Liars and honest fools

The word "alleged" is used far more frequently in newspapers that it is in most aspects of daily life.

This is due partly to a commitment to the principle of "innocent until proven guilty." If, for example, a man is arrested after going to a local mall with a video camera attached to his shoe (scroll down to Dec. 19) in an apparent attempt to look up women's dresses, the newspaper will refer to him as an "alleged peeper," or an "accused peeper," but not simply as a peeper.

This isn't entirely due to a principled commitment to due process, of course, it also has to do with the desire to avoid libel lawsuits. The full name of the AP stylebook that serves as the newsroom Bible is actually The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual — and the libel section makes up the bulk of the book.

A third reason for the scrupulous use of the word alleged has to do with journalists' commitment to accuracy. Even when a suspect is caught red-handed (or red-footed), it is still possible that there is some alternative, innocent explanation for the situation, even if such an explanation seems at first difficult to imagine. (Perhaps the gentleman at the mall will turn out to be an avant-garde filmmaker.)

These same concerns explain why journalists are extremely reluctant to use the words "lie" or "lying" — even when such words seem the most obvious, accurate and necessary terms.

Take for example the recent discovery that USAID had removed a transcript from its Web site. Dana Milbank, writing in The Washington Post, provides concrete, undeniable evidence that at least two public officials have said things that were not true, yet nowhere does Milbank employ the most common English terms for such statements and those who make them.

First we have the case of Andrew S. Natsios, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, who appeared on ABC News' Nightline with Ted Koppel on April 23, and said that the cost to U.S. taxpayers for rebuilding Iraq would be no more than $1.7 billion:

"You're not suggesting that the rebuilding of Iraq is going to be done for $1.7 billion?" an incredulous Ted Koppel asked Natsios.

"Well, in terms of the American taxpayers contribution, I do," Natsios said. "This is it for the U.S. The rest of the rebuilding of Iraq will be done by other countries who have already made pledges, Britain, Germany, Norway, Japan, Canada and Iraqi oil revenues. … But the American part of this will be $1.7 billion. We have no plans for any further-on funding for this."

The claim was so astonishing that Koppel provided the chance for Natsios to correct himself, but he not only sticks with the preposterous figure, he presents it as a kind of promise.

Now, just because what Natsios said was flagrantly untrue does not necessarily mean he was lying. He may simply have been mistaken.

It's not a very simple mistake, of course, when you're off by several orders of magnitude and more than $100 billion. Natsios' underestimation of the eventual costs is staggeringly vast. For it to be an honest mistake would mean that he and the administration he works for hadn't even begun to responsibly think or plan for the actual task they had undertaken in Iraq.

Reagan's Bind clearly applies for Natsios. Either he was deliberately lying — lowballing the public on the costs of the war, or else he is not the right person to trust when it comes to figuring out what level of resources are needed for the task ahead. Whichever you choose to believe, he is clearly not fit to continue serving in his post.

Natsios still has his job, of course. It's people like Lawrence Lindsey — who correctly estimated the financial costs involved, and like Gen. Eric Shinseki — who provided the most accurate assessment of the force needed for the occupation, who no longer have their jobs. Accuracy and honesty do not seem to improve one's job security in the Bush administration. (See "Bearers of Bad Tidings," from Brad DeLong.)

The Natsios affair underscores the overall lack of planning and reckless irresponsibility in the Bush administration's conduct of the Iraq war, but it's still only a minor embarrassment. The USAID administrator is not a top level official, and if he spouts off ridiculous figures on Nightline, it doesn't constitute a devastating political setback for the administration. Just admit the mistake and move on.

Instead, once they realized the transcript of Natsios' comments was becoming an embarrassment, the administration decided to erase any trace that it had occurred:

Steven Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said the Natsios case is particularly pernicious. "This smells like an attempt to revise the record, not just to withhold information but to alter the historical record in a self-interested way, and that is sleazier than usual," he said. "If they simply said, 'We made an error; we underestimated,' people could understand it and deal with it."

If I had to guess, I would say that Natsios' estimate was a simple mistake — a doozy of a mistake, but an honest one. (And I think his use of the phrase "we have no plans" constitutes a high point in honesty for this administration regarding the occupation and rebuilding of Iraq.)

