Printer Friendly

Lie society; the cold war's over. But its legacy of lying remains.

The Cold War's over. But its legacy of lying remains

One ordinary morning-it was March 27, 1992-1 opened up my New York Times and here's what I found: One in four scientists suspect that their peers lie about their work; nuclear test site employees in Nevada, claiming they were lied to about the dangerous levels of radiation to which they were exposed, are suing the government; two California inmates are freed after 17 years in prison for murder after three "witnesses" admit they lied in their original trial testimony; the federal government and Rockwell Corporation admit to lying about their handling of radioactive waste at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant; a letter to the editor defends a law firm that lied on behalf of its client, Charles Keating; and an op-ed notes that as a Silverado Bank officer, Neil Bush approved a $100 million loan to his business partners and then, straight-faced, claimed he never suspected it was a conflict of interest. With my morning coffee, I got one piece of toast, two eggs, and six lies. And that's just the A section.

The lie is a little like smog: It blankets us, but we hardly notice. Oliver North admits he lied and we not only forgive him, we pay him to tell us about it. The Bush administration lies about the covert U.S. aid that helped Saddam Hussein build up his military and about the extent of allied "friendly fire" deaths, and we throw parades to celebrate our victory." There are plenty of causes of America's current immobility besides deception-but as an explanation, don't sell it short.

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's Marlin Fitzwater, was the first in modem times to observe that big lies work best. And in America, the biggest and best lie has long been "national security." In the fifties, a senator lied to the nation about the Communist conspiracy. In the sixties and seventies, the military lied to thousands of young soldiers, their parents, and itself about Vietnam. Meanwhile, the facts about the Castro assassination plots were sealed up so tight by the inner government they will probably never be unstuck.

In the seventies, a president used the CIA and the FBI to help hide the most embarrassing political scandal in American history. Which brings us to the eighties and Iran-contra, which was steeped in so many lies that historians may never get to the bottom of it.

Unfortunately, all this lying isn't just a political problem. To lie, and lie righteously, seems to be the one trickle-down effect that's actually trickled down. A generation ago, Dow Chemical used the veil of national security to keep soldiers in the dark about Agent Orange. Today, without even that superficial justification, a subsidiary, Dow Corning, has apparently employed similar deception in marketing silicon breast implants.

It's not just faceless institutions doing innocent citizens wrong. Dow Coming's employees, like employees everywhere, probably have done their fair share of lying, too. A survey by executive headhunters recently concluded that more than 40 percent of executives lied on their resumes. But forget statistics. Just think of how many times you've lied to disengage from a dinner date, a job responsibility, a forgotten familial obligation. And how easy it was to rationalize it to yourself.

We Americans love to think of ourselves as Huck Finns, but there's a little of the King and the Duke in all of us. No matter how much we hate to be lied to, we are remarkably comfortable with the lie. So why harp on it now? Today, with the end of the Cold War, we have a unique opportunity to erase this deepening national character stain. Gone with the Soviet threat is the biggest excuse for big lies-lies about the harmful effects of nuclear weapons production, about our government's domestic spying, about the need for gold-plated weapons systems. For the first time in half a century, we have a chance to safely renounce our willingness to lie and to be lied to-a chance to realign our moral compass. And yet the needle hardly flutters.


It's ironic that Americans fell into the national security lie just as they began fighting a nation with vast expertise in the technique. Marxist dogma is based on doing just about anything for the greater good. The American version of the greater good theory seemed to be that the separation of powers had worked so well that it was no longer needed, and that the market economy had provided so many benefits that corporations could be trusted to voluntarily act in the public interest. Americans bought the gambit-public confidence in government and private institutions soared during precisely the period when the military, the CIA, and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) were using the dark to do their darkest deeds.

Most five-year-olds can identify the harm that comes from lying, but perhaps we adults need it spelled out more dramatically. Let's start with the most sinister of all government lies: denial of the harmful effects of nuclear weapons tests.

In Countdown Zero, former Marine 2nd Lieutenant Thomas Saffer described an atomic bomb test he watched from an open trench just two miles away:

With my eyes tightly closed, I could see the

bones in my forearm as though I were examining

a red x-ray.... I was ... bounced helplessly

off one trench wall and then off the other. . . .

The ash continued to fall, and we had nowhere

to go for shelter.... Where trucks and tanks had

stood before the detonation, there was nothing.

Everything had been vaporized or tossed hundreds

of yards.... The ground felt hot beneath

my feet. . . . A group of Marines, dressed as

though they were taking a casual stroll in the

desert, [were] standing in the contaminated area.

