By Tee Morris
Special Guest Contributor
On the week of September 11, 2012, we watched a textbook example of what happens when you enter a situation unprepared. I speak of the address presidential candidate Mitt Romney delivered in the waning hours of 9/11. Word reached the Romney camp that the United States embassies in both Egypt and Libya were under siege, and so Romney took to the podium with a blasting of President Obama’s lack of action:
“I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
There is, however, a problem with this statement made on September 11, 2012 just before midnight. At the time Romney spoke these words no one had been killed in either Cairo (Egypt) or Benghazi (Libya). According to Politico.com, the statement from Cairo — one of Romney’s sources — was sent out before the death of an American had been reported and confirmed. Another problem concerning the statement is that the “first response” Romney is referring to did not come from the White House but came in fact from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and was not cleared by Washington. And still a third problem: With no other sources to be cited, apart from the original statement out of Cairo and a few tweets, no “apology” that Romney eludes to can be found.
So where was the Romney camp receiving its intelligence from?
This blogpost is not about politics, nor is it about handling of government affairs. What this column is about is the consequences of questionable intelligence gathering and research. Regardless of where you sit on the political fence, the strategy of candidate Romney commenting on the recent opposition in Egypt and Libya was flawed from the beginning as his information channels were unreliable. According to The New York Times timeline of events, Romney’s information consisted of the statement of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo (that had not received clearance from Washington D.C.), a tweet from the U.S. Embassy (deleted after posting as the statement had not been approved by proper channels), and a Politico blogpost reporting that the Obama Administration disavowed the Cairo Embassy statement. This may sound like facts were checked (and from the confidence and delivery of the statement, they were) but were the resources themselves checked? Did anyone in the Romney Camp stop to ask if a disavowed statement, a tweet, and a single column on a political blog were enough to support the risk being taken? Part of risk management is being able to surmise a situation and know when to act, as well as surmise potential fallout in the case of a backfire. In the fallout from Romney’s statements, The Huffington Post reported that “Republican foreign policy veterans called Romney’s initial statement premature and rushed, with limited facts and an incomplete understanding of what was happening in Egypt and Libya. Romney’s team also was unclear about the timeline of when the Obama administration weighed in.”
What can be taken away from this week as “lessons learned” is that in the age of information where the general public is expecting their news constant and ever-present, it is still possible to get ahead of yourself if your facts aren’t in place. Even if you think the fallout is manageable, there is a strong possibility the damage to your credibility could be irreversible.
Solid research and reliable intelligence are your cornerstones in news reporting, in professional writing and publishing, and in public debates and demonstrations. Facts, backed up by reliable statistics and resources, are difficult to question. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when carrying out research and intelligence gathering:
- Question everything — and I do mean, everything — on the Internet. Do you know how many times Morgan Freeman has died? This week? As it is with the Internet, spoof sites and misinformation is rampant. Even Mitt Romney fell victim to the credibility of the Internet this year when The Free Wood Post ran a quote from him that claimed he was “too important to go to Vietnam.” Always question information coming from the World Wide Web. No matter how convincing a headline may appear, you will want to corroborate a story.
- When corroborating a story or a report, try to find another two to three independent sources that validate your original source. Wikipedia is a fantastic starting point, but it is hardly the end of your research. Keep in mind that the people behind Wikipedia are gathering their facts and findings from users around the world. To have these facts accepted by the Wikipedia review teams, the facts submitted usually come with citations of some kind. Scroll to the bottom of Wikipedia entries and you should see a section called “References” and “External Links.” Follow these links to other articles and websites that can either confirm what is covered in your Wikipedia article. For other articles outside of Wikipedia, turn to search engines like Google and Bing. The more specific your search, the less results you will have to sift through.
- Plan for opposing viewpoints or for pushback, and consider intelligent and related responses. Another good example of being ill-prepared for opposition, on a smaller scale than presidential elections and criticisms of foreign policy, also took place this week on the book review blog Bookalicious.org. An author began issuing Cease and Desists to book bloggers as a recent Harper Collins title Carnival of Souls was in violation of his trademark, but what author Jazan Wild failed to understand was the sudden opposition people were taking with him. The pushback was not in his protection of the trademark, but his choice to threaten legal action against book reviewers and not the publisher who was supposedly violating the copyright. This led to a back-and-forth between author and blog commenters (132 comments and climbing…), ridicule across the blogosphere, and even a scolding on Twitter from award-winning author Neil Gaiman. When taking a stand in print or online, it is best to prepare for the counterpoint. Make certain, though, your message is clear. While in the case cited here, it appeared that author Wild did not see that issuing the cease and desists were not what upset people but more about who the recipients were.
When it comes to communicating an idea, a stance on an issue, or hosting a presentation, you are only as good as your gathered intelligence. If you are in the political arena, intelligence and research can make or break a campaign. If you are in the security or intelligence/counter-intelligence field, solid research equates to lives protected. Facts still matter, and when you are diving deep into research, it is best to have resources substantiating resources, and educated arguments prepared for counter-arguments. Know your facts and make sure you are able to cite resources. Timeliness is important when conveying the fact, but more important than timeliness is accuracy. With accuracy comes reliability, an attribute that can take you far.