Here again it is important to keep in mind the distinction between honesty and trustworthiness. Dishonesty — deliberate, intentional lying — is very hard to prove. Untrustworthiness is a much simpler matter. To know whether or not someone is trustworthy, you needn't consider their intent and you needn't get bogged down into lawyerly discussions of whether or not a particular inaccurate statement does or does not constitute a technical "lie."

Natsios, in my estimation, is probably not a liar, but he is not trustworthy. What of those who sought to cover his tracks? Secrecy and the scrubbing of transcripts are not the hallmarks of honesty, but perhaps there is some other explanation:

USAID spokeswoman Lejaune Hall, asked about this curious situation, searched the Web site herself for the missing document. "That is strange," she said. After a brief investigation, she reported back: "They were taken down off the Web site. There was going to be a cost. That's why they're not there."

Ah, you see. Nothing dishonest and no attempt to cover up Natsios' false statements. The administration is just trying to avoid having to pay Nightline for the transcript.

Not exactly:

But other government Web sites, including the State and Defense departments, routinely post interview transcripts, even from "Nightline." And, it turns out, there is no cost. "We would not charge for that," said ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider.

That doesn't leave much wiggle room. Lejaune Hall is lying.

For those keeping score at home, that's one flagrant lie employed to cover up the cover-up of a false statement which may or may not have been a deliberate lie.

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  • none

    It could be Milbank withholds the word “liar” because he realizes there are a number of potential explanations as yet unexplored – and that people will laugh even harder at his prose if he raises the level of hyperbole higher.
    This sentence opens Milbank’s piece, “It’s not quite Soviet-style airbrushing, but the Bush administration has been using cyberspace to make some of its own cosmetic touch-ups to history.” He later quotes Steven Aftergood saying, “This smells like an attempt to revise the record, not just to withhold information but to alter the historical record in a self-interested way, and that is sleazier than usual.” Sounds sinister.
    Reality check. Has Nightline’s records been altered? Of course not. The video is available for $29.95 here: and the transcript can be purchased for $14.95 here
    Given that Nightline charges most folks for it’s transcripts is it all that surprising that Lejaune Hall might have concluded this is why the transcript was removed from the USAID site? The confusion is evident in the remainder of this quote, “We would not charge for that,” said ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider. “We would have no trouble with a government agency linking to one of our interviews and we are unaware of anybody from [ABC] making any request that anything be removed.” Schneider seems unclear about whether this is a link to the ABC site or a copy of the transcript posted on the USAID site. Schneider is also only unaware about whether ABC or The Transcription Company might have made the removal request. Even with this brief fact checking it is clear that amidst these supposed “lies” may very well be “some alternative, innocent explanation for the situation, even if such an explanation seems at first difficult to imagine.”
    There are a number of accusations worthy of investigation in Milbank’s piece. I think some administration official may very well have intentionally decided to remove the damning transcript from the USAID site (of course no one ever altered the text or asked Nightline to dispose of it). However, given what we have to work with here the only clear dishonesty comes in the form of pundits acting as if removing a copy of this Nightline transcript from the USAID site merits their hysterical rhetoric.
    The suggestion that removing a still readily available transcript from the USAID site is “a cosmetic touch-up to history” or “alter[ing] the historical record in a self-interested way” or that “the administration decided to erase any trace that it had occurred” is, in itself, a dishonest manipulation of the facts. At the very least these are massive exaggerations – at the worst they are conscious lies.

  • oh

    Sorry – I forgot to put my contact info in on the comment above.

  • charles

    In the Washington Post’s recent coverage of the abuse of Sept. 11th detainees in New York penitentiaries, they featured a picture of three police officers violently pressing the head of an unarmed man up against a wall of the facility. The caption read, and I kid you not, “Allegedly, officers hold the head of a detainee up against the wall.”

  • Mike

    I allegedly saw that photo… but I could be lying.

  • Brendan Lynch

    Steven Aftergood did not say that this was “altering the historical record.” He said that “This smells like an attempt… to alter the historical record in a self-interested way.”
    What’s incorrect, or even exaggerated about that? It seems precisely correct to me.
    The transcript, a record of the public statement of a public official, had been available for free on a government website. It is standard practice for such transcripts to be made available for free on this website. Now, this one embarrassing transcript has been removed, without any (valid) explanation, and is no longer available to the public for free. I haven’t checked, but I suspect that there is neither a link nor a suggestion of how interested members of the public could obtain it for a fee. Now, as you say, if you hunt around, and dig up the cash, the transcript is still available. But you’re telling me that this doesn’t smell like, at least, an “attempt” to change the public perception of what happened? An effort, by those means which are available to the administration, to make it appear, to visitors to the government website, that this interview never happened?

