In The Secret Handshake and my other work, I’ve written about political strategies used to derail the careers of people. One such strategy is applying “slippery criteria.” Here, what is held against one person to make him or her appear “unfit” for a promotion, for example, is not used to determine the “fitness” of others.
We have a perfect example of that with Hillary Clinton this week. Here we are nearly on the eve of the presidential election and the FBI head, James Comey, pulls a fast one. He submitted a vague letter to Congress about emails that he deems possibly relevant to a prior case against Clinton. In an unprecedented move, he also violated the Justice Department’s long-standing rule of not influencing presidential elections, especially within the prior 60-day period.
Slippery criteria strategies work like this. Imagine suddenly being told that you won’t be promoted because you never worked in a particular division, even if those promoted before you did not work there either. A criterion not relevant for others is made relevant for you.
There’s a tendency to think that such political sabotage does not happen at higher, visible levels — especially in government. But, this is precisely where the opportunities for promotion or election are slim and the stakes are highest for those in the inner circle not wanting to rub shoulders with or have their decisions second-guessed by people they deem unfit or unlike themselves.
Unless people are aware of how different criteria are often used for desirable candidates than for undesirable ones, they don’t look for “slippery criteria.” They may even defend themselves by trying to prove that they meet such bogus criteria when the better approach is to reveal the “slippery criteria” application — to show that such criteria were never revealed as applicable to their promotion and that others who do “fit” have not met such supposed standards.
We know, for example, that there have been email issues in the careers of other secretaries of state. Here again, as with the unprecedented FBI letter to Congress now forcing Clinton to focus on email issues again, the criteria used against Clinton (a significant break with policy and supposed “carelessness”) are practically nonissues for Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. Are they all guilty of some purposeful violation of clear rules? Or has a systemic or process flaw been cleverly used against Clinton as a personal and professional one? And, what about the 22 million George W. Bush emails that went missing? Where is the application of consistent criteria in this matter?
James Comey’s unprecedented actions are a clear example of using slippery criteria to halt the progress of a specific candidate. They conjoin with a strategy of gratuitously timed strategic ambiguity where confusion is purposely created. Simply causing people to wonder if something is wrong can alter the course of an election. By not clarifying who is being accused and why, he handily employed implication to harm one presidential candidate and help the other.
Apologies may come later. But they will mean nothing as the ambiguity worked when needed. Very crafty. Very unethical.