“Truth isn’t truth,” declared Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump’s personal attorney, on Meet the Press last August. Giuliani’s comment was the “Trump era’s epitaph,” according to a Washington Post columnist. But truth really is defined differently inside the Beltway — when it is not in total hiding.
Trump could face a “perjury trap” from Special Counsel Robert Mueller because of the unique way that the FBI defines reality — and the truth. The FBI rarely records interviews and instead relies on written summaries (known as Form 302s) which “are widely held up in court as credible evidence of conversations,” the New York Times noted last year. Though defense attorneys routinely debunk the accuracy and credibility of 302s, prosecutors continue touting FBI interview summaries as the voice of God. Even if Trump made factually correct comments to Mueller, he could still face legal peril if his statements failed to harmonize with FBI “trust me on what I heard” memos containing contrary assertions.
Trump’s danger is compounded because federal agents have the right to lie to you — and to put you in prison if you lie to them. Any citizen who makes even a single-word false utterance (“no,” “yes”) to a federal agent faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The federal false-statements law conveys so much power that, according to Solicitor General Seth Waxman, it could allow federal agents to “escalate completely innocent conduct into a felony.” One federal judge condemned the law for encouraging “inquisition as a method of criminal investigation.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissenting from a 1998 Supreme Court decision upholding the law, concluded that the law may result in “government generation of a crime when the underlying suspected wrongdoing is or has become nonpunishable.”
Though other federal agencies cannot play the FBI’s game with 302 forms and the false-statements law, they have plenty of options for editing the public record. Inside the Beltway, “plausible deniability” (a phrase first publicly used by CIA chief Allen Dulles in the 1950s) is “close enough for government work” to truth.
Congress enacted the Freedom of Information Act in 1966 to boost self-government by entitling Americans to learn what Washington did in their name. But FOIA is derided nowadays as a “Freedom from Information Act” that begets merely a mirage of transparency. In 2017 persons who filed FOIA requests “received censored files or nothing … 78 percent” of the time, according to the Associated Press. Federal agencies with the most power — such as the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and the Justice Department — are among the worst FOIA abusers. The State Department rejected more than a dozen FOIA requests for Hillary Clinton’s email when she served as Secretary of State — paving the way for clashes and leaks that roiled the 2016 election campaign.
Federal agencies also maximize their discretion in defining truth through almost 50 million decisions to classify information each year. The more information the government withholds, the easier it becomes to manipulate public opinion with whatever “facts” are released. By selectively disclosing only details that support the administration’s policies, government prevents citizens from fairly assessing the latest power grabs or interventions.
Power is truth
The more power government seizes, the more easily it can suppress the truth. The Justice Department can totally suppress embarrassing facts on the most contentious issues (such as torture or assassinations) by invoking the “state secrets” doctrine. The George W. Bush administration routinely invoked state secrets to seek “blanket dismissal of every case challenging the constitutionality of specific, ongoing government programs,” according to a study by the Constitution Project. The Bush administration used state-secrets claims to prohibit torture victims from disclosing to their defense attorneys the specific interrogation methods they suffered. A federal appeals court slammed the Obama administration’s use of state secrets: “According to the government’s theory, the judiciary should effectively cordon off all secret government actions from judicial scrutiny, immunizing the CIA and its partners from the demands and the limits of the law.” Government’s sway over damning information is boundless — at least until some whistleblower such as Edward Snowden obliterates federal credibility.
Unfortunately, Americans have no legal way to commandeer government files until long after most power grabs are consummated. Pervasive secrecy ensures that Americans are deceived far more than they realize.
If one is seeking Shakespearian-level creativity, official claims regarding U.S. military and foreign policy rarely disappoint. How much has changed since 1965, when Pentagon Assistant Secretary Arthur Sylvester hectored Vietnam War correspondents: “Look, if you think any American official is going to tell you the truth, then you’re stupid. Did you hear that? Stupid!” Sylvester’s slap-down has not deterred the media from continuing to play stenographer for the vast majority of government assertions.
Politicians get away with lies in part because Americans are taught that anyone who disbelieves the government must be crazy — the same view the KGB took of Soviet dissidents in the 1970s. This prejudice was canonized in the work of former communist and Ivy League professor Richard Hofstadter’s Paranoid Style in American Politics. Top-ranking government officials exploited that notion to help deceive Americans into submission. At the time of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara declared that it is “inconceivable that anyone even remotely familiar with our society and system of government could suspect the existence of a conspiracy” to take the nation to war on false pretenses. The later exposure of the Johnson administration’s lies on the Gulf of Tonkin did not prevent McNamara from being appointed to the Washington Post’s board of directors.
The lies of conniving politicians are compounded by kowtowing experts. In Washington, power is the highest truth. Credibility depends on titles, not veracity. Blind deference to authority might be expected from semi-literate peasants in some mountain hollow. But it is more of a problem coming from the academic elite and establishment heavyweights. Leslie Gelb, former president of the Council for Foreign Relations, admitted, “My initial support for the [Iraq] war was symptomatic of unfortunate tendencies within the foreign-policy community, namely the disposition and incentives to support wars to retain political and professional credibility.” As Daniel Ellsberg declared in 1970, the Pentagon Papers provided thousands of pages documenting “twenty years of crime under four presidents. And every one of those presidents had a Harvard professor at his side, telling him how to do it and how to get away with it.”
Washington’s hypocrisy on lying shined brightly when Congress passed the Stolen Valor Act of 2006, which made it a federal crime to falsely claim to have received a U.S. military award. The Bush administration made hundreds of false claims regarding Iraq to justify its 2003 invasion. But the Justice Department sees no problem with that duplicity — unless someone wrongly claimed to have won a medal in a war launched on false pretenses. Retail lying was a crime, while wholesale lying was merely politics. (The Supreme Court in 2012 struck down the law as a violation of freedom of speech.)
Public lies, private doubts
Lies subvert democracy by crippling citizens’ ability to rein in government. Citizens are left clueless about perils until it is too late for the nation to pull back. As Hannah Arendt noted, during the Vietnam War “the policy of lying was hardly ever aimed at the enemy but chiefly if not exclusively destined for domestic consumption, for propaganda at home and especially for the purpose of deceiving Congress.” CIA analysts did excellent work in the early period of the Vietnam conflict. But “in the contest between public statements, always overoptimistic, and the truthful reports of the intelligence community, persistently bleak and ominous, the public statements were likely to win simply because they were public,” she observed.
And bigger lies
Arendt noted in 1971 that “lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings…. [We] can only be surprised how little attention has been paid, in our tradition of philosophical and political thought, to their significance.” Political lies are far more dangerous than most political scientists recognize. Big government requires Big Lies — and not just about wars but across the board. The more powerful centralized administration becomes the more abuses it commits and the more lies it must tell. The government becomes addicted to the growth of its own revenue and power — and this growth cannot be maintained without denying or suppressing the adverse effects of Leviathan’s growth.
Ironically, despite the government’s long record of deceits, distrust of government is often portrayed as more dangerous than
government power itself. Private doubts are supposedly a greater threat to America than official lies. Trust in government becomes mass Prozac, keeping people docile and compliant.
Perhaps the biggest myth remaining — at least in high-school civics classes — is that presidents are somehow more honest than other politicians. Calvin Coolidge may have been the last man who appeared more honest at the end of his presidency than at the start. After Americans were appalled at Richard Nixon’s Watergate duplicities, Jimmy Carter captured the presidency in 1976 in part by promising never to lie to the public. But that pledge did not prevent President Carter from falsely proclaiming that the shah of Iran was a progressive, enlightened ruler — a tall tale that exploded and helped end Carter’s presidency. Campaigning against Carter in 1980, Republican candidate Ronald Reagan would recite Carter’s “never lie” pledge and add, “That reminds me of the quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.’’’ Unfortunately, presidential lies are routinely treated as harmless errors, regardless of how many deaths they cause.
While every president in living memory has shredded his own credibility, Trump is reported to be shattering the bogus benchmark (the Washington Post asserts he has made more than 2,000 false or misleading claims). But wild-eyed tweeting is not a federal offense, and it is unclear whether the president has said anything specifically that places him in legal peril.
Perhaps the biggest whopper in Washington nowadays is the assumption that the government and the political class will automatically be trustworthy once the Trump era ends. Even if Trump is toppled by impeachment, there will still be a thousand precedents for federal cover-ups and duplicity. And neither political party nor the bureaucracy has shown any itch to cease hornswoggling the American people.