  • ReverendRef

    I have this incredible desire to make some kind of deep and meaningful comment on what has been going on within the Bush administration, but the only words that come out are, “Be afraid; be very afraid.”

  • A State Worker

    I’ve been a state worker for three years, and most state workers are not the brightest for two reasons. One, it is very hard to lose your job which lowers the motivation to work hard and learn (Turgot’s Foundations). Two, the pay is lower which leads to more intelligent people to go into private industry (Engineers grossly underpaid according to the market).
    I assume Natsios fits one or both of those reasons. If Natsios made that kind of figure for a private company, the company would have fired him or demoted him.
    The public should press for his removal if you want to see any hope of improvement towards accuracy.

  • Liars, Allegedly

    I think I may have written about this before (I certainly meant to) but today the Slacktivist has an excellent discussion of the Natsios affair. This, I think, is the Bush Administration in microcosm….

  • Jon H

    That phrase “There was going to be a cost” struck me when I read it.
    Perhaps there was more that Dionne didn’t include, but there’s nothing there that implies to me that “cost” referred to paying Nightline.
    It could have instead been a political cost, perhaps a reduction in budget. The transcript was thus removed to prevent the agency from being punished in some way.
    Or it could be a more personal cost, in terms of losing advancement or career prospects.

  • oh

    If fear is an emotion you regularly need to feel really alive I’d respectfully suggest you direct your two-minute hate toward those who compare the removal of an easily available Nightline transcript from a website to the crushing oppression of the Soviet era. I’m not advocating fear (after all isn’t it pretty remarkable this embarrassing transcript remained posted for anyone to read for months after it was clear how incorrect it was – I would think Natsios would have wanted this embarrassment removed as much as Chomsky presumably wants his dire predictions about Afghanistan hidden from public scrutiny [hopefully Milbank now desires the same for this article – or at least to build a better case]).
    Still if you’ve developed such a taste for fear take a look at the apocalyptic type of rhetoric that characterizes tyrannies and cults. The demonization of “the other” is the standard tool of such groups. The level of vitriol and speculation created by the simple removal of a document from one website suggests that we have indeed found the enemy. Not U.S. – us.

  • Nell Lancaster

    oh, are you saying Dana Milbank is part of a cult, or some tyranny-intending group? His writing is vitriolic? I think he’s a reporter who’s just frustrated, as so many of us taxpayers and voters are out here, at the lack of accountability in this administration.
    “Mistakes are made”, all right, but very few corrections, apologies, or even acknowledgements appear to accompany them in this administration.
    In the fall of 2002, economic advisor Larry Lindsay said the Iraq war and reconstruction would cost $200 billion and was fired; soon thereafter Mitch Daniels of OMB then announced it would be more like $60 billion. No one from the administration testified to Congress about the cost of the war until after it started, on March 24. In April, Andrew Natsios said reconstruction would cost less than $2 billion.
    Reasonable people will conclude thatthe Bush administration is not anxious for the paying public to know how big the tab will be until they are stuck with it.

  • Bandito Yanquis

    A copy of the transcript has been sent to Mr. Aftergood by yours truly and can be seen by clicking on my alias. It highlights the very important distinction that Mr. Natsios was not asked by Mr. Koppel how much the USAID budget was for Iraq (which would have made Natsios’ answer accurate and truthful), he was asked how much the total cost of reconstruction for U.S. taxpayers would be. Two very different things…

  • Bandito Yanquis

    In response to the state worker who posted earlier: that is exactly what I have been trying to do. I have sent numerous letters to the Senate Appropriations Committee and other groups highlighting Mr. Natsios’ clear incompetence. I would add however that as a graduate of Georgetown and Harvard University, Mr. Natsios does not strike me as one who is “not bright”. His background leads me to the conclusion his statements were knowingly false. As another person had posted, his appearance was an attempt by the administration to quell dissent about the war by under-estimating its costs. I believe Natsios did not understand that he was a pawn of Karl Rove, Senor Wolfowitz, and the hawks of the administration, who used him to report an erroneous figure and have him take the fall for any backlash.