excerpts from the book
The Politics of Lying
Government Deception, Secrecy,
by David Wise
Random House, 1973, hardcover
Large numbers of people no longer believe the government or the
President. They no longer believe the government because they
have come to understand that the government does not always tell
It was official deception over the war in Vietnam that caused
a major erosion of confidence of the American people in their
The disclosures of the Pentagon Papers did demonstrate how easy
it is for government officials to use the security classification
system to keep from public view policies, decisions, and actions
that are precisely the opposite of what the public is told. In
other words, through official secrecy, we now have a system of
The press's failure to question government information more vigorously,
the willingness to accept official "handouts" as fact,
the tendency toward passive reporting - what Tom Wicker has called
"the press box mentality" - has made it that much easier
for government to mislead the public.
The American system is based not only upon formal checks and balances
among the three branches of government, it depends also, and perhaps
more importantly, on a delicate balance of confidence between
the people and the government.
The consent of the governed is basic to American democracy. If
the governed are misled, if they are not told the truth, or if
through official secrecy and deception they lack information on
which to base intelligent decisions, the system may go on - but
not as a democracy.
If politics is the pursuit and exercise of power over other human
beings, truth is always likely to take a secondary role to that
It can be argued,(too,)that lying and
secrecy are basic to any government; that it is only human nature
for political leaders to tend to conceal the truth, hide their
mistakes or wrongdoing, and mislead the public. That easy rationale
is not acceptable, however, in a democracy, which depends upon
an informed public.
When in 1830 President Andrew Jackson approved a brutal policy
to remove all Indians to lands west of the Mississippi, he announced
that the Indians were not happy living among whites, anyway.,
Once we "open the eyes of those children of the forest to
their true condition," Jackson said, the Indians would realize
"the policy of the general government toward the red man
is not only liberal, but generous." The statement sounded
as if it had been scripted by W.C. Fields. The Black Hawk War
and the long struggle to subdue the Seminoles indicated that for
the Indians at least, Jackson's credibility was low.
In 1846 James K. Polk asked Congress to
declare war against Mexico, which it did, because Mexico had crossed
"the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory
and shed American blood on the American soil." In fact, the
clash had taken place in a disputed area between the Rio Grande
and the Nueces River. The battle had its modern parallel in the
Tonkin Gulf incident of 1964; it provided the excuse to go to
war. The Kentucky Whig Garrett Davis declared during the debate
over Polk's war message: "It is our own President who began
Lincoln, who once conceded that his own
impulse for dealing with the slavery problem was to "send
them to Liberia," is secure in American history as the Great
Emancipator. Yet the Emancipation Proclamation, which, as Richard
Hofstadter has pointed out, "had all the moral grandeur of
a bill of lading," freed no slaves. It exempted Southern
states and areas held by Union troops and applied only to the
states that were in rebellion. Those states, of course, had no
intention of complying with a proclamation issued by Lincoln.
McKinley, who once assailed annexation
of the Philippines as "criminal aggression," thought
differently when the Spanish-American war brought the islands
within reach of America's manifest destiny. It was, McKinley decided,
America's duty "to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and
civilize and Christianize them."
Wilson's 1916 campaign slogan "He
Kept Us Out of War" proved true for five months, anyway.
During the campaign Wilson warned that a Republican victory would
guarantee "that we will be drawn -. . into the embroilments
of the European war." And, said Wilson, some young men ought
to be interested in that."
Wilson's promises found their echo in
Franklin D. Roosevelt's famous pledge in Boston, six days before
the election of 1940: "I have said this before, but I shall
say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be
sent into any foreign wars."
Many Americans can remember growing up in a time when people assumed
that if the government said something, it was true. That era is
gone, and faith in government belongs to the nostalgia for a vanished
Distrust of government is, of course,
deeply rooted in much broader social, political, and cultural
forces at work in postwar America. The civil rights movement,
radical protest, the youth revolt, the antiwar movement, Black
Power, and Women's Lib are only a few of the phrases that have
symbolized an age of alienation and protest. It is hardly surprising,
for example, that many American youths should distrust a government
that sent many thousands of them to die in an unpopular war in
Vietnam. Or that some black Americans should distrust the government
of a society that denies social justice and full equality to more
than 22,000,000 citizens.
