bureaucracy

plausible deniability

Plausible deniability is the ability to deny any involvement in illegal or unethical activities, because there is no clear evidence to prove involvement. The lack of evidence makes the denial credible, or plausible. The use of the tactic implies forethought, such as intentionally setting up the conditions to plausibly avoid responsibility for one’s future actions.

The term is used both in law and in politics. In politics, plausible deniability usually applies to the practice of keeping the leadership of a large organization uninformed about illicit actions that the organization is carrying out. The leaders then have “plausible deniability” if they are ever questioned about those illicit actions. In other words, they truly don’t know about any illegal actions, and so they are automatically clear of blame.

The term was first coined when the Church Committee, a committee of the US Senate, was investigating US intelligence agencies during the 1970s. The committee found that the CIA had carried out a plot to try and assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro; the Church Committee believed that the president was supportive of the action. However, the president was able to plausibly deny any knowledge of the plot against Castro, since he truly had no knowledge of the specifics of the plan.

Of course, the concept of plausible deniability goes back further than the Church Committee. Likewise, the roots of the term also go further back, at least as far as a National Security Council paper which was issued in 1948, during the presidency of Harry Truman. That paper notably defined covert operations as “all activities…which are conducted or sponsored by this Government against hostile foreign states or groups or in support of friendly foreign states or groups but which are so planned and executed that any US Government responsibility for them is not evident to unauthorized persons and that if uncovered the US Government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them.”

In modern politics, the term plausible deniability often comes up in discussions of political campaigns.  Plausible deniability allows candidates to keep their hands clean when their campaigns, or their supporters, use unsavory campaign tactics and launch dirty attacks against other candidates. For example, some journalists charged that George W Bush’s first presidential campaign deliberately used surrogates in order to smear Bush’s political rivals; by giving the surrogates the dirty work, the campaign escaped public backlash.

Plausible deniability can also refer to a politician’s attempt to test the waters, by quietly trying out how the public might respond to certain acts. In 2015, journalists wrote that Joe Biden wanted to maintain plausible deniability even as he explored a possible White House run. Biden quietly visited certain states and met with certain political power players, without definitively committing himself to throw his hat in the ring. This allowed the former vice president to evaluate his chances of winning the race, without risking the humiliation or loss of faith that could come with trying and failing.

During the Trump administration, some pundits have argued that the president took the concept of plausible deniability to a new level. They argue that the president speaks with a deliberate lack of clarity, implying damaging things but never actually saying them. They believe that the president uses a combination of nonverbal communication, dog whistles, and implication in order to make allegations about his political enemies.

turkey farm

In politics, a “turkey farm” refers to a government agency or department that is staffed primarily with political appointments and other patronage hires. In particular, it is used to refer to hires that are underqualified but are put in positions of power because they either support the appointer politically or financially.

A 2010 Vanderbilt University study noted that “In every administration certain agencies acquire reputations as ‘turkey farms’ or ‘dead pools.’ Positions in these agencies get filled with less qualified administrators, often by presidents under pressure to find political jobs for campaign staff, key donors, or well-connected job-seekers.”

Often, turkey farms are places where sycophants are rewarded for their political loyalty with stable or high-profile government jobs.

But in other cases, turkey farms are places to put “non-performers,” bad employees, or federal workers considered “turkeys,” so that managers can avoid the lengthy process of other alternatives, as outlined in Washington Monthly: “Not infrequently, federal managers use two traditional means of shedding non-performers. By writing glowing letters of recommendation, a boss can get a turkey promoted to a different office. Fortunately, most civil servants are too ethical to use such tactics, and anyway, you can only do that once or twice before your credibility in the bureaucracy is shot. More typically, bosses place non-performers in ‘turkey farms,’ ‘dead pools,’ or (if it is a single person) ‘on the shelf.’ By quarantining non-performers, a good manager can save the rest of the organization from their influence.”

This method of stashing subpar employees was described as a “turkey farm” during the Nixon Administration in a document referred to as the “Malek Manual,” named after Nixon’s special assistant. He first outlined this method of dealing with unwanted employees while still staying within the confines of the federal merit system.

One agency in the federal government that’s frequently accused of being a “turkey farm” is FEMA, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. During the administration of George W. Bush, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, FEMA’s handling of the disaster exacerbated an already bad reputation, as highlighted here: “FEMA had gone through periods of obsession with unrealistic nuclear war planning, thereby making it unprepared for the 1989 San Francisco earthquake and Hurricanes Hugo and Andrew in 1989 and 1992. The agency became known as the ‘Turkey Farm’ because of its management by third-rate political appointees.”

A federal report noted the agency “is widely viewed as a political dumping ground, ‘a turkey farm’…where large numbers of positions exist that can be conveniently and quietly filled by political appointment.”

Other agencies also have a history of being labeled “turkey farms” as well. From FCW: “Political turkey farms — agencies filled with former campaign staffers with thin resumes — made the headlines in the 1990s. In the George H.W. Bush administration, the Commerce Department became known as “Bush Gardens.”

gobbledygook

A term coined by Rep. Maury Maverick (D-TX) for obscure and euphemistic bureaucratic language.

World Wide Words: “He used the word in the New York Times Magazine on 21 May 1944, while he was chairman of the US Smaller War Plants Committee in Congress, as part of a complaint against the obscure language used by his colleagues. His inspiration, he said, was the turkey, ‘always gobbledy gobbling and strutting with ludicrous pomposity’. The word met a clear need and quickly became part of the language. It is sometimes abbreviated slightly to gobbledygoo.”

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