WASHINGTON, December 5, 2016 – Truth has always been a rare commodity in Washington but until now, no one really questioned its absence. President-elect Donald Trump may be ushering in a new era, where entirely new ground-rules will be in place or, it seems, perhaps none at all.
First, we must understand Washington’s traditional indifference to the truth. Not too long ago, James Clapper, Jr., the Director of National Intelligence, was asked, while testifying under oath at a congressional hearing, whether the NSA collected data on millions of Americans.
To the question from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Clapper replied, “No, sir.”
On PBS’s “Charlie Rose Show,” President Obama declared:
“What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a U.S. person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls and the NSA cannot target your e-mails.”
The Washington Post pointed out that this was not quite the truth:
“…even if it is not allowed to target U.S. citizens, the NSA has a significant latitude to collect and keep contents of e-mails and other communications of U.S. citizens that are swept up as part of the agency’s court-approved monitoring of a target overseas. The law allows the NSA to examine such messages and share them with other agencies if it determines that the information contained evidence of a crime, conveys a serious threat, or is necessary to understand foreign intelligence.”
President George W. Bush at times engaged in similarly careful phrasing to defend surveillance programs. In 2004, while calling for renewal of the Patriot Act, Bush sought to reassure critics by saying “the government can’t move on wiretaps or roving wiretaps without getting a court order.”
At the time it had not been publicly disclosed that Bush had secretly authorized NSA surveillance of communications between U.S. residents and contacts overseas while bypassing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA).
When the wiretapping operation was exposed in the media two years later, Bush defended it as a program “that listens to a few numbers, called from outside the U.S. by Al-Qaeda affiliates.” Later revelations made clear that the scope was far greater than he suggested.
Members of Congress tasked with overseeing national security policy say that a pattern of misleading testimony by senior Obama administration officials has weakened the ability of Congress to properly oversee government surveillance. Officials, they report, have either denied the existence of a broad program that collects data on millions of Americans or, more often, made statements that gave them the impression that government was conducting only narrow, targeted surveillance operations.
In Sen. Wyden’s view, a number of Obama administration statements have made it “…impossible for the public or Congress to have a genuinely informed debate about government surveillance.”
Telling less than the truth to the American people is hardly new. We were led to war in Iraq because of alleged “weapons of mass destruction” which, we later discovered, did not exist. And, consider the Gulf on Tonkin Resolution that led to war in Vietnam.
The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was put before Congress by President Lyndon Johnson on Aug. 5, 1964, purportedly in reaction to two allegedly “unprovoked” attacks by North Vietnamese torpedo boats on the destroyers Maddox and C. Turner Joy in the Gulf of Tonkin on Aug. 2 and 4. Its stated purpose was to approve and support the determination of the president in taking all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against U.S. Forces.
Both houses of Congress approved the Resolution, the House by 414-0 and the Senate by 88-2. The resolution served as the principal constitutional authorization for the subsequent escalation and U.S.involvement in the Vietnam War.
While the Aug. 2 attack was said to be “unprovoked,” it later became known that the U.S. destroyer Maddox was actually engaged in aggressive intelligence-gathering maneuvers in sync with coordinated attacks on North Vietnam by the South Vietnamese Navy and Laotian Air Force. In 1995.
Vo Nguyen Giap, who had been North Vietnam’s military commander during the Vietnam War, acknowledged the Aug. 2 attack but denied that the Vietnamese had launched another attack on Aug. 4 as the Johnson Administration claimed.
A later investigation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee revealed that the Maddox had been on an electronic intelligence mission and also learned that the U.S. Naval Command Center in the Philippines had questioned whether any second attack had actually occurred. In 2005, an internal NSA historical study was declassified. It concluded that the Maddox had engaged the North Vietnamese naval vessels present on Aug. 4 reporting that “It is not simply that there is a different story of what happened. It is that no attack happened that night.”
’In 1965, President Johnson commented privately, “For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there.” One of the Navy pilots flying over-head on Aug. 4 was Squadron Commander James Stockdale, who gained fame later as a POW and as Ross Perot’s vice presidential candidate.
“I had the best seat in the house to watch the event, and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there. There was nothing there but black water and American fire-power.”
As time went on, members of Congress saw the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as giving the president a blank check to wage war and the resolution was repealed in 1970. Lies have consequences, often deadly ones.
And now we have Donald Trump.
During the campaign he made a series of fanciful claims. He accused the father of one of his rivals of involvement in the Kennedy assassination. He said that after 9/11 he had seen “thousands of Muslims” celebrating in New Jersey. After the election, without any evidence whatever, he tweeted that he “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
What these statements are based on is a mystery. In the case of his election claim, this seems to have originated with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, the source of previous unsubstantiated Trump claims. It was Jones who promoted the notion that the 2012 massacre of 29 children and six staff members at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut was a government-sponsored hoax.
When some of Trump’s claims are challenged, his defenders do nothing to point to the truthfulness of what Trump had said. Instead, they criticize those who believed him. At a forum at Harvard, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski blamed journalists for taking the candidate seriously.
“You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally,” declared Lewandowski. “The American people didn’t. They understood it. they understood that sometimes—when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar—you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.”
Comparing statements made in a presidential campaign to a conversation in a bar tells us something of the Trump campaign’s mindset.
The promises Donald Trump made to his supporters, one assumes, were taken seriously. He promised them, among other things, that he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton (which repeatedly drew calls of “lock her up”), that he would deport millions of immigrants in the country illegally, that Mexico would pay for a wall across the border, and that he would reintroduce water-boarding and torture. Shortly after his victory, he repudiated all of these positions. His audiences should have known he didn’t really mean any of it, his advisers now tell us. What, in that case, were they voting for?
Trump advocates now even deny that there is such a thing as “facts.” Appearing on the Diane Rehm radio show, Scottie Neil Hughes, a Trump surrogate on CNN, said, “There’s no such thing anymore of facts.” What matters, she said, is not whether Trump’s claim of election fraud is true, but how many people believe it. She noted that,
“Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd, a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some, in his… amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back it up.”
At Harvard, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Trump adviser Kellyannne Conway about the election-fraud claim and whether disseminating misinformation was “presidential.” Her reply: “He’s the president-elect, so that’s presidential behavior.”
If whatever a president, or president-elect, does is “presidential,” where do we draw the line?
Truth has often been absent from political life, in our own country and around the world. Political philosopher Hannah Arendt declared that,
“No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other, and no one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues.”
Still, it is a dangerous leap for those speaking for the president-elect to tell us, in effect, that there really is no such thing as “truth”‘or “facts.” We have seen in our own recent history where telling less than the truth has led us—to wars in Iraq and Vietnam, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.
How can citizens hold government accountable if they cannot believe what it tells them? How can our friends, or our adversaries, know what to expect if we have a president who cannot be believed? The Trump administration will need to find better representatives than Corey Lewandowski, Scottie Nell Hughes and Kellyanne Conway if it is to be taken seriously, either at home or abroad.
There is indeed such a thing as truth and facts and ignoring this reality will have fateful consequences.