A library could be stocked with similar stories from the 300,000 veterans who were exposed to nuclear weapons tests in Nevada and the South Pacific. These troops were never informed of the dangers they faced. What made such concealments possible was a perversion of the well-warranted secrecy of the Manhattan Project. But before long, even ordinary citizens like Laura Lee Bailie could be sacrificed for slightly less critical causes.

One year, 80 of the 200 calves born on Bailie's farm near the AEC's plutonium facility at Hanford, Washington were deformed. On the few occasions when AEC officials commented on such episodes, they attributed them to poor livestock management. In 1946, Bailie had a stillborn daughter, and the next year, her son Tom wasborn with numerous birth defects and health problems. By age 18, Tom Bailie was permanently sterile. His parents and both sisters have had cancer. Among 28 neighboring families, only one has escaped cancer, thyroid disease, and serious birth defects.

What had happened? For 20 years, the AEC and its contractor, General Electric, exposed residents of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington-the "Hanford Downwinders"-to whopping doses of radioactive iodine (1-131) and other dangerous substances. But the AEC and its offspring, the Department of Energy (DOE), concealed their knowledge of Hanford's emissions-27,000 times the I-131 output of Three Mile Island-for four decades. In fact, until 1986, when the DOE was finally forced to release a damning heap of documents, officials insisted that there were "no observable health effects" from Hanford. So intent were the generals and scientists on preserving the lie that they didn't even advise Hanford's citizens about such simple measures for limiting radiation exposure as avoiding fresh produce and milk.

It wasn't just the AEC that rationalized ruining lives with the excuse of national security. Val Orlikow, wife of a Canadian politician, became a victim of CIA deception when she went to the hospital in 1956 for treatment of postpartum depression. There, psychiatrist Ewen Cameron put her through more than four months of partial sensory deprivation, including 16 LSD injections and weeks of "psychic driving" using repetitive brainwashing tapes.

After Robert Logie's leg pains were incorrectly diagnosed as psychosomatic, Dr. Cameron "depatterned" him with a series of intense electroshocks and LSD trips, then put him in a drug-induced "sleep" for 23 days. Another doctor described Logie's life afterward as "marginal. . . . [H]e managed to function, work, and exist, but barely."

Dr. Cameron told neither of these patients, nor dozens like them, that his "treatments" were mind control experiments sponsored by the CIA:s super-secret "MKULTRA" program. MKULTRA also funded numerous experiments in the U.S., the records of which have never been fully revealed. In 1978 the agency finally admitted in internal memoranda that it had been at fault, and the U.S. apologized privately to Canada. CIA director Stansfield Turner told Congress he would notify all the experimental subjects and take steps to help them. Ten years later, and 30 years after the brainwashing began, the subjects had been neither notified nor compensated, and the agency was strenuously blocking litigation on behalf of nine victims. In one court case, the CIA fought against releasing evidence of the official apologies to Canada, claiming that exposure of those innocuous letters would damage-all together, now-national security.

Is such deception a thing of the past? Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and more sophisticated investigative reporting, it's surely less common, but as Iran-contra reminds us, it's overly optimistic to think that big-time government deception is obsolete. According to Alien Ink, a recent study of the FBI's surveillance of American writers, FBI officials privately admit they keep two sets of files on some of their citizen-targets: one to release under FOIA, and another with the real stuff. The same kind of thinking prompted the military last year to exaggerate the success of the Patriot missile in the Gulf war-the latest in a string of deceptions used by the Reagan and Bush administrations to lobby Congress to prop up Star Wars research.

Big bother

With the government setting the tone, it's little surprise that the 20th century saw prevarication become standard operating procedure in American business. Of course, only a political scientist desperate for a dissertation would blame all corporate deceit on the government's example; every town in 19th-century America boasted a few entrepreneurs hawking snake oil wrapped in promises. But as corporations grew more sophisticated, they similarly grew more sophisticated in using and hiding deception.

About the same time the Hanford Downwinders were soaking up their radiation, inklings began to develop that tobacco companies had been lying for decades about their products, sitting-with the government's help-on solid evidence of the link between smoking and lung cancer that could have prevented millions of premature deaths. A few years later, Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed documented the great lengths to which General Motors went to blanket its bad news. While national security lying served to protect the government from criticism and oversight, such corporate lying served a different, but also commanding, master: the bottom line.

The exposure of the cigarette companies and car manufacturers made headlines and changed the way many people felt about business, but those busts did not scare other corporations straight. Almost three decades after the Surgeon General's report and the thalidomide scandal, the congressional subcommittee that oversees the FDA is still a fount of information on drug companies that have suppressed evidence about dangerous side effects discovered during premarket testing. Meanwhile, 13 coal companies admitted last month (after a three-year Department of Labor investigation) to lying to their workers and the government about the amount of disease-causing coal dust in the mine air. That may be just the tip of the scandal; 520 other coal companies are now under investigation for similar offenses. And then there's Wall Street. During a recent investigation of 27 Street firms dealing in government-backed securities, 18 admitted to lying in an attempt to comer larger slices of the market. (Three who asserted they had not lied lost money.)

