Secret Negotiations: How to Keep Your Talks under Wraps

Secret negotiations are rare, as parties and outsiders often have incentives to leak details to the outside world. But a trio of government negotiations offers tips on how to keep negotiations quiet.

By — on / Negotiation Skills

crisis negotiations, secret negotiations

In Washington, D.C., press leaks and rumors are practically the local currency. Yet during his second term in office, former President Barack Obama and his administration managed to conduct three major secret negotiations:

  • In November 2013, the United States and five other world powers announced a landmark accord to temporarily freeze Iran’s nuclear program and forge a broader long-term agreement. The accord was largely the result of top-secret talks between American and Iranian officials.
  • China and the United States—the world’s two largest polluters—revealed in November 2014 that over the course of the previous nine months, they’d secretly negotiated bilateral commitments aimed at slowing global climate change.
  • In December 2014, the Obama administration announced it had reached a deal with Cuba to open negotiations aimed at restoring full diplomatic relations. The deal hinged on the quietly negotiated release of an American contractor held in Cuba for five years.

Three guidelines from these government negotiations might help you secure privacy for your or your organization’s secret negotiations.

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  1. Weigh Secrecy against Transparency

Before taking steps to conceal planned secret negotiations, you should consider your motivation and the potential risks. Obviously, concealing negotiations because they are ethically and legally questionable is always a mistake. If you have qualms about how a negotiation could affect outsiders, consult your conscience and, perhaps, your organization’s lawyers.

Keeping interested outsiders apprised of your progress in a sensitive negotiation can be beneficial. For example, to show transparency, a town government might keep community members in the loop as it negotiates with a company over a proposed development project. Though interested observers don’t have to be educated about every twist and turn in the negotiation, a carefully timed tweet, joint press release, or community meeting can tamp down public suspicion and allow the parties to incorporate useful feedback.

On the other hand, a communications blackout may be desirable for legitimate reasons, as when a negotiation could reveal trade secrets or privileged financial information; M&A negotiations are often shrouded in secrecy for these reasons. If your counterpart, marketplace competitors, or other adversaries could benefit from knowledge related to a potential agreement, you have reason to conduct secret negotiations.

Leaders sometimes choose to conduct high-risk government and business negotiations in secret to avoid the possibility of a public failure. Given the long-standing U.S. embargo against Cuba, for example, revealing Obama’s interest in reaching out to the Castro regime would have set the White House up for harsh criticism if any leaks emerged or the talks collapsed.

“Negotiations are like mushrooms: They grow in the dark,” the Brookings Institute’s then director of foreign policy, Martin S. Indyk, told Mark Landler for a 2014 New York Times article on Obama’s secret negotiations. “That’s especially true of negotiations between longtime adversaries, where the domestic politics on both sides make it impossible to reach a deal if the negotiations are conducted in public.”

  1. Negotiate the Terms of Secret Negotiations

Because you’ll never be able to keep a complex negotiation quiet on your own, you may need to convince your counterpart of the benefits of doing so. Before substantive talks begin, negotiate who will be involved, where they will meet, and the type of information they will share. If the other side doesn’t see the need for secrecy, you might offer enticements for their cooperation, or you might make privacy a precondition to negotiation.

A “no leaks” pact could be informal (sealed with a handshake) if trust is strong between parties; alternatively, your lawyers could draft a binding agreement. Companies often negotiate official nondisclosure agreements when one or both will be sharing confidential information with the other, for instance.

  1. Implement Control and Discipline

In particularly sensitive environments, simply agreeing to keep negotiations quiet may be insufficient to ensure privacy. If the press, your competitors, or others are actively following your every move, added precautions may be needed.

One strategy Obama used to throw observers off the track in two of his secret negotiations was to use very small teams of unlikely negotiators. An administration official told the Times that assigning nondiplomats to lead sensitive negotiations helps protect secrecy because colleagues are unlikely to suspect their involvement.

After multiparty negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program failed in late 2011, for example, then U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton asked a relatively low-level aide, Jake Sullivan, to initiate secret back-channel contact with Iranian officials. Eventually, Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns joined the skeletal negotiating team.

Similarly, Obama handpicked two young aides to lead talks with Cuba: Benjamin J. Rhodes, a White House adviser and speechwriter; and Ricardo Zuniga, a Cuba expert who had served the United States in Havana. The delegation of two sneaked out of Washington on commercial flights to meet with a small Cuban delegation nine times in Canada and at the Vatican, write Landler and Michael R. Gordon in the Times.

The administration’s strategy doesn’t mean you should assign untested negotiators to lead high-level talks simply to engage in secret negotiations. Rather, it suggests the importance of creative strategizing, tight control of negotiations from the top, and discipline when privacy is paramount.

 Do you have any other advice for conducting secret negotiations?

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