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62. Deny Or Admit? To What?

The Blackmail Paradox

The Question:

Quentin is running for office. In the midst of the campaign, Zachary, the opposing candidate, announces that Quentin’s phone has been hacked by foreign agents. Quentin is now vulnerable to blackmail, Zachary claims, and should not be elected.

How should Quentin react? He has led a blameless life, has never had any vices. There is nothing on his cell phone that could be linked to alcohol, mistresses, gambling, kinky sex, drugs.

Quentin knows for certain that there is no way that he could be blackmailed. Certain that the electorate is smart enough to see through Zachary’s charade, all he must do is simply assure the voters of his blamelessness.

Good strategy?


The Paradox:

On the first point: No, the electorate is certainly not smart enough. On the second point: also no. To deny any wrongdoing is not a good strategy; nobody will believe him.

So, what is he to do? Some politicians in the past who found themselves in a similar situation, simply admitted to their failing, acted remorseful, and the whole thing blew over. Several of Quentin’s advisers recommend that he do the same: just admit to it and get it over with.

But admit to what? The vexing thing is that there’s nothing Quentin can admit to. He really is blameless. It is like proving a negative: how can one demonstrate convincingly that one never, ever drank a glass of wine? One cannot.

And now the electorate wants him to admit…and Quentin would like to admit… but there’s nothing to admit to. So, the blot remains even though there is no blot. A paradox.



Any time a candidate runs for higher office or is considered for an important position in the administration, three-letter agencies like the FBI and the CIA run background checks. It is their task to verify whether there are any skeletons hidden in the candidate’s closet. One reason is that the skeleton itself, i.e., a vice or a transgression, makes the candidate unsuitable for office. After all, one would not want a gambler as Chairperson of the Fed, a serial traffic offender as Secretary of Transportation or a gun enthusiast as Secretary of Defense. (Okay, maybe the latter would actually be welcome to many…)

Equally as important, however, is the question whether that skeleton has remained hidden. If it has, this would make the candidate susceptible to blackmail. To wit: (ex-)President Trump’s ex-White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter was a serial domestic abuser and possibly a wife-beater. Now, as evil as such conduct is, moral failings were not the FBI’s primary concern. The real reason for the FBI’s apprehension was that someone who knew about Porter’s criminal behavior could blackmail him. That’s what kept the FBI up at night.



At first, after the domestic abuse allegations became public, Porter denied the allegations. But when photos emerged which corroborated the charges, he saw no other option than to resign.

Now, that is a further paradox because another option existed. As soon as the accusations became public, the threat of blackmail ceased to exist. Since everybody now knew that Porter was a domestic abuser, the White House Staff Secretary was no longer vulnerable to blackmail. He could have stayed in his position, wife-beating and all.


Back to Quentin. His campagn manager has a brainwave. Let’s produce an incriminating video clip and some spicy text messages, all fake of course, and put them on Quentin’s phone. Then let the content of Quentin’s cellphone go viral. And then Quentin will go in front of the cameras, act apropriately contrite, apologize to his wife, the electorate, and the nation, and return to business. Now voters know what is on the cellphone (or think they do) and the threat is over. Quentin can no longer be blackmailed.

That’s a good strategy: come out of the cupboard…and bring the skeletons with you. If there aren’t any, make some up.


Technical supplement:

There’s a corrolary, of sorts:

Marcus Klingberg was an Israeli professor of epidemiology and a noted scientist who spied for the Soviet Union for several decades while working at a top-secret biological research institute. He was caught and sentenced to twenty years in prison. After his early release for medical reasons, he was kept under house arrest under severe restrictions. He was practically forbidden to be in touch with anybody, lest he divulge any further secrets. Notwithstanding his protestations, that after many years in prison, he no longer knew anything that could be of value, the Israeli secret service maintained that he could inadvertently divulge information without realizing that it was secret and still relevant to Israel’s enemies.

That was an obstacle, however, that could have easily been overcome: the secret service could simply have told Klingberg what it was that was secret and still relevant. Then he would not have been able to divulge it inadvertently.


By the way, during his interrogation, Klingberg asserted that he spied for the Soviet Union because the KGB had blackmailed him about a lack of proper medical credentials. Klingberg had claimed that he began his medical studies before WWII in Warsaw and finished them in Minsk. But he may have never actually graduated. Had he only admitted to the fact that he had not officially obtained a medical degree, he would not have been blackmailable. And as a top-flight scientist, it would have hurt him only temporarily.


Corrections, comments, observations:   

© George Szpiro, 2019

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