Against such a background of turbulence
and political and personal alienation, the loss of public confidence
in government cannot, obviously, be attributed solely to government
lying and secrecy. Yet these are terribly important factors, meriting
separate attention, for they threaten the democratic process.
It is not only that government misinformation
has been perceived relatively recently as a political danger,
and credibility recognized as a political issue. Quantitatively
as well, the amount of government misinformation today is far
greater than it was prior to World War II.
The United States emerged from that war
a major world power. In its new global role, America developed
a powerful national security establishment, including a secret
intelligence bureaucracy that spends more than $5 billion annually
and a defense establishment that spends $78 billion a year. With
this expansion of American power, the opportunities and temptations
for information distortion by the federal government increased
proportionately. To put it simply, government had more chances
Often, in the foreign policy and national security area, what
the government says is the news. The Tonkin Gulf episode was a
classic illustration of this. The public was told that on August
4 two American warships on 'routine patrol" had, in Defense
Secretary Robert McNamara's words, been under "continuous
torpedo attack" by North Vietnamese PT boats; in response,
Lyndon Johnson ordered the first bombing attack on North Vietnam
and pushed the Tonkin Gulf resolution through Congress, thereby
acquiring a blank check to escalate the war. Later it became clear
that there had been much confusion and considerable doubt within
the government as to whether any PT-boat attack had taken place
at all. The public, however, had to rely entirely on Lyndon Johnson
and Robert McNamara for their news of the incident. If the details
seem unimportant in the larger tapestry of the war, we need only
recall that at the time 163 Americans had died in Vietnam.
In short, in the crucial field of national
security, the government controls almost all the important channels
of information. And where government controls the channels of
information, there is a greater possibility that information will
be distorted. In the foreign policy Lea, therefore, the potential
for government lying is high.
Where government controls access to both events and documents,
information becomes a commodity, a tool of policy. It is shaped
and packaged by the government, and sold to the public through
Television has not only increased the impact of news and the speed
of communication, it has also increased the ease and effectiveness
of information distortion by the government.
Along with technology, the rise of policy-making elites, particularly
in the national security area, has exacerbated the credibility
problem. The policy makers and crisis managers, drawn largely
from ' the universities and the upper echelons of the bureaucracy,
typically and arrogantly believe that only they possess the necessary
intellect and skills to manage the nation's foreign policy. Moreover,
they routinely receive secret intelligence information and other
classified data on a daily basis, and such information is heady
knowledge. As a result, it is easy for such officials to assume
that the ordinary citizen is not equipped to understand complex
issues of war and peace. From such an attitude, it is but a short
step to justify misleading the public.
The last three Presidential assistants
for national security - McGeorge Bundy, former Harvard dean, later
president of the Ford Foundation; economic historian and Vietnam
hawk Walt W. Rostow; and Henry A. Kissinger, Harvard government
professor and nuclear strategist - have symbolized the new breed
of elite policy makers. From their offices in the White House
basement, they have wielded enormous personal power.
Government lying has resulted from the growth of a huge intelligence
establishment since 1947. This invisible government, with the
CIA at its center, has frequently engaged in secret operations
that have led the United States to tell official lies. In the
language of intelligence, these are "cover stories."
... The intelligence practitioners are
apparently unconcerned with the long-range effect on American
democracy of government lying; their concern is much narrower
and pragmatic; they speak of confining intelligence operations
to those that are "plausibly deniable." Thus the standard
is not truth, but fashioning lies that will be believed.
President Richard M. Nixon, March 8, 1972
When information which properly belongs
to the public is systematically withheld by those in power, the
people soon become ignorant of their own affairs, distrustful
of those who manage them, and - eventually - incapable of determining
their own destinies.
The emergence of the United States as a world power during and
after World War II proportionately increased the opportunities,
the temptations, and the capacity of the government to lie. The
expansion of American power resulted in the growth of a vast national
security establishment and an often unchecked intelligence bureaucracy.
