way to avoid killing him, the burial--wherever it eventually would be, on land or at sea--should have been delayed until identification was unquestionably completed and thoroughly attained. Finally, Obama should have said only what was necessary until he could be sure that what he said was the absolute truth and he had the facts to back it.

I look forward to your thoughts on speaking the truth and presenting only facts, and, please, let's not get political about this. Telling lies and twisting truths and hiding facts is a human quality, not a party-related trait.


Shreela said...

I've been conflicted about the "OBL being killed" incident, ever since the "burial at sea" story. It was like they made it up on the spot, or thought the public was extremely gullible and stupid. For a while, I thought they might have captured OBL alive, but didn't want to deal with the media storm of where they were keeping OBL captive.

But this article seems more plausible, considering OBL's kidney problems. And the comparisons to Maxwell Smart's "Would you believe..." scenes not only made it easier to follow, but were also quite amusing. Well done!

Cathy Scott said...

It was the correct decision -- and a risky one -- giving the green light to go into the compound. Osama had the blood of Americans on his hands, and he deserved to die. As a reporter who covered the military, special ops, training exercises at sea, and going to Somalia, Sauidi and Panama as an embedded reporter, when something big goes down, not all the facts are immediately known, because many people were involved in the planning and execution of the raid, which is why the facts are released slowly -- as they become known. There's a debriefing afterward. Some of the information released early about the raid at the compound and the ensuing death of Osama wasn't official, which made it obvious why, in those early hours and days, the details weren't completely known.

Your bin Laden theories remind me of the "he's alive" conspiracy theory in the murder of Tupac Shakur. Gee, maybe bin Laden and Tupac are now hiding out together in Mexico, drinking margaritas, after faking their own deaths.

Pat Brown said...

Wow, Cathy! You need to reread the article! You have completely missed the entire point of it! I have no "bin Laden theories" and I am not talking about why certain details weren't known before a certain time. The entire article is about communications, about why no agency or representative of an agency should speak or act in a way that is inaccurate, untruthful, or not fact-based because this leads to questions about what is going on and why one should say nothing until one is sure one has the facts straight.

The article has nothing to do with what the media reported or misreported but about the words that came directly from Obama or our agencies or, in other situations, police agencies. In the Holly Bobo case, it is not the media that is at fault for all the conflicting information but the police who have made these statements themselves. This has lead to everyone being puzzled about what the police are doing, whether they have are competent, and to believing the family must be involved.

There is no reason for anyone to give out information before they know the facts; it is one thing to be unclear yourself but it is another thing to state as reality that which you are unclear about. One should keep one's mouth closed until one is sure one is speaking the truth. Or one can say, I do not know all the facts yet, so I cannot tell you more.

Obama may have made the correct decision but his explanation concerning this decision is frightening. I can only hope that his intel was far superior than 55/45 before he invaded the private home of a Pakistani citizen. Flipping a coin on whether you are right is hardly acceptable behavior and I find it hard to believe our military would go in on 55/45 unless they wanted to risk a massive international incident. I am hoping Obama was just saying this to show how terribly brave he was to make such a risky call when, in fact, it was just a reasonable decision because they knew bin Laden was there. I hope his just has an ego problem and he and our military would not take such unwise actions without solid intelligence. But, we will never know because President Obama opened his mouth and made that outrageous statement and now we will all wonder.

Anonymous said...

I agree, no agency should give details unless they are verifiable because of the can of worms it opens when areas come into question. I question competency when so called "facts" change (as in the Bobo case, as well as bin Laden). With bin Laden, they needed unquestionable proof and all anyone has received is further doubts. I have no idea why they would have done the burial at sea, when they knew serious proof was needed (there is no good reason) and in as poor of taste as it would have been, maybe at least showing photos would have been better than all of the story changing (besides telling his followers about DNA proof isn't going to prove anything).

There have been so many mistakes in both of these cases when it comes to verifiable facts that it's impossible not to doubt their honesty.

Great piece!

Anonymous said...

