Ethics matter

According to Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism director under presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, there’s really only one way to restore honor to public service: “Have people [join] the government who believe in honesty, integrity and ethics.” This, said Clarke, the main speaker at the University Honor Council’s Integrity Week, is the “best antidote to stupid and corrupt and unethical government.”

There’s plenty of bad behavior to go around these days, said Clarke, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for intelligence under Reagan, and assistant secretary of state for politico-military affairs under the first President Bush. He resigned from George W. Bush’s administration in 2003 and published his bestselling insider account, “Against All Enemies.”

During his Nov. 6 talk at Annenberg’s Zellerbach Theatre, Clarke cited numerous examples in government and corporate culture of questionable ethical behavior—and some that is downright illegal—from the WorldCom and Enron scandals (“essentially Ponzi schemes”) to the resignation of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the indictment of the governors of Illinois, Kentucky and Ohio and the grand jury investigation of Pennsylvania Rep. Curt Weldon. “The interesting thing about these cases,” he said, “is the system we have in place did not prevent them.”

The good news? “To some extent, the system works, even if it doesn’t deter these kind of acts. We like to think more often than not, it catches it.”
But all of this dishonesty is not comparable to the damage done by our performance in the war in Iraq and the War on Terror, where there has been misfeasance, criminal negligence and violation of law and international treaties, Clarke said. While the numbers of wounded soldiers and the cost of the war have climbed, the reputation of the United States has fallen sharply. And to those who argue that torture is necessary in these times, Clarke responded firmly, “It’s not. It not only diminishes our standing in the world, it is ineffective.”

He also condemned the Bush administration’s suspension of habeas corpus for foreigners, illegal wiretapping and holding people under suspicion of terrorism without charge. “That is a pattern not of honesty, not of integrity, not of ethics, but the exact opposite.”

Clarke, who graduated from Penn in 1972 as a political science major, cited examples of people who have spoken out against crimes and corruption, often at the expense of their careers. Included in Clarke’s list was former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Erik Shinseki, who was forced out of the military after he maintained that at least 300,000 troops—not the far lower number the Secretary of Defense wanted—would be needed in Iraq to keep the peace. Individuals like Shinseki are too few and far between, said Clarke—but not because people are unaware of illegalities, corruption and dishonesty.

Put simply, the risks to one’s career are too great—which shouldn’t be an excuse to remain silent. “There comes a time when the consequences of the policy are too great. …When the action is illegal then they should resign.” And, most important, he said, people who know should go public with the information.

At the question-and-answer period following his talk, Clarke was asked about his own decision to leave the civil service during the Bush administration. He decided to quit his high-level position, he said, when he saw the adaministration’s intent was not only to go to war in Iraq, but stay there. “You always hold out hope that it’s not as bad as you think it is.”

Winning the battle of ideas and going after the money of terrorist organizations are highly effective ways to win the war. Instead, said Clarke, we are letting al Qaeda win the war of ideals. “Everything they said we would do, we have done—and more.”

Originally published on November 16, 2006.

Originally published on November 16, 2006