Covert operations of the CIA required official lies to protect
them, and the standard in such cases became not truth, but whether
the government's actions were "plausibly deniable."
In other words, whether the government's lies were convincing.
As a concomitant of expanded American
global power, the government has increasingly gained control over
channels of information about military, diplomatic, and intelligence
events. Frequently the press and public, unable to check the events
independently, can only await the appearance of the President
on the television screen to announce the official version of reality,
be it the Bay of Pigs, Tonkin Gulf, or Laos, or Cambodia, or Vietnam.
Because of official secrecy on a scale
unprecedented in our history, the government's capacity to distort
information in order to preserve its own political power is almost
limitless. Although General Lavelle could not find a way to convert
lies into truth, the government has been more successful. Increasingly
in recent years it has used the alchemy of power to brew synthetic
truths and to shape our perception of events to fit predetermined
If information is power, the ability to
distort and control information will be used more often than not
to preserve and perpetuate that power. But the national security
policy makers, the crisis managers of the nuclear age,, are frequently
men of considerable intellectual abilities who have gone to the
right schools. They pride themselves not only on their social
graces, but on their rationality and morality. For such men, the
preservation of partisan political power would not be a seemly
rationale for official deception (although it might be entirely
sufficient for the President whom they serve). National security
provides the acceptable alternative, the end that justifies all
means, the end that permits men who pondered the good, the true,
and the beautiful as undergraduates at Harvard and Princeton to
sit in air-conditioned rooms in Washington twenty years later
and make decisions that result in blood and agony half a world
away. It is the rationale that permits decent men to make indecent
The excuse for secrecy and deception most
frequently given by those in power is that the American people
must sometimes be misled in order to mislead the enemy. This justification
is unacceptable on moral and philosophic grounds, and often it
simply isn't true. Frequently the "enemy" knows what
is going on, but the American public does not.
For example, for several years, until
details were publicized by a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee, the United States government waged a secret
war in Laos. Secret, that is, from the American public, because
presumably the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese were under
no delusions about the American role. Apparently it was thought
necessary, in this case, to mislead the American public in order
to reveal the truth to the enemy.
When Lyndon Johnson issued his National
Security Action Memorandum of April 6, 1965, which ordered that
the commitment of American combat troops in Vietnam be kept secret,
his actions were patently not designed to fool Hanoi or the Viet
Cong, who would find out quickly enough who was shooting at them;
it was designed to conceal the facts from the American electorate.
The memorandum ordered that the troops be deployed "in ways
that should minimize any appearance of sudden changes in policy,"
a concern that was clearly tailored more to domestic audiences
than to public opinion in Hanoi, where there are very few American
voters. Again and again the government has taken actions designed
to mislead not an enemy, but the American public-just the opposite
of the stated rationale for deception.
The elitists who make national security
policy have combined "the arrogance of power," as Hannah
Arendt has noted, with "the arrogance of mind." They
have increasingly come to feel that they alone possess the necessary
information and competence to deal with foreign policy crises
and problems. Leslie H. Gelb, director of the task force that
produced the Pentagon Papers, has written that "most of our
elected and appointed leaders in the national security establishment
felt they had the right - and beyond that the obligation - to
manipulate the American public in the national interest as they
The elite policy makers have thus found
an easy justification for both deception and secrecy. They are
the only ones who "read the cables" and the intelligence
reports and "have the information". Ordinary citizens,
they believe, cannot understand complex foreign policy problems;
ergo the policy makers have the right, so they think, to mislead
the public for its own good.
In its baldest terms, this philosophy
has been stated as "the right to lie." Even if officials
feel compelled to mislead the public - and it is unlikely that
total virtue will ever find its way into the councils of government
- to proclaim that right is to place an official imprimatur on
a policy of deception and distrust.
"It is sophistry to pretend that
in a free country a man has some sort of inalienable or constitutional
right to deceive his fellow men," Walter Lippmann has noted.
"There is no more right to deceive than there is a right
to swindle, to cheat, or to pick pockets."