Not only do corporations lie, but some feel righteous in doing so. For instance, after the government indicted the law firm that represented Charles Keating's S&L for its extreme efforts to conceal the institution's financial problems, other law firms rallied around it.

If profit were the only reason to lie, effective government regulation might suffice. Unfortunately it's not that easy anymore. While a 15-year-old who dissembles to cover her Friday night tracks might not say, "Well, Dow Coming and the Department of Defense do it, too," our cultural toleration of institutional deceit surely has an effect on the way we conduct our own lives.

Tawana Brawley, Jimmy Swaggart, and Milli Vanilli may be exaggerations of the phenomenon, but they're hardly aberrations. Just look at a week's worth of coverage of the House bank scandal. A few House members, when confronted with their overdrafts, lied outright about the frequency of their check-bouncing and the amounts involved, while others came up with excuses worthy of a grade schooler without homework. Dick Cheney lied about giving George Bush advance notice of his own involvement in the scandal (or else Bush lied about not getting it). And Tom Foley seemed to dissemble about his assiduousness in following up on the early General Accounting Office reports.

Still, we Americans aren't entirely hypocritical. As we lie our heads off, we're also fairly tolerant of the habit in others. Only 19 percent of voters surveyed recently thought Bill Clinton was an honest man. But 45 percent said they'd still vote for him.

That lowered standard shouldn't be disturbing solely to the ethicist. History suggests that when lies are exposed, the cultural and political damage may be further reaching than the Hanford radiation. The lies surrounding Vietnam convinced tens of thousands that the only answer was tuning out; the legacy of Watergate was a 15 percent decline in voter participation-this despite massive government accountability reforms. And today, when we look with wonder at how many young people buy Oliver Stone's JFK conspiracy theory, or how many African-Americans believe that white people have a "plan" for their destruction, it should occur to us that that's the natural consequence of so many lies brought to light. Why shouldn't Americans be cynical? In the sixties, they lied about the number of dead in Vietnam. In the eighties, they lied about the Iranian and Iraqi arms deals. Who knows what they're lying about now?

Lie and let die

Lying has fostered a cynicism far more durable than the enemies that inspired it. While that's a depressing thought, it holds within it an opportunity. With the death of communism, what better time to kick the habit?

Addressing our national character flaw is hardly the government's exclusive responsibility-imagine the enforcement bureau of the Department of Official and Nonofficial Honesty. But it's essential that it start there, with better oversight of national security programs and less secrecy about them: two obvious keys to preventing replays of Hanford and MKULTRA.

When leakers of high-level secrets can face prison as punishment but over-classifiers are not even demoted, the system isn't properly balanced. Classifying a document ought to be a difficult undertaking, not an everyday habit. And when someone is caught classifying unnecessarily, the penalty should be severe.

Besides making it harder for officials to deceive the public, we must also make it easier for determined liars to be caught by protecting those who attempt to expose them. (Unfortunately, Congress is currently considering watering down its whistle-blower statute.)

Yet as we change laws regarding official lying, it's critical to change public expectations, too. With their votes and actions, Americans must let public officials know that they consider honesty a basic obligation of government and corporations, whether the subject is S&Ls, bank overdrafts, or time-bomb breasts. And that if honesty is sacrificed, those politicians and corporate leaders should be made to pay.

Asking people to do something about official lying may seem wildly idealistic. But doing nothing threatens us with a society not all that far from the one Milton Mayer wrote about in his 1966 book,

They Thought They Were Free:

What happened [in Nazi Germany] was the

gradual habituation of the people . . . to being

governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated

in secret; to believing that the situation

was so complicated that the government has to

act on information which the people could not

understand or so dangerous that, even if the people

could understand it, it could not be released

because of national security....

Obviously, democracy ensures neither honesty nor integrity. Thus one of the great tasks of a democratic society is to constantly expose and punish official lying-warding off that deadening "gradual habituation" by actively opposing dishonesty in public, and personal, life. What's the connection? While the ability to say "I cheated on my wife" or "I inhaled" may not have a direct effect on covert CIA operations, it will give us the moral valence to get indignant the next time we open the New York Times to a breakfast of big, slippery lies.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Washington Monthly Company
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Gray, Peter
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:May 1, 1992
Previous Article:SMASH.
Next Article:The emperors have no robes.

Related Articles
The company they keep.
World Orders Old and New.
Overcoming the Legacy of the Vietnam War.
The Pro- & Anti-Western Split Within Regimes.
New director shoots for 1 million full-paid members.
America's blinders.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters