Truth, Lies & War

Rod Dreher has an interesting post about intelligence officials who distorted information to justify the Bush Administration's policy goals. In other words, they lied. I'm sure you are shocked to think that your heroes may not have been entirely truthful. Maybe they actually believed themselves to be telling the truth, but I have no problem believing the government would lie to the people. I've seen it happen. Here is a story you will not read anywhere else.

In 1990 I was a junior officer in an Army Reserve military intelligence unit. In August of that year, Iraqi forces under Saddam Hussein invaded and captured Kuwait. President Bush vowed "this will not stand" and ordered U.S. forces to defend Saudi Arabia in an operation called Desert Shield.

It was an interesting time to be a reservist. Many units were mobilized and there was a lot of confusion about who would go and who would stay. We were alerted several times to get ready and then told to stand down. We worked hard to be ready just in case. In the end I never went anywhere, Kuwait was liberated, and Saddam stayed in power.

During this time I was, as you might imagine, paying close attention to the news coverage. Back then that meant CNN. Fox News didn't exist yet and the web was still a dream. CNN was quite accurate about some things, and totally wrong on others. I knew this because I had access to classified intelligence information as part of our mission. It was amusing to contrast the "official" news with what was on TV.

In late 1990 I saw top secret reports about an event that had just occurred in the Middle East. I must be vague because I think it may still be classified. I've still never seen it mentioned in any open source, at least. Suffice to say that this event was highly relevant to U.S. military plans at the time.

Daily press briefings from the Pentagon were a regular feature on CNN during this period, with various generals and admirals answering questions from reporters. So one day I almost fell out of my chair when a general was asked about this very hush-hush event. I don't have a transcript, but the exchange went something like this.

Q: General, we heard a rumor that ________ earlier this week. Can you confirm this?

A: No, that's not true. No such thing happened.

The reporter dropped it and they went on to other matters. Now as a young officer maybe I was a bit idealistic, but it had never occurred to me that generals could lie. But that's what he did. What the reporter said was true, and the thing he mentioned did happen.

The general could have said "We don't comment on intelligence matters." He could have said "We can't confirm that." He could have used one of the many other artful dodges that they frequently employed when asked awkward questions. He didn't. Instead he lied, plain and simple, to the press and the American public.

Was he wrong? Maybe, maybe not. The nature of this information was such that if it had become public knowledge, some innocent civilians probably would have died. The general may have felt he needed to shoot down the question and make sure it didn't come back up. I'm not second-guessing him here. I am making the point that government lies from the highest levels are nothing new.

There's more. This particular general had four stars at the time and became very well-known to the public. He retired a couple of years later and there was a lot of speculation about whether he might have a political future, maybe even a run for the White House. His political appeal was, ironically, based largely on his reputation for prudence and honesty.

The general decided against seeking elective office, but did go on to become a key cabinet officer in the second Bush Administration. Once again, he began appearing on the news regularly to talk about Iraq. Every time I saw him, I had to wonder if he was speaking the truth or not. The lie I saw was smooth and convincing. What else might he be holding back?

This brings us to the whole debate about what the Bush Administration knew about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and what the public was told as justification for the invasion in 2003. I am well aware that intelligence agencies have to protect their sources and methods. There are things the public should not know. With that understanding, we trust our elected officials to be as open with us as they can. We certainly don't expect to be actively misled. Yet there's a lot of evidence that this administration did so in regard to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

If so, did they mislead us with malicious intent? It is one thing to cover up the truth when lives are at stake. It is quite another if the goal is to achieve political gain. Yes, yes, politicians lie all the time. We've come to expect it, and we're wise to be skeptical of their self-serving rhetoric. We expect truth on the big things, though. Things like, say, "why should the country go to war?"

After 9/11, I think Bush wanted to invade Iraq for reasons entirely different than what we were told. Maybe they were legitimate reasons, but whatever the real plan was Bush knew that Congress and the public would probably not like it. So he had his administration offer other justifications, such as Hussein's alleged possession of WMD and links to Al Qaeda, that were more palatable. It worked. Congress authorized the war and public support was initially very high.

Lies and partial truths, however justified they seem at the time, usually come back and bite those who tell them. When no WMD were found and Iraq deteriorated into chaos the Bush Administration had no credible defense for its policies. We are now left with the current untenable situation.

What would have happened had Bush simply leveled with us in 2002-2003? We'll probably never know. Maybe we would still have invaded Iraq and still be right where we are now. But I think we would be better able to make the best of a bad situation. Instead, we're left with a critical loss of confidence between the American people and their government, as well as a loss of trust within the branches of government.

Our political system is built on trust. We put our cards on the table, debate the issues, and eventually shake hands on an agreement. When one side negotiates under false pretenses, the next debate will not go nearly as smoothly. Repeat the process a few times and it degenerates into the bitter paralysis that now prevails, not just about the war but about everything.

The story of George Washington and the cherry tree may or may not be true, but it's important. It's important because it illustrates what we expect from our presidents. Now, thanks to the deceptions of Bush, Clinton, Nixon, Johnson, FDR and probably others, our expectations are permanently lower. It makes me wonder how long the "American Experiment" can survive.

Who do we blame? Look in the mirror. We expect the president to be just like "one of us." Knowing our own faults, this means we don't expect much. We have what we asked for.

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