Monday, April 27, 2009

Why Heads Must Roll Over Monday's "Photo Op" Over Lower Manhattan

On Monday morning, residents and office workers in lower Manhattan and Jersey City got quite a shock. What appeared to be a large commercial jet was flying very low over the Statute of Liberty, and then circling close over the Goldman Sachs Tower in Jersey City. Close in pursuit was a military jet. Millions watched in horror, anticipating the third terrorist attack on lower Manhattan in 16 years.

Fortunately, it was merely a "photo opportunity" - Air Force One flying over the Statue of Liberty to create mementos for President Obama to give to guests.

While some authorities in NY and NJ were given advance notice of this photo op, they were also told to keep it close to the vest, as the mission was "classified." Only local authorities with a "need to know" were to be told. Apparently Mayor Bloomberg did not make the cut.

Why was this mission "classified" ? The mission was not military in nature; it was a purely political stunt. And therein lies the answer. What was the sensitive information that needed to be kept from public scrutiny ? The fact that the Obama administration had authorized a mission at great expense to taxpayers and the environment for a "photo op."

Just last week President Obama ceremoniously demanded that his cabinet cut $100 million per year in expense, and of course has generated a lot of goodwill with his environmental policies. Now it is headline news that his administration sent out a 747 and a fighter jet from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland to circle around New York City to make gift cards. And I bet they didn't even purchase carbon offsets. The "Top Secret" classification is suddenly quite understandable.

And of course the colossal waste of taxpayer money and the harm to environment pale in comparison to the great damage done to the psyches of those who witnessed it. How did anyone imagine they might react ?

The New York Daily News reported the reactions of two people in lower Manhattan that explains it better than I ever could:

"I was crying and praying to God to forgive me my sins because I thought I was going to get killed," said Kathleen Filandro, who fled from 1 New York Plaza when she spotted the planes.

"It's like someone coming up to you, sticking a gun to your head for 15 seconds, walking away and hearing 20 minutes later it was an undercover cop posing for a photo," said Wall Street worker Bill Privett.

For many, it was like having a gun to your head for 30 minutes, 8 years after you had another gun to your head for several hours, while you watched 3,000 people get shot in the head.

The entire incident shows a stunning lack of judgment that cannot be dismissed. Has no one in the White House been introduced to the concept of writing a list of pros and cons and weighing them before approving an action? Or, as one wry commenter put it, haven't these guys heard of photoshop?

Last year, I wrote a post about missteps by Facebook (which continue to this day), where I quoted an essay by Judge Joseph McLaughlin, of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals and former Dean of Fordham Law School. He wrote that he long ago learned that "the world pays off on judgment - not brilliance, knowledge, and not experience or compassion either, though a fair portion of all of these is essential to the exercise of good judgment."

In a single, precise word, Judge McLaughlin had captured why many brilliant people fail; they have bad judgment. I vowed to use this word to focus my thinking in all future critical situations. This vow was cemented a few days later when I read a WSJ article about the sacking of a CEO of Coca Cola; a board member discussed a situation that the CEO handled very poorly, and said that the Board help a CEO overcome a deficiency in skills, but what the CEO did showed bad judgment.

The decision to go ahead with today's photo op, and to limit advance disclosure of it, evinces a stunning display of poor judgment, and a reckless disregard for the people of New York and New Jersey. Anyone who participated in, and approved this decision, is beyond salvage and should be removed from the administration.

Fortunately, some good did come out of this incident. In light of the reaction to two planes buzzing New York yesterday, a planned mission to have two plans buzz Washington DC in two weeks has been canceled. Maybe there is some hope after all.

No comments: