excerpts from the book

The Politics of Lying

Government Deception, Secrecy, and Power

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 the truth.

It was official deception over the war in Vietnam that caused a major erosion of confidence of the American people in their government.

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 institutionalized lying.

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 primary objective.

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 this war."

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 American past.

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 to lie.

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 the media.

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 policies.

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 decisions.

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 defined it."

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 of truth.

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 Executive.

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?

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