The governor’s growing pains

  • Posted: Thursday, November 22, 2012 6:45 p.m.

“The one thing I think I’ve learned in this is you can’t talk in absolutes.”

— Gov. Nikki Haley

It’s true that there’s nothing we could have done to guarantee that our state would never be hacked.

It might even be true that nobody should be disciplined, or kicked out of office, for what they did or didn’t do that made us vulnerable to the massive security breach at the Revenue Department.

But it’s not true that nothing could have prevented a hacker from accessing 4.25 million unencrypted tax returns.

At a minimum, the Revenue Department could have encrypted its database, as the state Department of Motor Vehicles and other agencies have done to guard against computer hacking. It could have had tighter security protocols, so that perhaps the employee who did something that allowed the hacker in would have been more careful.

Yet from her first public utterances, Gov. Nikki Haley insisted that there was nothing anyone in state government could have done to prevent the breach.

Even more troubling were her assurances that weren’t so absurd on their face. She said that hacking experts told her thieves usually use stolen data within six to eight months and that “Usually after a year, they don’t see anything,” but security experts say that while that’s true with credit card numbers, just the opposite is true with Social Security numbers.

She insisted that leaving Social Security numbers unencrypted was an “industry standard” in the banking industry, but some banking officials disputed that.

She said other states didn’t encrypt their data, but failed to mention that our go-to comparison neighbors, North Carolina and Georgia, do.

I’ve never been comfortable with the governor’s tendency to speak in absolutes, of her black-and-white sense of certainty.

But there’s a world of difference between being careless or misleading when defending yourself from political attacks or engaging in policy debates and doing the same thing when what you say affects how 4.25 million current and former South Carolinians make potentially life-changing decisions about their personal financial security.

So it was a relief earlier this month when, confronted by comments to the contrary by an investigator hired by the state, the governor told reporters that she didn’t yet know enough to say whether anyone could have prevented the breach. Of course, she also insisted that she had never said otherwise. Still it was a start.

Then during a conference call with editorial writers on Friday, Haley gave an uncharacteristically tentative answer to a question about the hacking and added: “Understand that I can’t speak in absolutes because I feel like I learn something new every day.”

“I hesitate on saying whether there was something internal or external, because the one thing I think I’ve learned in this is you can’t talk in absolutes,” she said a few minutes later, noting that after she thought she knew everything about the hacking, “the second day they added more, the third day they added more ...”

When my colleague Warren Bolton asked about her change in tone, she said, “I think if I’ve had a change in tone, it’s because I’m frustrated.” Frustrated by all the new revelations. Frustrated by her inability to fix the problem and move on.

The way she talks about the hacking debacle isn’t all that has changed.

The conference call itself marked a significant departure for Gov. Haley, whose first 22 months in office were marked by the complete absence of what she called “reaching out” to editorial writers. Her self-described cautiousness toward the media – “I kind of have a wall up” – has set her apart from previous governors and has been all the more glaring because it comes on the heels of Mark Sanford’s aggressive courtship.

The governor began our hourlong conversation by saying she hoped to “start some sort of exchange where we can talk more regularly” and thanking us for “working with my growing pains.” She said she planned to reach out to reporters.

Even more important than reaching out to the media is what looks like a more deliberate effort to keep legislators in the loop.

She was hesitant to acknowledge this change when I asked if she saw this as an opportunity to reset a lot of relationships, instead describing it as being of a piece with earlier efforts to work with legislators. But there’s a qualitative difference between having an open-door policy and inviting legislators to breakfast on the one hand and holding conference calls to update rank-and-file legislators and maintaining an ongoing conversation with legislative leaders about the situation on the other.

Granted, the outreach might be borne of necessity; unlike her previous problems, this isn’t the sort of thing the governor could convince even her most loyal Facebook groupies is a conspiracy by her enemies to undermine her.

And it could be opportunistic: What better way to add something more than “Indian-American Republican woman” to her resume than to become the nation’s go-to governor on cybersecurity?

Still, I think it’s worth considering that this debacle really could be teaching our young governor those lessons that we all learn as we mature – if we don’t die first – about how much we don’t know, about not rushing to judgment, about the give-and-take of working with other people, about humility.

I don’t think I have the right to say that this crisis could turn out to be worth the cost, since many South Carolinians’ lives may be devastated by it, regardless of how much post-hacking protection our state provides. But if it truly is teaching our governor about the danger of overconfident certainty, then that will make her a better person, and a better governor.

And that would be a silver lining for our state – which is something we certainly could use.

Cindi Ross Scoppe is an associate editor with The State newspaper in Columbia.

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