Cover your ass
Cover your ass or C.Y.A. describes activity, usually in a work-related or bureaucratic context, done by an individual to protect himself or herself from possible subsequent criticism, legal penalties or other repercussions. In one sense, it can be used to describe rightful steps to protect oneself properly while in a difficult situation, such as what steps to take to protect oneself after being fired. But, in a different sense, according to New York Times language expert William Safire, it describes "the bureaucratic technique of averting future accusations of policy error or wrongdoing by deflecting responsibility in advance". It often involves diffusing responsibility for one's actions as a form of insurance against possible future negative repercussions. It can denote a type of institutional risk-averse mentality which works against accountability and responsibility, often characterized by excessive paperwork and documentation, which can be harmful to the institution's overall effectiveness. The activity, sometimes seen as instinctive, is generally unnecessary towards accomplishing the goals of the organization, but helpful to protect a particular individual's career within it, and it can be seen as a type of institutional corruption working against individual initiative.
The phrase cover your ass is generally viewed as a vulgar term, often replaced by the less-vulgar sounding initials C.Y.A. Safire identified C.Y.A. as a synecdoche, in the same sense that the word "ass" had come to reference the whole person. The word "ass" in the phrase is often replaced with more polite versions or euphemisms, such as "cover your actions", "cover your rear end" or "cover your butt", according to Safire. The "cover your butt" has been used in different ways, such as by Minnesota health authorities urging citizens to undergo preventive colorectal exams, as a way to 'cover' themselves medically from possible future cancer. In banking, officers tasked with making sure the bank follows proper regulatory procedures, called compliance officers, may realize that certain dubious transactions, such as money laundering and terrorist financing, will occur regardless of any regulatory restrictions; still, to protect themselves and their banks against possible future sanctions, they may engage in C.Y.A. activity such as issuing unnecessary memos, obfuscating documents or conducting transactions discreetly, as ways to absolve themselves from possible future liability. The term is widely used in journalism. Safire explained how the term is used in bureaucracy:
A bureaucrat adept at C.Y.A. (a) likes to employ passive constructions (see Mistakes were made) (b) follows up a meeting or phone call with a self-serving memcon -- 'memorandum of conversation' (c) routes memos to and through as many other bureaucrats as possible, thereby spreading the risk of future criticism, and (d) 'papers the file' with memoranda sometimes supporting and sometimes contradicting his or her position.— William Safire, 2008
Because these practices are so routine, a genuine warning can be mistaken for C.Y.A. behavior, causing a type II error or false-negative error, with disastrous results. For example, in the summer preceding the attacks of 9/11, U.S. president George W. Bush was briefed on a now famous August 6, 2001 memo titled Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US. Bush's response to the briefer was reportedly: "All right. You've covered your ass, now."
In another example, before the launch of the United States spaceship Challenger which ended tragically with the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, the final launch approval by rocket maker Morton Thiokol contained the phrase "information on this page was prepared to support an oral presentation and cannot be considered complete without the oral discussion"; this notice was later described as a "CYA notice". In print, it can have the form of a disclaimer; for example, Slate Magazine suggested that the White House used the phrase It is important not to read too much into any one monthly report as a disclaimer on reports, and this was described as a C.Y.A. activity. The term has been applied in the medical profession to describe doctors who prescribe unnecessary medical tests for patients, to protect themselves against possible future lawsuits. The term has been used to describe a cultural tendency which works against accountability and risk-taking, such as in a war effort when generals engage in much cover your ass activity which avoids taking real responsibility.
- Korin Miller, FEBRUARY 1, 2012, Cosmopolitan magazine, Do This Immediately After Getting Laid Off, Retrieved Aug. 26, 2014, "...If you're handed a pink slip, ... make these moves to cover your butt...."
- William Safire, August 18, 1987, The New York Times, ON LANGUAGE; Glossary of a Scandal, Retrieved Aug. 26, 2014, see pages 163-164; "...a new sense has evolved that uses the word for the posterior as a synecdoche for the whole person ... the initials today are an anachronism ..."
- CAITLIN FLANAGAN, NOV. 1 2007, The Atlantic, No Girlfriend of Mine, Retrieved Aug. 26, 2014, "...cover-your-ass devotion to documentation and paperwork...."
- THOMAS E. RICKS, OCT 24 2012, The Atlantic, General Failure, Retrieved Aug. 26, 2014, "...appropriate risk-taking diminished (the art of combat pursuit was almost lost in Vietnam), and a “cover your ass” mentality took hold....."
- MEGAN MCARDLE, APR 10 2009, The Atlantic, The Heroes of Financial Fraud, Retrieved Aug. 26, 2014, "...The instinct to CYA is a normal human emotion...."
- A Culture of Corruption: Changing an Australian Police Service, edited by David Dixon, Hawkins Press, 1999, A Culture of Corruption, Retrieved Aug. 26, 2014, "...This 'cover your ass' perspective pervades all of patrol work... bureaucratic paranoia ... not take the initiative on the street...."
- William Safire, October 30, 1994, The New York Times, ON LANGUAGE; On the Edge, Retrieved Aug. 26, 2014, "...the choice of "cover your rear end" to define C.Y.A. by Senators;..."
- CAROL KURUVILLA, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS, March 22, 2013, Minnesota takes aim at colon cancer with cheeky new ad campaign: March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Commuters in the Twin Cities metro area are getting daily reminders of why they need to get tested
- The Economist, Financing terrorism: Looking in the wrong places. 20 October 2005
- William Safire, Safire's Political Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2008, C.Y.A., Retrieved Aug. 26, 2014, see page 164
- Barton Gellman, June 20, 2006, The Washington Post, The Shadow War, In a Surprising New Light, Retrieved Nov. 5, 2014, "Bush reportedly heard the briefer out and replied: 'All right. You've covered your ass, now.'"
- Edward R. Tufte, Visual Explanations. Graphics Press, 1997. pp. 26–53.
- David Weigel, Sept. 6, 2012, Slate Magazine, The White House Uses the Exact Same CYA Sentence in Every Jobs Report, Retrieved Aug. 26, 2014, "....This is the line: It is important not to read too much into any one monthly report...."
- MEGAN MCARDLE, FEB 8 2010, The Atlantic, The Reality of Health Care Plans, Retrieved Aug. 26, 2014, "...we could eliminate a hell of a lot of unnecessary day to day expenses ... visits of convenience and CYA tests for diseases there's no indication the patient has...."