How organizations inadvertently confirm facts when they try not to

On the Media in its story "Fact? Check!" forwarded the revelation (uncovered by the PBS program Frontline in the first part of their "News War" series) that the fact that the United States Justice Department launches a leak investigation implicitly confirms the leak! That's because one of the prerequisites for a leak investigation is that the leaked information actually be true.

Lowell Bergman: The information has to be accurate?

Dave Szady: Yes.

Lowell Bergman: So when the government announces a leak investigation and it comes to your office, it's confirming that the report in the newspaper, for example, or on television, was true.

Dave Szady: Yes. Indirectly, yes.

That reminded me of a similar "inadvertent confirmation" from a local news story many years ago. Someone was admitted to the hospital with acute poisoning, and the local newspaper called to determine whether it was an attempted suicide. The hospital confirmed that the person had been admitted, but declined to discuss whether it was due to a suicide attempt. "Our privacy policy forbids us from revealing any further information about patients who are admitted after an attempted suicide."

Comments (14)
  1. keith says:

    If DoJ launches an investigation, that’s an active response.  The hospital’s case is more passive, and could it be that if a third-party inquirer even mentions the word "suicide" that invokes a business rule at the hospital to clamp down for the remainder of the inquiry?  

    I can imagine an intelligence agency counting on or encouraging a DoJ investigation to make a deliberate misinformation release appear to other spies to be true…

  2. John says:

    I think I agree with keith.  The wording kind of makes it sound like an admission, but it really seems to be more of a blanket statement; i.e. "We can neither confirm nor deny that it was a suicide attempt".

  3. RobO (it's not you, it's me) says:

    If that hospital spokesperson was really trying not to confirm anything, they would have stopped at "Our privacy policy forbids us from revealing any further information."

    The person might as well have said: "The policy prohibits releasing information on patients who attempt suicide, which obviously applies in this case, so I can’t tell you anything."

  4. Matt says:

    These people need to be prepared to give complete non-committal answers.  Like when I get my wife’s Christmas gifts.  She tries to get "clues" from me.  I have to be prepared to answer questions like, "Is it something that I wear?"

    I have to prepare myself to tell her that I won’t answer any questions about that topic ever.  If I don’t then she’ll see my face and be able to infer if she is right (she knows me way too well.)  

    So, when I walk in the door from my shopping, I am full on prepared to say, "Maybe.  I will never ever say anything to any of your questions except ‘maybe’."

  5. The information is not necessarily true at all — it could be supporting a disinformation attempt.

  6. Eric G. says:

    Scientology is notorious for suing people who publish their "secret" information by invoking copyright law.

    Which pretty much confirms that the "secret" information is authentic.

  7. Eric Lippert says:

    Before the first version of the .NET BCL shipped there actually was an exception that said something like "you don’t have permission to determine the name of file: FOO.TXT".  Fortunately that one was caught before we shipped.

  8. Boris Bunker says:

    google for Erin Andrews, who was filmed naked in a hotel room. Nobody could recognize her on the video but to quote another forum:


    Saw this quote from Erin Andrews from the AP (you know when the AP is reporting on it, it’s gone big time).

    She said she decided to confirm it "To put an end to rumor and speculation and to put the perpetrator and those complicit on notice that they act at their own peril"

    — Now why you’d want to "put an end to rumor and speculation" and confirm it, I don’t know. There’s enough rumor and speculation on the internet that I think most people ignore it (honestly I think most of us hadn’t even heard of this alleged video until it was confirmed).

    But you gotta give her credit for being brave and coming foward. Plus coming foward is a big F-ck You to the guy who filmed it.

    Also I guess it would be pretty hard to persue any legal action against the guy who filmed it without coming foward (that’s probably her real motivation for admitting it). We’ve all heard the news stories about the guys being busted for setting up video cameras in bathrooms or locker rooms. I don’t know how stiff the legal penalties are, I don’t remember what they get charged with, but I would think she could really nail him with a civil case. She could claim "irreperable harm to her career", which I don’t think is true, but I’m sure a jury would buy it. Plus the burden of proof is much lower for a civil case versus a criminal case (remember the Robert Blake trial– acquiited of murder in the criminal case but nailed in the civil suit).


  9. Worf says:

    Happens with a certain secretive Fruit company as well. When new product rumors abound, we see the photos and wait a few days. If the photos are still up, it’s a dud rumor. If there’s a legal request to take them down, bingo!

    Though, I think they’ve stopped doing that for precisely that reason…

  10. Falcon says:
    • "Who told you?"
    • "I can’t say"

    • "Was it John?"

    • "No"

    • "Was it Peter?"

    • "No"

    • "Was it Steven?"

    • "I told you – I can’t say!"

    Bonus if there’s a pause before the last statement!

    An example of a strategy to avoid revealing information: "The user account does not exist or the password is incorrect." On the other hand, consider a logon error message telling you that the account has been locked out.

  11. Steve says:

    There’s at least one option that the Justice Department has to prevent this kind of confirmation, called a "Glomar Response"

    But they have to go through a legal process before they can choose to not respond…

  12. Joe Sixpack says:

    The prerequisites are like the sign in liquor stores that say “We card everyone under 30.”  Whenever I get carded I point to their sign and tell them I’m not under 30 so you don’t need to card me.  For some reason they don’t follow their own rules and check my Id anyway.

  13. R. Bemrose says:

    @Joe Sixpack:

    The logic you presented in the liquor store argument is a specific type of logical fallacy.  Wikipedia refers to it as Affirming the Consequent:

    Wikipedia has this example:

    A: All Republicans are pro-life.

    B: That’s not true. My uncle’s pro-life and he’s not a Republican.

    To put it the way you did:

    A: They card everyone under 30.

    B: That’s not true.  You’re over 30 and they carded you.

    What’s the catch?  The sign says nothing about carding people over 30.

  14. Joe Sixpack says:

    @R. Bemrose:

    Not quite.  The point is they need to check my Id to determine if they need to check my Id.

    The sign implies some people are carded others are not. Unless they card everybody they can’t (reliably) know if they carded everybody under 30.  The sign should read "We card everybody" because it is the only way they can ensure they carded everybody under 30.

    Because of this the sign is silly just like it silly for me to suggest that they don’t need to card me because of what the sign says.

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