Does Government Lie?

By Reggie Rivers, Denver Post Columnist


Thursday, February 28, 2002 - If a man is cheating on his wife, to whom does he need to lie?

To his co-workers, friends, servers at restaurants, clerks at hotels? Maybe. But only to the extent that he fears word will get back to his wife. If he and his lover go to Las Vegas for the weekend, he probably doesn't care what the cab driver thinks. The only person he needs to fool is his wife.

I bring this up because recent news reports revealed that the government had created an Office of Strategic Influence, whose job it was to conduct misinformation campaigns and engage in psychological and information warfare against our enemies.

There was so much criticism about this office that it has now been shut down. But it made me wonder about the idea that the Office of Strategic Influence represents. As a nation, we believe that our government tells us the truth and saves lies only for our enemies.

I agree that our government is mostly honest with us, but that's because the bulk of the information it has to share is innocuous. Even the cheating husband may be honest about taking out the trash or walking the dog. But when he needs to lie, his wife is the recipient of the deception.

If our government ever has reason to lie, we would be the recipients. This is a free society, not a totalitarian state. If the government could rule us by force, there would be no need to lie. It could say and do whatever it wished because we'd have no power. But we do have power, therefore the government needs to get us to buy into its policies.

Take Iraq, for example. What possible benefit could come from the U.S. government lying to Saddam Hussein or to the Iraqi people? They're living under our harsh embargo. They're seeing our jets fly over their country. Are they likely to believe any lie that we tell them?

The reality is there's no incentive to lie to Iraq, because we can deal with its citizens by force. We could tell them the truth or a different lie every day; it wouldn't change anything.

However, it matters a great deal what the American public thinks about Iraq. We must be sold on the idea that the embargo is just; we must believe that the no-fly zones are an important safety measure; we must be convinced that Saddam Hussein is a persistent threat to our liberty.

At the moment, I'm not arguing about whether the policy toward Iraq is correct. I'm merely pointing out that, regardless of whether it's correct or not, the American people are the only ones who have to believe in it. We're the only people our government has to fear. Therefore, we're the only people to whom our government would need to lie.

Our view of the Office of Strategic Influence is laughable. Various segments of the media are celebrating because public criticism caused the government to abandon this overt effort to lie to foreign reporters. But we don't seem to appreciate the fact that the incentive our government has to lie to foreigners is infinitesimal compared to the powerful incentive to lie to us.

The Office of Strategic Influence was shut down because it hit too close to home. For our system to work, U.S. citizens must believe that the government is telling them the truth; our elected and appointed officials have to be careful not to do anything that directly undermines that belief.

Eventually, when the wife learns of her husband's affair, her feelings of betrayal are exacerbated by the realization that she's the last to know. Will the American public be the last to know the truth about U.S. policies abroad?

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