Governments lie; this comes as a surprise to nobody. But governments can’t lie, nor can they tell the truth. Governments don’t speak at all. People speak. And depending on their role in government, and their purpose, and their audience, the terrain of the lies they tell is vast. It ranges from a manager in a state agency writing malicious lies about a former employee in a job reference, to a diplomat dissembling to another government, to the years of lies about “progress” in the Vietnam War coming from the upper reaches of the defense establishment and documented in the Pentagon Papers.
To map the terrain, let’s start at its peak, with the president of the United States. The Poynter Institute’s PolitiFact website fact-checks politicians and rates their statements on a six-point scale ranging from “true” to “pants on fire.” (Along with “pants on fire,” the other flavors of falsehood are “mostly false” and “false.” For short, call these three categories the red zone.)
According to PolitiFact, Barack Obama was in the red zone in nearly a quarter of his 600 fact-checked statements, making him the least dishonest of our past four presidents. For Donald Trump, it was almost three-fourths of his 944 fact-checked statements, with 17 percent in the “pants on fire” category. Joe Biden veers into the red zone 40 percent of the time.
A falsehood isn’t necessarily a lie; that depends on whether the speaker knows it is false. Maybe presidents don’t know that the statistics they’re spouting were cooked and their anecdotes concocted. In her famous essay on lying in politics, Hannah Arendt pointed out that presidents are wholly reliant on their advisers for factual information, which makes the president “an ideal victim of complete manipulation.”
Perhaps so, but standing by a falsehood after it’s been publicly and persuasively debunked converts a mere mistake into a lie by omission. You said it, you own it. The president commands the bully pulpit, which makes the “You said it, you own it” principle apply with maximum force. By these lights, the fact that even our least mendacious president lied a quarter of the time sets a disturbing benchmark.
Distinctions matter here. Presidential whoppers told on the campaign trail are often boasts or trash talk that fool no one and probably aren’t intended to. In any case, campaign lies are personal; they’re coming from the president, not from the presidency, and thus not from the government.
Presidential policy lies are a different matter. Here’s an example of a policy lie. In September 2006, President George W. Bush strode into the East Room and publicly confirmed that the CIA had held terrorism suspects in black sites and interrogated them with what he delicately called an “alternative set of procedures”—which we now know meant torturing them. (“I cannot describe the methods used—I think you understand why.”)
Bush’s speech was a sales pitch for the program, and his chief selling point was the supposedly lifesaving information the CIA obtained. He offered specific examples to make the sales pitch stronger. The trouble is, they weren’t true. His information came from the CIA—but the president stood by it. He said it and he owned it.
What makes it a policy lie is that torture was his government’s policy, and nearly every high official had signed off on it: the vice president, the secretaries of defense and state, the national security advisor, the CIA director, the attorney general, and all their lawyers. The fictitious Tonkin Gulf Incident, used to get Congress to approve the Vietnam War without declaring war, was a policy lie. So were the massive falsehoods detailed in the Pentagon Papers, to perpetuate a war that had lost all purpose except to maintain the mirage of “credibility” that fooled no one. And so were the “fixed” intelligence findings used to justify the Iraq War. It may be that some U.S. officials, like Colin Powell and perhaps Bush himself, actually believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. After all, the government spent two years hunting for them—in vain.
What’s so legitimate about lying to the public in a democracy, where government is supposed to be accountable to its people? Democratic accountability requires their active and informed opinion, and government lying defeats it.
This proves only that Arendt was right when she observed the connection between deception and self-deception. Indeed, government mendacity would hardly have surprised Arendt, who said that “the deliberate falsehood and the outright lie used as legitimate means to achieve political ends, have been with us since the beginning of recorded history.” Most people, I think, would agree with her historical claim, but calling policy lies a legitimate means should give us pause. What’s so legitimate about lying to the public in a democracy, where government is supposed to be accountable to its people? Democratic accountability requires their active and informed opinion, and government lying defeats it.
Again, some distinctions are essential. Obviously, even democratic governments need secrecy and confidentiality for some of their business, and keeping secrets may require lies. In this category, clandestine operations, covert actions, and counterintelligence are the obvious examples. They fall into a class of their own because concealment is built into the nature of the work. Every reader of John le Carré knows that intelligence work takes place in a moral twilight zone, and some covert actions are thoroughly immoral. But intelligence gathering is a fundamental responsibility of government, and its necessary lies can indeed be legitimate. (A recent book by the philosopher Cécile Fabre makes that case well.)
At the opposite end of the spectrum are lies told to cover up government misconduct, malfeasance, or outright criminality. These, I think, are never legitimate. Unfortunately, the temptation to masquerade cover-ups as legitimate state secrets is overwhelming, and our own government has abused the state secrets privilege massively. (My colleague Laura Donohue has documented just how massively.) Even the Supreme Court’s leading case establishing the state secrets privilege turned out years later to be based on a cover-up.
I think that Arendt had a third category in mind, and this is the one I find most troubling. All political action rests on persuasion, and in a large, vibrant, and pluralistic country every significant policy will face bitter opposition. Truth, Arendt argued, always appears in public as just another opinion. It won’t persuade everyone, and the frictional force of public opinion can lead to paralysis. That’s when the temptation toward policy lies is the strongest, and it’s at least possible that sometimes the political ends justify lies as the means.
Sometimes. Perhaps. But policy lying is addictive, and a public sphere filled with government lies leads (as Arendt also predicted) to a cynical public that devalues truth and believes nothing—the ultimate political danger to democracy. So, if we have to choose between a hard rule of political morality that forbids government policy lying and a soft permission that threatens to debase truth itself, the choice is easy: Stick to the truth.
To hear more from David Luban, be sure to attend the Government Lies roundtable on Jan. 28, 1-2:30 p.m. EST. RSVP here.
David Luban is a university professor and professor of law and philosophy at Georgetown Law School.