This is the counsel of historians and legal luminaries to American presidents when they must face a major scandal or political crisis.
By heeding its wisdom, a leader can theoretically make a bad story better through a policy of rigorous disclosure and honesty. He will surely make things worse by lying and covering up the facts and blaming others in a given crisis.
This approach to damage control in the midst of crisis are the subject of two fine books from the oven of Washington D.C:
1.When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Dception and its Consequences, by Eric Alterman (Viking, 2004).
2. Truth to Tell, notes from my white house Education, by Lanny J. Davies (the Free press, 1999).
Davies, former legal counsel to President Clinton, coined the epigram cited in my title. He ought to know; he helped extricate Clinton from multiple scandals.
Alterman is a senior fellow of The World Policy Institute, a university professor and a columnist. In his book, he discusses the lies, scandals and crises that nearly felled the presidencies of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and Ronald Reagan.
44 deaths, more casualties
Coming down to our current predicament here at home, I must say that it’s not a pleasant subject to contemplate and study. The leader in the arena is not sterling.
So far, there are 44 PNP-SAF deaths recorded in the Mamasapano incident. But that count doesn’t include the civilians and of course the deaths on he enemy side. As the facts are coming out from the ongoing inquiries, it’s increasingly apparent that there will be more casualties, some physical and some institutional. Some of these could be:
1. The trust and cooperation between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP), which I hope will be repaired soonest.
2. The leadership of both the AFP and the PNP, wherein changes are probably fated.
3. The presidency of President Benigno BS Aquino 3rd, which many are trying to salvage through a cover-up of Mamasapano, and which others hope will perish on the altar of SAF 44.
4. The Bangsamoro Basic Law, which is under study in Congress and has been hammered hard in the aftermath of the massacre.
Aquino evades serious damage control
In dealing with the Mamasapano crisis, President Aquino has evaded every part of the lesson on damage control:
• First, he was four days late in addressing the crisis and telling the nation about it.
• Second, when Aquino talked twice about the incident, he was niggardly and evasive in explaining his role, and in discussing his responsibility as president and commander-in-chief.
• Finally, he has avoided telling the story himself. He has left to others the task of telling the story. Indeed, he hopes other guys would take the blame (serve as fall guys).
The multiple inquiries, instead of bringing out the truth has thrown up confusing narratives that lead the public away from the central story of who authorized and ordered Operation Exodus, who committed the crimes during the incident, why was the AFP unable to provide rescue and assistance, and why the restraints of an existing ceasefire and peace agreement did not work to prevent atrocities from being committed.
Aquino told story, others clammed up
From the narrative that has come out in some media reports, as early as Sunday morning of Jan 25, President Aquino already knew about the result of the Mamasapano operation, which left 44 police commandos dead. And he has disclosed this.
This is evident from Aquino’s speech before the Philippine National Police-Special Action Force officers on Jan 30, wherein he revealed that he knew that the PNP-SAF were able to neutralize Malaysian terrorist Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir alias “Marwan” that morning.
“Simula pa noong Linggo, umaga pa lang, sinabihan na ako ng naging resulta nitong kay Marwan. Tapos habang sinisayat namin ang pagbobomba sa Zamboanga, dumarating ang mga report,” (starting from Sunday moning, I was already told about the result of the operation against Marwan. After wards, while we were assessing the thebombing in Zamboanga, other reports came.)
But then comes a major wrinkle in the Administration’s narrative.
On Thursday, Feb 12, during the Senate hearing on the Mamasapano incident, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Armed Forces chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang all said they did not inform Aquino right away about the Mamasapano clash, reasoning that they did not see any urgency.
Resigned PNP chief Alan Purisima did not give a responsive answer when asked if he informed Aquino about the outcome of the Mamasapano operation. He said that he needed to seek clearance first from the President.
Song of the generals
Later, on questioning about why reinforcements were not provided to the SAF commandos, the inquiry finally got some answers.
Senator Bongbong Marcos drew from the generals involved in assessing the Mamasapano situation some revealing, even disturbing, answers:
As early as in the Monday hearing, General Catapang expressed a most disturbing position on providing reinforcements and support to the beleaguered SAF commandos. He said:
“In as much as we have a peace process we don’t want to endanger these things. If we attacked the MILF they might think that we’re back at war. We don’t want that to happen. Like fire, if it’s not contained we might have skirmishes not only in Lanao del sur but in the whole Central Mindanao.”
Not forgetting what Catapang had already said, Marcos pinned him down on Thursday. He asked our chief of staff whether he gave priority to the peace process over the lives of the SAF commandos in the field. He got a rueful assent from Catapang.
It got worse. 6th Infantry Division Commander Gen. Eduardo Pangilinan, commander of the 6th infantry Division, declared that if ordered to fire by President Aquino on rebel positions, he still would not order his forces. Not even the commander-in-chief himself would make him budge.
With respect to the President’s participation in discussions about sending reinforcements to Mamasapano, Western Mindanao Commander, Lt. Gen. Rustico Guerrero, confirmed the information that the Commander-in-Chief had given instructions to the Army ground commander that said: “Okay just try your best. But don’t endanger yourselves.”
Our people ask, if PNoy said yes, why then were reinforcements not ordered in?
We are looking here at possible courts-martial down the road, to say nothing of firings and resignations.
Have we heard the worst?
As we brace ourselves for more hearings, let’s pray that we have already heard the worst about the quality of generalship in our armed forces and police forces today.
The historian Barbara Tuchman, in a famous lecture on generalship, reminds us that physical courage must be joined by intelligence.
As a Chinese proverb puts it, “a general who is courageous and stupid is a calamity.”
Did we have this kind of calamity in Mamasapano?
The thought is scary.