Time to punish governments that lie

Our focus today is on governments that lie. Which is to say: Governments.

Also, how journalists who cover governments communicate to citizens the fact that the government has just told another lie. Which is to say: Accurately, but usually euphemistically.

Journalists who cover a town hall, city hall, statehouse or White House have all had the experience of covering a story in which the government is lying. It makes no difference whether the halls and houses are controlled by Democrats or Republicans. Lies happen. Sometimes daily.

We begin with a primer on government lies. There are two ways government officials lie to us: (1) By telling us things that are not true; (2) By not telling us things that are true.

So it is that journalists who cover government, like golfers, are required to play it as it lies, as a matter of course. It has become so routine that we do it by rote and write it in code.

On Tuesday, March 22, The Washington Post told us about two instances that fall within Category 2 _ lies by willful omission. But, of course, the Post journalists did not quite call it that, because we have been trained to use all the euphemisms that are fit to print.

A front-page story headlined, “New EPA Mercury Rule Omits Conflicting Data,” reported that the Environmental Protection Agency had contended its modest new limits on mercury emissions from U.S. power plants controls could not be tougher because the cost to industry already far exceeded any public health benefit _ but the EPA stripped from the documents the fact that an EPA-financed study had reached the opposite conclusion. Indeed, that analysis, peer reviewed by a number of EPA scientists, estimated health benefits 100 times greater than the EPA said they were.

A page A3 story headlined, “Justice Redacted Memo on Detainees: FBI Criticism Of Interrogations Was Deleted,” reported: “U.S. law enforcement agents working at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, concluded that controversial interrogation practices used there by the Defense Department produced intelligence information that was ‘suspect at best,’ an FBI agent told a superior in a memo in May last year.”

But the Justice Department, at the urging of the Defense Department, blacked out that key fact when a federal judge ordered that the memo had to be released to the American Civil Liberties Union last December. Officials also redacted the agent’s warning that the practices could undermine future trials of terrorism suspects. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., forced Justice to reveal the blacked-out matters and then released the actual memo, saying: “As I suspected, the previously withheld information had nothing to do with protecting intelligence sources and methods, and everything to do with protecting the DOD from embarrassment.”

This points up a need for another quickie primer. There are two reasons government officials lie: (1) Because it is easier/more expedient/less embarrassing to tell untruths and withhold tough truths; (2) Because officials know that mayors/governors/presidents rarely, if ever, fire officials who lie in their behalf. No wonder governments find it convenient to lie to their own citizens and even lie to the world. Consider two examples of domestic and global nuclear lies from last Sunday’s news.

On March 20, The New York Times reported about a home-front government lie: “E-Mail Shows False Claims About Tests at Nevada Nuclear Site.” The article reported that internal Energy Department e-mails about Bush administration plans to open a nuclear waste repository within Nevada’s Yucca Mountain revealed that the department made “false claims” in documenting its assurances that the radioactive material could be safely stored for eons. For example, equipment was certified as properly calibrated before it had even been received.

On March 20, The Washington Post reported about a global government lie: “U.S. Misled Allies About Nuclear Export: North Korea Sent Material To Pakistan, Not to Libya.” The article reported that “In an effort to increase pressure on North Korea,” Bush officials had told Asian allies that Pyongyang provided nuclear material to Libya _ but that U.S. intelligence had reported the material went to Pakistan, which sold it to Libya, and officials had no evidence North Korea knew of the second transaction.

So we have four examples with one common trait. They are lies with footprints. It should be easy to find and fire the officials who invented – and approved – each plan to tell untruths and withhold tough truths.

Just give the order, Mr. President.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)