Of course Obama had way more facts than he's saying. There is no way that he would risk the diplomatic nightmare it would be to launch a deadly strike on foreign soil without 100% assurance. Al Queda's PR department (I assume that they have one - everybody seems to these days) would have a field day telling the world about how the americans killed an innocent family. But if Obama was to tell the whole truth about the operation he would probably jeopardize our middle east network of informers so he has to "lie" to us to some extend.

However I do not understand why we didn't have Osama bin Ladens identity confirmed by more independent experts and reliable sources before disposing of his remains. The way they did it is bound to spawn a bunch of conspiracy theories, like the kidney-story, and I cant see that being beneficial for the US.

Pat Brown said...

Anon, I would say Obama doesn't have to give full disclosure of the operation but just don't screw up what you do disclose. I agree that it would seem a requirement for such an operation that they were damned sure what they were doing, so why did Obama say 55/45 instead of near 100%? Did he just say that to make himself look like a cowboy at the expense of the credibility of our military or our country? Seems very reckless to me.

Robyn said...

Great article, Pat. I am of the opinion that Osama has been dead for nearly 10 years now. I don't know what the real reason is for the charade now but it makes me very uneasy. So much for an open, transparent government...

Jolie said...

Thanks, Pat, for including the hilarious example of Maxwell Smart's blundering deception in your article. It brought a smile to my face this morning.

The bottom line is that many people choose not to be truthful and could care less if they are considered trustworthy by others, only that they get away with whatever they're doing or have done. Some are better at camouflaging their lies than others. Thank goodness there are people who have skills to see through the BS and are willing to point it out to others.

btw, I think you meant the word "blowhards" when you wrote "blow-hearts." :)

Noun: A person who blusters and boasts in an unpleasant way. [Merriam-Webster]

Pat Brown said...

Thanks, Jolie! I DID mean blowhard and when I typed it in I got that stupid spellchecker telling me I was wrong...so I accepted the change. Meant to go back and check it out but lost my train of thought! I have corrected the spelling.

You make an interesting point that sometimes people don't care how they are perceived but, one would think, this should be of utmost importance in a country where one can vote. Admittedly, politicians tend to be slick fellows but spinning and lying are two different things and one would think one wouldn't want to say something that clearly could be proven incorrect or heavily questioned. Maybe it is the arrogance of being in power that allows certain folks to think they can just get away with anything and with saying anything.

Pat Brown said...

More admissions that it was not known if Osama was even at the compound. Clearly people were killed before they reached the third floor."My instructions to Admiral McRaven were 'Admiral, go in and get Bin Laden. And if he's not there, get the hell out,'" said Mr Panetta, according to reports. And then what, Mr. Panetta?


A Voice of Sanity said...

Telling the truth can apply to personal relationships, police departments, and government agencies.

But it's a fatal mistake when dealing with federal investigators or prosecutors. Better to wait for your lawyer - unless you are being questioned in "the warehouse that doesn't exist" where the constitution is unavailable to you.

Win At All Costs (LINK)

A Voice of Sanity said...

Pat Brown said: "Obama may have made the correct decision but his explanation concerning this decision is frightening."

More frightening than the explanations of Bush for invading Iraq? A nation with no involvement whatsoever?

Anonymous said...

If you read the accounts of prior attempts to capture Bin Laden, presidents have to make decisions based on imperfect intelligence. Then they make decisions based on non-scientific estimates (55-45) of the odds of success of a particular mission. Clinton was criticized for not ordering missions that had bad estimated odds. Obama ordered a mission with intelligence that showed a clear connection to Al Queda operatives and Bin Laden. What he was not certain of was Bin Laden's presence, at the moment of the raid. But when that intelligence is spelled out, special walled million dollar mansion with no internet, no sight lines from the outside in, Osama's currier going in and out, it sure looked like they had him. Of course they could have been wrong. Many important decisions are based on that. To call this "cowboy" is ridiculous. Plus the mission was planned to bury him according to Islamic law, within 24 hours, and to not have his grave be a shrine for terrorists. Clearly this whole mission was extremely well thought out and executed. They used facial recognition software, DNA, confiscated video of Bin Laden in the place, which we're all seeing now. To stir up another bunch of conspiracy nuts doesn't help.

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