The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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It’s a Sin to Waste a Lie
Published on May 4, 2011

I have to admit that the killing of Osama bin Laden on Sunday put me in a halfway good mood. It seemed to me not only a victory against resolute and still dangerous enemies, but also an event that could help galvanize the national spirit at a time when so many Americans think that our country is running off the tracks. I even hoped that when I laid eyes on this morning’s newspaper, it would carry news about how our intelligence haul, which supposedly consisted of boxes of documents and many hard drives, had led us quickly to other high-value terrorist targets in Pakistan and elsewhere.

To my sorrow, what I found in the paper was indeed news of another take-down, but a take-down that the White House has administered to itself. I had to read the first four columns of the lead New York Times article three times before I could believe what I was seeing. On the first reading I was incredulous. On the second reading I was amazed. On the third reading, by the time I got to the end of the fourth paragraph, I was flat-out angry.

As everyone by now knows, the White House has changed its story about bin Laden’s final moments. The first debrief had John O. Brennan, the President’s chief counterterrorism expert, telling everyone that there was a struggle and that bin Laden was shot as it played out. Now it turns out that bin Laden was not armed, that one of his wives rushed a Seal and was shot in the leg, after which bin Laden was killed. Much worse, Jay Carney, the White House press spokesman, made a complete hash of explaining this to the press. Let me quote that astonishing fourth paragraph in full: “Mr. Carney said that bin Laden’s lack of a weapon did not mean he was ready to surrender, and he and other officials reiterated that this was a violent scene, but there was heavy fire from others in the house, and that the commandos did not know whether the occupants were wearing suicide belts or other explosives.”

Are we supposed to believe that bin Laden and his family regularly walked around wearing suicide belts and explosives? Assuming that we surprised the targets as planned, why would anyone say such an imbecilic thing, a thing that has the smell, sound and general tone of someone making shit up? White House press spokesman come and go, and some of the things that some of them have said over the years have been truly breathtaking. But nothing, at least in my memory, has been as moronic as this. So this is clearly a White House press spokesman who needs to go.

But that is the least of the mess these people have made. They have been caught in a lie. They have been unable to get their story straight. They look like a bunch of fraternity jocks after a night of carousing trying to explain themselves to the adults. This is disheartening for three reasons.

First, we are trying to get the Pakistani government to tell us the truth about what they knew and when they knew it. How can we demand that another government tell us the truth when our own government can’t even tell the American people the truth?

Second, getting caught in this lie destroys the élan of the moment. The White House has taken an opportunity and turned into a disaster insofar as public morale is concerned.

Third, most galling of all, there was no reason to lie. It made very good sense as a policy decision not to take bin Laden into custody alive. Noting the tremendous amount of trouble we have had with the trial of the 9/11 ringleader, Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, it would have been an act of madness to invite a worldwide circus with a trial of Osama bin Laden, whether in a military tribunal or in some other form. A trial would have focused vastly too much attention on bin Laden and his causes, and it would have risked raising all sorts of gratuitous opportunities for vengeful violence. I think the American people would have understood this, whether it was explicitly explained or left more subtly expressed. One is reminded, yet again, of Sam Rayburn’s famous advice, that you should always tell the truth because that way you don’t have to remember what you said.

Mr. Rayburn was being folksy, to be sure. There are times when national leaders must keep secrets and even when they must lie on behalf of a higher purpose. But it is a sin not only to tell a lie, as that wonderful song lyric has it, but also to waste a lie. Here the model is not Mr. Rayburn but rather President Dwight D. Eisenhower. When Gary Francis Powers’s U-2 spy plane were shot down over the Soviet Union, Eisenhower decided that a lie would be pointless and so he told the truth. That was the wise thing to do then under the circumstances, and it would have been the wise thing for the White House to have done now.

Perhaps the President, being a lawyer, was particularly sensitive about being implicated in what by any definition is an extra-judicial killing. But the drone attacks he has ordered in Pakistan against specific targets also amount to extra-judicial killings, and I, for one, am all for them when they make good tactical sense and are not counterproductive. (I do have some qualms when the target is an American citizen, as is the case with one Yemeni named Awlaki, but that is a discussion for another time.) The U.S. government has already been attacked by the press in Britain, Germany and elsewhere for engaging in a behavior not proper for any constitutional state, so the concern is broadly political as well as narrowly legal, and so is perhaps not entirely baseless. But if it was really worthy of a lie, in the White House’s judgment, why such a pathetically bad one?

Perhaps it was inevitable that what has been a sloppy process all along should end sloppily, at least wherever civilians have touched the wheels of decision. It took civilians nearly a decade to acquire this particular target, and it then took an inexplicable eight months from acquiring it to pulling the trigger on Sunday’s mission. Once the military got involved, everything went very well indeed, save for one malfunctioning helicopter. And then once matters were turned back over to civilians, within just hours, they managed to screw the pooch anew. If this were not the United States of America, there would be murmurs beginning about how lovely a military coup might be around now. Thank God this is the United States of America.