WHEN LEADERS STONEWALL

BY Angelo Fernando 

Denials and scripted lies are the stock-in-trade of those who engage in stonewalling. The verb ‘stonewall’ came into currency with politics, referring to actions that intentionally block information or resist divulging details when confronted. It’s an evasive manoeuvre.

“I am not a crook!” declared onetime US president Richard Nixon. “No collusion!” repeats the incumbent – President Donald Trump – when questions about Russian interference surface.

In Britain, shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry said this of outgoing PM Theresa May over the Brexit impasse: “On a day when the government is committing to greater transparency on its intentions for Brexit, we’re getting the usual stonewalling.”

But stonewalling has been used outside of politics too by medical device manufacturers like big pharma, carmakers, tobacco giants and food processing companies to name a few. In March, a US senator accused the world’s largest generic drug maker Teva Pharmaceuticals of stonewalling an investigation into the role manufacturers play in the opioid crisis.

Stonewalling is often used by American presidents as an act of deception to save embarrassment and defuse tricky situations. In a paper titled Stonewalling and Suspicion During Presidential Scandals, Scott J. Basinger and Brandon Rottinghaus propose that the practice be seen through a game theory approach – one of incomplete information.

“President Kennedy’s untruth about having Addison’s disease” (an autoimmune disease that was kept secret) was at the benign end of the spectrum whereas President Dwight  Eisenhower’s claim in 1960 that a U2 spy plane shot down in Russian airspace was nothing more than a weather research aircraft was more devious, they assert.

“Eisenhower and his staff agreed that lying was the best option in order to save his effectiveness during a summit meeting,” the authors note.

This is an interesting game between the ‘hunters’ of truth (the media) and the ‘hunted’ (heads of state or corporations). This ‘signalling game’ is played so that “the better informed player acts  and the worse informed player reacts” to information.

Somewhere in the corporate world or executive mansion, there must exist a little handbook on how to stonewall comprising three chapters: Chapter 1 – Deflecting the media; Chapter 2 – Techniques to counter congressional grilling; Chapter 3 – Going off script.

So how does the corporate world play by the handbook?

Businesses have used the manoeuvre with little success. In the 1980s, tobacco companies used elaborate measures to block the release of information related to the connection between cancer and smoking. They hired consultants to write to scientific and medical journals, to stall investigations.

In 2015, when Volkswagen was caught programming its engines to cheat on emissions tests, its US division CEO played by the book. “This was a couple of software engineers who put this in for whatever reasons,” claimed Michael Horn. He added that he was “not an engineer,” as a way of evading technical questions. Volkswagen came to a US$ 10.03 billion settlement with the US government.

And when Wells Fargo was grilled in 2017 about a stealth business promotion it conducted by opening sham accounts, it put off providing executives to be interviewed by a congressional committee. The bank ended up paying a US$ 575 million settlement.

The purpose of most stonewalling techniques is not only to wriggle out of the situation but also delay the outcome. In 1988, Bill Clinton knew the tactic would not expunge the scandal when the former US president declared: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” He was impeached but survived in office.

Game theory of stonewalling is applicable in diplomacy too but it’s more like a game of checkers. When the United States attempted to compel North Korea to eliminate its nuclear arsenal, The New York Times said that the latter “stonewalls and threatens until the last minute, then steps back from the brink and deals.” It’s their well-known “nerve-wracking bargaining style.”

Stonewalling falls into some common categories. The first is a wall of silence. The second is flat out denial. The third is allowing details to trickle in without acknowledging the larger issue. And the fourth is to meet a question with a question – i.e. with the intention of deflecting the purpose of the original question.

But with every scandal, we see the emergence of desperately artful ‘game mechanics.’ The cat and mouse game has evolved into a game of poker or even checkers of which there are several versions. But sometimes, it becomes a game of three-dimensional chess in which the king or kingpin has to move several pawns to deter an attack.