The result of more than two decades of
deception has been to shred the fabric of trust between people
and government. It is not only that people no longer believe what
a President tells them; the mistrust has seeped outward. It has
spread, and pervaded other institutions. In the courts, for example,
the government has discovered it increasingly difficult to convict
peace activists or others who dissent from established policy
because juries tend to disbelieve the uncorroborated testimony
of government witnesses.
Within the Executive Branch itself, the
lying has had an insidious effect, for in time, policy makers
begin to believe their own lies. The deception designed for the
public in the end becomes self-deception, as the lesson of Vietnam
illustrates. To read the Pentagon Papers in detail is to perceive
a group of men at the highest level of the government marching
in lockstep toward certain disaster. They had begun to believe
their own memoranda, "options," and "scenarios";
for them, reality had become the reflection in the fun-house mirror.
One of the most damaging aspects of government
lying is that even if the truth later emerges, it seldom does
so in time to influence public opinion or public policy. The extent
of the government's deception over Tonkin Gulf did not begin to
emerge until late in 1967 and early 1968, almost four years after
the event. By then, it was too late.
And the effect of lying is cumulative;
it is doubtless true, and possibly comforting, that the American
public is less gullible today than twenty years ago, because it
has learned that the government is not always credible. But this
increased public sophistication has been earned at a terribly
high price; there is now a tendency to disbelieve the government
even when it is telling the truth. Like the reaction of the jury
to the witness who admits perjury but insists that his new testimony
is the absolute truth, the public responds to the government:
"Yes, but when did you stop lying?"
Unfortunately, the remedies for government
deception and secrecy are as much in the realm of morality as
of politics. The only "solution" to government lying
is for government to tell the truth. But given the combination
of factors that has led to government deception in America on
such an unprecedented scale, merely wishing it to go away will
not help very much.
Any hope of change, therefore, must come
through the political process. The need is to make the political
cost of lying too high; to make political power rest, at least
in some measure, on truth. The process of public education that
began with the U-2 affair is perhaps slowly leading in that direction;
paradoxically, the "credibility gap" may contain the
seeds of its own destruction. The disclosures of the Pentagon
Papers and the gradually dawning realization by the public that
it has been systematically misled may in time have beneficial
political consequences. If political leaders come to realize,
through mass opinion and election returns, that deceiving the
public carries greater political risks than telling the truth,
the politics of lying may gradually be replaced by the politics
This may seem entirely too optimistic,
and perhaps it is, but there are some signs pointing in this direction.
Lyndon Johnson's low credibility quotient certainly helped to
bring about his retirement. Government deception, truth, and trust
were low-key issues in the 1968 Presidential campaign, but they
were considerably more visible issues in 1972, despite George
McGovern's failure to convert them into votes.
The fact that an issue is discussed in
a Presidential campaign does not, of course, automatically guarantee
any change whatsoever. In 1968 Richard Nixon seemed to recognize
credibility as an important political issue; he promised to provide
open government and tell the truth. After his election he followed
much the same manipulative policies as had his predecessor, Lyndon
Johnson. Nixon widened and deepened the credibility gap while
warning against it.
Unless deception and secrecy are clearly
recognized and identified as political issues of major importance,
unless the President of the United States and his successors take
personal steps to bring about and sustain a new atmosphere of
candor and trust, there is little possibility of change, and there
will be continuing danger to our political institutions.
Anthony Lake, a former White House official
The government ... cannot lead the public
while misleading it.
Nothing could be more dangerous in a democracy than for its citizens
and the legislature to abdicate foreign policy judgments to the
Hugo Black in a written opinion in the Pentagon Papers
In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers
gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its
essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed,
not the governors ... The press was protected so that it could
bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free
and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.
V.0. Key, Jr.
Unless mass views have some place in the
shaping of policy, the talk about democracy is nonsense.
For a democracy to work, the governed must know to what they are
consenting. If they are misled, if the truth is concealed from
them by the same government that demands their sons, their loyalty,
and their treasure, then the American experiment is doomed to
end in repression and failure.
Congressman Sam Gibbons, asked at a House subcommittee hearing
on the Pentagon Papers, 1971
How can you give your consent to be governed
when you are misled and lied to?
David Wise page